Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Erwin Jacob Miciano

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Erwin Jacob Miciano USNS Mercy sailor treats a patient from a Los Angeles medical facility, on March 29, 2020.

How America's Defense Strategy Left Us Unprepared for a Pandemic

There must be room in our national-security concept to join with even our greatest adversaries to fight mutual threats.

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the risks of focusing exclusively on great power competition at the expense of broader national security challenges and more cooperative and problem-oriented approaches to advancing U.S. interests around the world. 

The narrow set of priorities outlined in the 2017 national security strategy and the 2018 defense strategy have served America poorly over the course of the pandemic and led to missed opportunities that will leave the United States in a weaker position in the future. The strategy has made addressing international problems difficult or impossible, especially when doing so requires broad collective action and some cooperation from rival powers.

The U.S. could have taken on the suffering that the pandemic brought about to build bridges with China, Russia, Iran, and other countries and to strengthen partnerships in ways that might have benefitted all nations, including the United States. Doing so would have signaled confidence and strength. 

By focusing only on competition in the face of a global pandemic and ratcheting up conflict with Iran, the United States showed a lack of vision and demonstrated its inability to command others to follow. The U.S. could have seized the moment to show that America can solve global problems and to demonstrate the value of the rules-based international order that has served the United States and the western world so well since the end of World War II.

If China’s ultimate goal is to upend this international order, the U.S. should not have a defense strategy that ignores this order entirely. To even mention climate change and other global challenges that might bring countries together has become taboo in most defense policy and military planning circles because the defense strategy hardly mentions these issues.

The idea of seeking common ground with China or Russia where interests clearly align (for example, on counterterrorism, counter-piracy, and stabilizing countries in the greater Middle East) is not only missing but runs counter to the premise of the entire strategy.  

The pandemic – which is a global challenge in the truest sense of the word –fit nowhere in the strategic construct that has ordered defense planning and decision-making over the last three years. When the crisis hit, the Defense Department was less prepared, conceptually speaking, as it could have been. 

A defense strategy should provide leaders with options across the spectrum, not box them into a predetermined set of responses limited to military pressure and coercion that make collective action and problem-solving impossible. America needs a strong military, but also one that looks for solutions beyond the use of force.

The probability of a war with China or Russia is extremely low, but a destructive new cold war with both powers has become a real possibility. That new cold war might not turn out so well as the last one. Americans cannot be safe in a world where it is impossible to cooperate as needed with other global powers, one of which happens to be the second-largest economy in the world and a rising military power. 

Conflict will inevitably be part of U.S. relations with other world powers, but it is not the only part. America will have to contend one day with China, not just as a rival and a threat, but also as a peer. Focusing exclusively on competition to the detriment of all else will complicate efforts to manage China’s rise and forestall options that might otherwise be available to the United States.

After COVID, there will be other contagious diseases that come out of China, the world’s most populous country, not to mention new challenges of global concern. The U.S. may need China’s help to solve these problems and contain the fall-out. Not being able to secure that cooperation or even to communicate at a basic level will be damaging to U.S. security and vital interests.

A more globally oriented, problem-solving defense strategy need not come at the expense of military competition and deterrence (both necessary objectives). The U.S. can have its cake and eat it too. America can build a strong, modernized military that is prepared to fight and win any war, while simultaneously pursuing cooperation with rivals where feasible and forging collective action against global problems. That is what strong, confident nations do.

The strategy need only be broader, have more vision, and offer tools to prevent and manage conflict rather than treating it as inevitable and therefore making it so.

Jerry Meyerle is a senior defense analyst in Arlington, Virginia.