Only a multinational effort can meet this unprecedented threat, say the authors, who led U.S. troops and international coalitions in the Middle East and Asia.
As our nation adapts to the challenge of the coronavirus at home, we must urgently confront the disruptive impacts of the pandemic around the world and the serious risks to our safety and national security. This will require forward thinking and U.S. leadership to mobilize our allies and partners around a comprehensive global health security response to a disease that does not recognize borders. Such an effort will save lives at home and around the world, protect and defend our national interests, and ultimately guarantee our way of life.
We cannot isolate ourselves from the impacts of this pandemic in a globally connected world. If America doesn’t lead, others will step into the void who bring a different vision for the world and one that does not reflect our values or our interests.
Confronting COVID-19 and strengthening our global health security is critical for our national security because what happens in other countries will undoubtedly echo back into our own. This will require strong leadership from Washington and resources that look at the challenges around the world that are coming — and coming quickly.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States led the vanguard of nations and international intelligence organizations. We built a network of allies and partners and intelligence sharing — even with others who may not always share all of our interests and values — to find terrorist havens, isolate them at their source, and diminish their impact. As a result, U.S. leadership in the global struggle against terrorism has kept our country safe since 9/11.
A similar commitment of American leadership is needed now to address the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, an enemy that is global in scale and universal in its disruption. Regrettably, any effort by one nation to deal with this global threat is destined to fall short.
We must ensure that we commit the emergency resources needed by our civilian agencies to meet the growing challenge, and we must mobilize and join our allies in ensuring a global coordinated response. We need to ensure that our collective efforts strengthening weak health systems in fragile states reinforce each other, not compete. We need to ensure not only that we develop a vaccine quickly, but also that we lead a global effort to ensure equitable distribution in lower income countries where the virus will be harder to contain.
This is not only the right thing to do, but it is the smart strategic thing to do and it is in our interest. The disease is a ticking time bomb in an increasing number of countries characterized by massive population growth, food and water shortages, weak health care systems, and inadequate governance, first responder, and security capabilities.
According to a report by the International Rescue Committee, 34 conflict-affected and fragile countries could see up to 1 billion COVID-19 infections, leading to between 1.7 million and 3.2 million deaths. The virus’ destabilizing effects can quickly turn fragile states into even graver humanitarian crises in places where we have long-standing national security interests. In Yemen, which has suffered from over five years of fighting, only half of its healthcare centers are fully operational and just a few hundred ventilators exist for a population of 30 million already facing a resurgence of preventable diseases like cholera.
In Syria, Greece, and Bangladesh, refugee populations in camps are at terrible risk with spillover implications for our national security. If anything, the spread of the virus is likely being underreported in these environments due to the lack of testing. Bangladesh is a fragile country with weak health systems and a total of 160 million people who live in an area the size of Iowa. Today, it also hosts 1.1 million Rohingya who fled from persecution in neighboring Myanmar and live in refugee camps without the ability to practice social distancing or handwashing that we have in the developed world.
As military leaders whose final postings defended U.S. citizens and protected our interests in the Middle East and Asia, we had a first-hand view of humanity’s strengths and weaknesses. We warned about the growing negative influence of transnational threat multipliers including terrorism, climate change, corruption, and disinformation. These are threats that if unattended could and have seriously disrupted our priorities around the world and threatened our national interests. COVID-19 is today’s threat multiplier and one of unprecedented magnitude.
For nearly a century, in peacetime and in crisis, strong American leadership on the global stage has served as the keystone of our security and prosperity. After World War II, we built a new international order that supported our national values and interests against an existential threat of nuclear war. We did this by promoting the rule of law and the value of human rights. We did this by building networks of allies and partners who respected U.S. leadership and shared our views of the world we wanted to live in. We did so through fostering innovation and building partnerships between governments, militaries, the private sector and NGO community, and civil society.
We need to do it again.
General Joseph Votel, U.S. Army (Ret.) is president and chief executive officer of Business Executives for National Security. He most recently served as the commander of U.S. Central Command until last year, overseeing all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central and South Asia. Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, III, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is president of SJL Global Insights LLC. He most recently served as commander of U.S. Pacific Command until 2015, overseeing all U.S. military operations in Asia and the Pacific.