The Coronavirus and the Urgent Need to Redefine National Security 

Photograph Source: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy – Public Domain

For far too long, the United States has been wastefully spending its precious budgetary resources on a nineteenth-century military strategy and a strategic arms policy that has brought no advantages to the American people.  For the past three decades, our national security policies have been ineffectual and irrelevant to the genuine threats we face today.  These threats do not emanate from Russia or China. Rather, they stem from an underfunded and highly vulnerable public health system, a cyber world that is out of control, and a crumbling infrastructure.  In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a grade of D-plus to the nation’s infrastructure, with the lowest grades going to roads, bridges, mass transit, and water management systems.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us 60 years ago that military demands on U.S. spending would become a “cross of iron” that would limit spending on domestic needs.  The United States has been profligate, ignoring real enemies, particularly the climate catastrophe that awaits the global community as well as the domestic evidence of economic deterioration.

Despite its standing as one of the richest nations on earth, the United States has enormous poverty and the world’s highest level of economic inequality; an archaic system for health care that has been exposed by the novel coronavirus pandemic; and the highest level of child mortality in the industrial world.  We worship a gun culture and find no inconsistency in endorsing capital punishment while endorsing right-to-life.  Unlike most of the industrial world, we lack universal health care and no guaranteed sick leave.

Meanwhile, as the only superpower since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, we have misused our military power because there was an absence of the restraint that Soviet power had ensured. We were careful in some scenarios because we could not be sure how the Kremlin would react.  More recently, resources have been wasted in pursuing fool’s errands in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, where the United States wages war without clear objectives.  Increasing bipartisan majorities see defense spending as a jobs bill and, as a result, support record-level defense spending that finds the United States in an arms race with itself.

The bloated military and intelligence budget has the United States spending more on defense than during the worst years of the Cold War, outspending the entire global community.  Defense spending and procurement must be linked to actual threats to the United States, acknowledging there are no challengers to the United States in the key areas of power projection; naval power, and overall air power.  No other country has huge military bases the world over or access to countless ports and anchorages.  No other country has used lethal military power so often and so far from its borders in pursuit  of dubious security interests.

The Trump administration has abandoned the world of arms control and disarmament, which every presidential administration since the Eisenhower administration has endorsed.  In December 2019, the United States tested a ballistic missile that would have been forbidden by the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that was signed in 1987 and abrogated by Donald Trump three decades later.  Secretary of Defense Mark Esper wants to put new missiles in Asia “sooner rather than later;” fortunately, U.S. allies in the region are uninterested.  Meanwhile, the treaty to reduce strategic nuclear weapons that was negotiated in the Obama administration expires in less than a year, and there is no indication of U.S. interest in resuming negotiations.  Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a moratorium on new missile deployments, which French President Emmanuel Macron considers a “basis for discussion.”

What is Needed to be Done?  

Interestingly and ironically, we have a statement from the former Soviet Union for the substantive speech an American president should issue.  On the eve of the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in January 1977, General Secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev, a persistent advocate for detente, presented a new military policy that renounced the pursuit of military superiority and endorsed strategic arms limitations and reductions.  Brezhnev’s Politburo was committed to reducing Soviet defense programs and the high level of defense spending.  It was a signal to the Soviet military that it had been receiving more than its fair share of Soviet resources and investment, and that it was time for the military to share this largesse with a civilian economy that was falling behind.  This is exactly what the United States must do, particularly in the wake of the current pandemic that has exposed U.S. domestic weakness.

Brezhnev’s speech was a seminal statement of Soviet policy that offers ideas to American national security policy more than four decades later.  First of all, the Kremlin understood that there was a rough parity between the strategic forces of the two sides.  Moscow led in the area of the overall number of ICBM and SLBM missile launchers as well as strategic missile throw weight.  The United States led in the numbers of missile warheads, forward submarine bases, and strategic bombers.  The existence of strategic parity, which continues to this day, allows for significant reductions in strategic capability.  Moscow was objecting to Washington’s preoccupation with military power and the military balance, which continues to this day and has worsened in the Trump era.

Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense, James Mattis, wanted to transform the U.S. military into a more effective fighting force that would waste less money and pursue greater cooperation within allied arrangements.  Trump stood in the way of this with his pursuit of a Space Force; a wall and National Guard deployment on the southern border; strategic modernization; and national and regional missile defense.  The Pentagon was initially spared the politicization that Trump inflicted on the Department of State, the Department of Justice, and the intelligence community, but his appointment of Secretary of Defense Esper points to politicization of the military as well. U.S. hostility toward Russia and China have driven Beijing and Moscow to forge their best state-to-state relations in the past 60 years.  Pulling out of the Iran nuclear accord and manufacturing a crisis with Iran have worsened U.S. interests in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Southwest Asia.

Now, at a time when there are no serious challenges from abroad to U.S. security or military supremacy, more than 60 percent of U.S. discretionary spending goes to support defense, including the budgets of the Pentagon, Veteran’s Affairs, Intelligence, Energy, and Homeland Security.  No other agency in the U.S. government gets as much as 10% of U.S. discretionary spending, and Trump’s current budget calls for cutting the budgets of domestic agencies such as Health and Human Services, Education, and Housing and Urban Development even further.  The pandemic crisis should remind us that these non-defense agencies must be bolstered.

In order to address serious domestic concerns, the United States must seek significant savings by reducing the Pentagon budget, ending endless wars, and returning to the arms control and disarmament arena.  Security assistance programs must be more transparent and accountable, and alliances with corrupt dictators and monarchies must be ended.  As defense analyst William Hartung notes, the question is not “whether military spending creates jobs—it is whether more jobs could be created by the same amount of money invested in other ways.”


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for