Just over a year into the marathon to get the novel coronavirus under control, many Americans are rightly asking when are we ever going to feel safe and secure again?
The answer is as tricky as the question. Our sense of safety, as Americans, depends very much on how we define security. Since the start of the pandemic, American perceptions of what makes the country secure have shifted in important ways. We don’t know enough about how Americans beyond the Beltway view the new quandaries that the COVID era has crystallized.
We do know that the pandemic has laid bare the limited ability of governments to keep people safe. It has exposed the inadequacy and inequities of public health systems, plunged the global economy into recession, disrupted supply chains, tested alliances, and accelerated conflict. The global movement for racial justice in the United States sparked by the police killing of George Floyd as well as the racist response to the COVID-19 pandemic apparent in the recent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes have also demonstrated racism is a strategic liability for American leadership at home and abroad. Climate change is, meanwhile, barreling forward in the face of an inadequate response, as illustrated by the unprecedented fire season in the American west last year and the power outages after the Texas snowstorm last month.
Now more than ever, American national security seems to be tightly tangled in globalized interdependence, demographic change and the culture wars it produces, and a hard reckoning with the unintended consequences of human dominance of the natural world. But in the face of these interlocking crises of the commons, political polarization has divided Americans over what counts as security – and what it means to provide for the common defense. Fueled in part by foreign and domestic disinformation, our growing mistrust of government, democratic institutions, and each other is exacerbating the divide while impeding our ability to effectively respond. Republican political elites added fuel to the fire, with some urging their supporters to join the January 6th capitol insurrection. History gives us few good tools – though many discouraging examples – for thinking about security in a fundamentally divided society.
This is hardly the first time the United States has experienced a paradigm shift in how it conceives and reconceives the meaning of security. As in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, this moment seems to demand that we rewrite the American national security narrative. But it is also a moment in which many Americans are demanding that we see the ways theoretical definitions of security do not align with their lived experience. So, as the one-year anniversary of the first COVID lockdown approached, we set out to see if we could map how America’s mental models of national security have changed.
Our research included an analysis of public opinion surveys as well as a review of publicly available intelligence assessments. We also conducted a media analysis to identify the most prominent debates. Although our review was by no means exhaustive, what we found in our study, The Meaning of Security, is that ten years ago, Americans most often identified ‘traditional’ security threats, like terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and energy security, as the most pressing national security threats that the United States faced. Today, while these types of threats persist, a set of ‘non-traditional’ security threats, ranging from the effects of climate change to racial and economic inequality, also top the priorities list.
We also found that while many leading pundits initially tried to grapple with the idea of a post-COVID shift, the debate on the expert circuit quickly settled back into familiar conventional frames. Some wrote about how the pandemic will affect China’s rise. Others mused about how COVID fit into their pre-pandemic ideas about American decline and the changing character of the international order. There was little mention of the interlocking challenges of mass unemployment, food insecurity, or supply chain kinks in vaccine manufacture and distribution. Fewer still addressed the combustible mix of pandemic panic and racially and religiously tinged social fissures that cut hard along America’s widening rural-urban divide.
Instead, the national security discourse around the pandemic has been largely reactive and may even be reverting to our pre-2020 understandings of the challenges that we face. Moreover, narratives about those challenges are often diametrically opposed across political and identity-based lines. Absent a substantial investment in building American resilience to these trends, the accelerating effect of both the pandemic and the January 6 insurrection, suggest that security issues—or indeed, the U.S. political arena more broadly—are unlikely to become less polarized in the near term.
Of course, this is not the first time that American society has been deeply polarized—but we should not be cheered to find ourselves in an environment reminiscent of both the years leading up to the Civil War and the political chicanery, divisions and violence that characterized the end of Reconstruction. Nor are we the first to note that our theoretical definitions of security do not align with the lived experiences of many Americans, especially people of color. But these trends, from the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on communities of color and women, to the growing nation-wide movement for racial justice, have once more made it clear that our traditional understandings of security do not capture the lived experiences of many today.
This has profound implications for the future of U.S. security policy. If strategists across cultures and centuries share one assumption, it is that effective security policy requires a population united or at least acquiescent to its institutions and leaders. The current debate offers very little in the way of specifics about what it looks like for any society, much less a democracy, to build security for a country whose residents do not share similar conceptions of the threats they face.
Yet, that is exactly the situation in which Congress, the Biden Administration– and we, the American people — find ourselves. Threats that were once understood as purely domestic — polarization, political violence, or the functioning of internal institutions such as public health systems — are both affected by and potential weapons in the hands of foreign rivals and domestic provocateurs.
The United States faces an unprecedented array of traditional and new security threats. From the global pandemic and climate change to resurgent domestic violent extremism and a crisis of racial injustice at home, these crises interact with each other to present a set of intertwined challenges that cannot be solely addressed either at the international or the domestic policy level or by simply reverting to old paradigms and theories. Instead, we will need to reconceptualize what security means; explore how we can build paradigms that re-connect our polarized society; and respond to the security challenges we face right now in ways that open doors to a new society-wide understanding rather than shut them down.
If we fail to change the narrative about American national security and redefine it in a way that gets to grips with that reality, we could risk losing what we love about our country. As the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance states, “We cannot pretend the world can simply be restored to the way it was 75, 30, or even four years ago. We cannot just return to the way things were before. In foreign policy and national security, just as in domestic policy, we have to chart a new course.” We will need to develop new ways of thinking about national security, and the policy tools we can bring to bear on these problems.