Rethinking our Definition of National Security – Caroline Corbett

This is a reflection written by Caroline Corbett, Program Manager at Chemonics International, for the new series from The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace on Learning During the Covid-19 Pandemic.

The United States has historically invested heavily in areas vital to “traditional” national security. We are inundated by the media with the multitude of threats targeting our country stemming from terrorist organizations and unstable and corrupt governments across the globe. We have heavily resourced our intelligence agencies and our military for this type of “traditional” national security threat.

However, COVID-19 is beginning to teach us just how unprepared we are for “non-traditional” national security threats. We were unprepared, under-resourced, and most importantly of all, have clearly been putting our sole focus on those threats that we can see and understand while ignoring those we can’t. As a hopeful member of the next generation of leaders in public service, I hope to be a part of a new wave of national security practitioners who can weave together a unified vision of what it takes to secure our country.  

Though pandemics kill, it is exorbitantly more difficult to attract the type of public concern that occurs after a traditional national security threat occurs, such as a terrorist attack. The level of public and government action has historically been far greater than what we are experiencing even after we have seen first hand what the virus has done to our nation. As of the day of this writing, nearly 2.4 million Americans have been infected, over 122,000 have died, and over 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits. Communities have been torn apart. Many businesses will never recover, and families have been devastated by the loss of their loved ones. Even with these staggering figures, we are continuing to see a bungled government response.

This brings me to the question: how do we begin to treat all national security concerns as equal? How do we broaden our government’s and the public’s understanding of what constitutes a national security threat? This change must come from the top down. The way we talk about national security must change, and that starts with our leaders. It is no surprise that we have traditionally synonymized national security with counterterrorism. The rhetoric surrounding this issue is simple and the enemy is someone we can usually point to. To rally around our nation’s visible and undeniable military strength is one of the ways our leaders unite this country, and for good reason. The problem is, as we can see now, is that not every enemy has a face. COVID-19 has resulted in damaging consequences beyond its alarmingly quick and lethal spread. It has disrupted global supply chains including essential goods and medical supplies and it has caused our nation’s economy to plummet into a state that resembles that of The Great Depression.

National security has traditionally been simple to gather public support around; we easily fall into the concept of “us versus them”. This narrative garners strong patriotism and a fierce urge to protect our country from others who wish to harm us. However, as our world becomes increasingly globalized, the threats we face become increasingly more complex as well including those we cannot see. This creates a problem with the narrative we have been pushing. In a crisis such as COVID-19, there is no “them” to point to.

We cannot fight a pandemic solely with our mighty military or our intelligence agencies. Not every national security threat can be countered by military action.  We have to start thinking differently. As I have grown in my mindset surrounding national security, I have begun to realize that I too need to think more broadly than the traditional tactics of countering violent extremism and dangerous propaganda. As I have seen and reflected on the moments in our nation’s history that have made us insecure such as natural disasters and pandemics, I have come to reflect further on how each issue in our modern life can be viewed through the lens of national security. 

With the increased complexity of national security threats, we must, as a society think more critically to build up our infrastructure and resources to handle myriad threats, including those we cannot see. We must prepare for the inevitable. COVID-19 will not be the last of such a crisis as animal bred diseases and natural disasters due to climate change continue to prove devastating to the world. We have been so focused on the physical threats abroad of individuals purposely wishing and attempting to bring harm on our country and its people, that we have failed to realize that there are threats that cross borders freely, with no malice to inflict harm on any specific citizenship or ideology. These are the threats we should find truly alarming, as there is no psychology to analyze around their intent. Our definition of investing in national security must change, and so must the government’s way of communicating such threats to the public.

It is now clear that the U.S. response lacked both in reaction time and vigor. It is also clear that the time and resources allocated to emergency preparedness have not been adequate. We should be using this experience to bolster all of our agencies’ emergency response plans and interagency coordination. We should be using this time to look to the future and better understand how we can develop and improve the infrastructure and talent we have available in this country to ensure that we are well prepared for future catastrophes. Lastly, we must use this experience to redefine what it means and what it takes to secure our nation from threats of all kinds. 

About the Author:

Caroline Corbett is a program manager at Chemonics International Inc., a company implementing international development programming around the world. Caroline received her self-defined undergraduate degree in Globalization, Human Rights, and the Middle East from the University of Maryland, College Park and will commence her graduate studies at the LBJ School of Public Affairs  at the University of Texas at Austin in fall 2020 focusing on international security and public policy.  


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