An Age of Actorless Threats: Rethinking National Security in Light of COVID and Climate

Climate change and the COVID pandemic are highlighting key weaknesses in U.S. national security strategy and policy. Addressing these issues will not just require making traditional national security agencies more climate- and pandemic-aware, but a reimagining of the concept of national security itself. This means everything from changing the focus of troop deployments, to altering the missions of forward and domestic bases, refocusing military research and development (R&D) spending, and refining officer education at the military academies. Beyond that, it means bringing more U.S. government agencies to the tables where national security is discussed.

There are at least three issues at play. The first is that pandemics and climate change are not the type of threats the U.S. national security architecture is equipped to identify and neutralize. U.S. national security strategy is designed to identify, deter, and/or compel other armed actors. Pandemic disease and climate change are—in that sense—actorless threats. Their collective impacts make it so a clear “enemy” is not discernible.

If North Korea or ISIL managed to kill over 200,000 Americans, or set ablaze half the Western United States, you can be sure there would be a response strategy and rhetoric designed to punish those actions and deter future ones. That strategy would be backed by the most fearsome collection of military capabilities to ever exist: a huge nuclear arsenal, the world’s most technologically advanced and capable military, and a vast network of allies to join in the fight. Still, COVID and climate change are effectively doing just that, and as Joia Mukherjee argues, the inadequacy of a conventional security mindset—to say nothing of policy response—has been laid bare. The nuclear triad, 5th Fleet, and Seal Team 6 are not useful tools for addressing the primary risks due to climate change or public health crises.

The second is the pace and scale of the problem. We are not good at addressing slow-onset calamities, or those that don’t arrive as an obvious, clear and present danger. The biggest threats posed by climate change and disease have not materialized (at least yet) as rapid-onset, transfixing events like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. As Oona Hathaway points out, 9/11 immediately galvanized public opinion and legitimated exceptional, society-spanning policy responses. It also reshaped our entire intelligence apparatus and foreign policy approaches. But like other slow-onset problems ranging from the obesity epidemic to the chronic underfunding of Social Security, the danger is not in death by a decisive blow, but rather through myriad smaller impacts that challenge the social and economic fabric of the country.

The third is a mismatch between the nature of the threats and the agencies tasked with addressing them. When we think of the national security community, we rarely include agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Departments of Interior and Agriculture (who manage forest fires on public lands). These organizations are not coordinated with, nor engaged on security discussions as a matter of course.

So, what would a reimagined idea of national security look like? Six things could help. First, actorless global challenges like climate and health pandemics need to be a clear priority in the design of foreign policy, in the focus of the intelligence community, and in the missions and structure of the military. Colin Clarke and Louis Klarevas have argued this point forcefully, noting that one large barrier to COVID response has been the failure to clearly identify a strategic goal: zeroing out the coronavirus. All other intermediate goals, such as restarting the economy or helping Americans get “back to normal” need to be made subservient to defeating the pandemic.

Second, re-training, new capabilities, and fundamentally altered budget priorities need to be enacted. Third, the focus of technology development and force deployment will need to shift toward these global issues, especially as the global energy transition renders traditional national security activities—like patrolling the waters of oil-producing regions—less important. Fourth, detailed collaboration tools and procedures across government between the security apparatus and the environmental and public health professionals needs to be put in place. There are real risks to framing climate change and pandemic disease as primarily security issues. But securitizing these issues is not the same as militarizing them. The important point is to bring more non-militarized agencies—like the EPA, NOAA, and the Department of the Interior—into the discussion. Fifth, the security focus with a limited view of the benefits of international cooperation needs to change in response to challenges that require collective response. Finally, a focus on flexibility and resilience and forward planning at the center of a new national security apparatus is essential to better managing inevitable future disasters.

The fights against climate change and pandemic disease are not like conventional campaigns. There will be no Battle of the Midway moment. Mitigating or adapting to slow-onset, actorless threats like climate change and pandemic disease requires a reimagining of our national security priorities and architecture.

Image: A sign warning people about Covid-19 is surrounded by flames during the Hennessey fire near Lake Berryessa in Napa, California on August 18, 2020. Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Morgan Bazilian

Director of the Payne Institute and a Professor of Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines; former Lead Energy Specialist at the World Bank

Cullen Hendrix

Director of Sustainability Initiatives and professor at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Follow her on Twitter (@cullenhendrix).