Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of CNN Opinion pieces on the future. Tune into CNN Sunday at 10 a.m. ET to watch Fareed Zakaria’s latest special report: “The Post-Covid-19 World.” Fareed will hear from experts and leading thinkers on what kind of new normal awaits us after the pandemic – how the virus could permanently change geopolitics, the economy, and our everyday lives. Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the editor of the Coronavirus Daily Brief and author of the new book “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos.” Daniel Rothenberg is professor of practice at Arizona State University and a senior fellow at New America. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
We all have a general sense of what “national security” means and what threatens it. But we need to rethink and update the term, now that our way of life is facing a dangerous threat, not from a foreign army, spy network or terrorist organization, but from a microscopic virus that has, quite suddenly, changed everything.
The American diplomat George Kennan, in 1948, defined national security as “the continued ability of the country to pursue the development of its internal life without serious interference, or threat of interference, from foreign powers.”
Today, we need to adjust this definition, with national security as “the continued ability of the country to pursue the development of its internal life without serious interference, or threat of interference, from foreign powers or other diverse threats,” a formulation that covers the challenges posed by non-state actors, such as al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11– and the coronavirus today.
This pandemic has profoundly interfered with the life of our nation and we must treat it as one of the most significant threats to our national security in decades. At this writing, more than 70,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the US, and the number of known cases is doubling about every four weeks; currently there are more than 1.2 million.
America’s economy has shed more than 30 million jobs. Indeed, the coronavirus crisis is shaping up to be a “hinge event” in American history, like the Great Depression or 9/11.
It is reshaping the world, politically, socially and economically and it is also revealing major structural weaknesses in American society and undermining already fraying trust in the capacity of the US government to respond effectively to core security challenges.
Already, in these early stages of the crisis, we have seen how quickly a pandemic can transform our daily lives. How many of us realized, at the start of this year – only four months ago – that entire industries would be brought to their knees, that unemployment would reach levels not seen in more than 80 years. Who knew that the most basic social activities – going to work, attending school, visiting friends and family – could be so utterly upended?
Hinge events change the way people understand their world– and their concept of what leaders and institutions should do to keep their country secure. In the US, out of the vast suffering of the Great Depression, for example, came the reforms of the New Deal, including Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, banking reforms, rural electrification and crop insurance, all of which remade the nation.
Globally, that economic collapse also played a key role in the rise of fascism and the Nazi Party, whose aggressive political vision led to World War II and the death of an estimated 60 million people.
Yet, out of the ashes of that devastating conflict arose the “rules-based international order” and the creation of new organizations, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and NATO, a new alliance of mutual protection.
These all played a role in reducing interstate war and created the “long peace.” They ushered in a period in history that, however flawed, allowed hundreds of millions of people to benefit from a vast global reduction in poverty and unprecedented improvements in health and education.
Now we face what is likely a new hinge event. We can define it as: Before the Coronavirus, or BC, and After the Coronavirus, or AC.
Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff to President Barack Obama (and former Chicago mayor), once famously counseled. “Never allow a good crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible.” In other words, for all the dislocation, uncertainty, stress and suffering they bring, crises are also opportunities for reimagining and rebuilding our social order.
WHAT THE FUTURE SHOULD BRING
Reframing how we think about and pay for “national security”
As we rethink the meaning of national security, the US must change the way it manages its resources and money. Already Covid-19 has killed 20 times more Americans than the 9/11 hijackers. The pandemic is the greatest threat to our collective security since World War II.
But our national security apparatus is ill-equipped to respond effectively. The Trump administration is asking for a defense budget of around $750 billion, $150 billion more than annual defense budgets under President Barack Obama, yet in 2020 the government sought only $6.5 billion to fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our priorities need serious rebalancing.
Investigating how the government responded
There is a pressing need for a bipartisan Coronavirus Commission, modeled on the 9/11 Commission, which not only examined the attacks and their aftermath but also made solid recommendations, such as the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center, which has helped deter future 9/11s.
New futures of work
In the AC-era, we will likely see huge increases in distance working and distance services, such as telemedicine, in nearly every field, from basic health care to psychiatry.
The death of the office
Quite rapidly, the pandemic has forced us to conduct a giant experiment about how the office can play a far less significant role in our lives. Jes Staley, the CEO of Barclays, which has about 70,000 employees around the world now working from home, told reporters recently, “The notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past.”
The commercial real estate sector will likely suffer badly as companies look to save money on leases and office workers reject long commutes.
Many of those who work outside of the service sector can work from anywhere. This in turn will also affect real estate – particularly in densely packed cities like New York. It’s hard to imagine that there will be a great demand in the AC-era for the chance to live in crowded apartment buildings with cramped elevators.
Paid family leave as a right and Medicare for those who want to opt into it
Ideally, the crisis will improve basic labor and health rights and deepen formal protections for lower-wage workers, who are essential to the service economy, agriculture, and home health care and have become the “essential” frontline forces in the battle against the pandemic.
A better Internet
For all the suffering, stress and dislocation created for society by the coronavirus, our ability to manage it without the Internet is almost unimaginable.
The AC-era, then, will highlight, with even greater clarity, our fundamental dependence – in nearly every facet of life – on an effective and highly functional Internet. So, the pandemic will ideally yield affordable broadband for all and will be based on cloud-based platforms that are connected to 5G networks.
Redefinition of higher education
Before the pandemic, the US faced key structural problems regarding higher education, such as ballooning student debt and inequality.
Add to these, now, one of the most striking, rapid changes brought on by the pandemic: the shift from in-person higher education to online courses. In the AC-era, it is likely, if not inevitable, that a significant amount of college instruction will move to permanent online or semi-online offerings.
This has many advantages – allowing students to pursue degrees while working full or part time and raising families, for example. Yet, American institutions of higher learning face a profound challenge: how to massively increase online education while maintaining a commitment to high-quality teaching, student mentorship and academic integrity – all while providing some semblance of a traditional college experience.
Addressing climate change
The coronavirus has demonstrated that profound risks to our safety and well-being are often fundamentally global. Ideally, the AC-era will reframe the debate about climate change and inspire states around the world to clarify global commitments to reduce human-produced global warming through agreements and mechanisms that have clear, enforceable provisions. And ideally this effort would be led by the US, China and other powerful nations.
The process will surely be tentative and imperfect, but the scope of the climate crisis will become even more apparent and in need of a serious response in the wake of the coronavirus.
Interestingly, the pandemic has also revealed the immediate benefits of reducing carbon emissions. Think of New Delhi, the most polluted capital city in the world, a city so dangerous that children were literally choking on the air there. As a result of the virus, Indian Prime Minister Modi ordered a weekslong lockdown across the country. For the first time in decades, the 19 million inhabitants of Delhi can now see blue skies on a routine basis.
Indians and others around the world – including people in Los Angeles who have watched the smog suddenly lift from their city during lockdown – can see for themselves some of the immediate value of reducing pollution and may thereby imagine the far more profound benefits of seriously addressing climate change.
Conjuring the political will to reshape the climate change debate could happen not only in India, but also in many other countries, including the United States.
Not since the Eisenhower-era of highway building has there been such an opportunity and urgency to expand and repair US infrastructure, an area of common agreement between Republicans and Democrats. Infrastructure initiatives could get many Americans back to work and stimulate the economy in a manner that would support long-term productivity.
Infrastructure means the digital as well as the physical kinds – such as bridges, roads, waste treatment, energy production, schools – many of them necessary to efforts to insulate Americans from the next predictable big crisis, such as the effects of climate change in places like Lower Manhattan, Norfolk, Virginia and southern Florida.
WHAT THE FUTURE WILL LIKELY BRING
Having considered all the changes that should happen in the After Coronavirus era, we now turn our attention to the likely effects and challenges of this new period – changes that are more dystopian, and some already underway – whether we like them or not.
Surveillance technologies will become ever more embedded in societies
The coronavirus has demonstrated many of the benefits of mass tracking and remote data collection and analysis, as health officials have tried to contain the disease’s spread. Yet, it is already evident that these same technologies can be used in ways that are dangerous for civil liberties.
While China has been able to require citizens to use digital bar codes on mobile apps that gauge their contagion risk during the pandemic, its related efforts in recent years to create “social credit” scores for all its citizens – potentially to track and steer behavior – and to monitor minority groups, such as the Uighurs, are dangerous precedents.
Google and Apple are working together on a smartphone app that would use Bluetooth technology to “sense” nearby smartphones and alert users if they have had a brush with someone with the coronavirus. Such an app could be very useful in enabling a return to a more normal life, but it also raises significant privacy concerns, and when polled a majority of Americans say they wouldn’t use it – because of those concerns or because they don’t have a smartphone.
As it navigates a new coronavirus reality, the United States will need to clarify how to manage and regulate the power and scope of mass data collection and analysis – by both state and private entities –to create enforceable protections against the lure of surveillance rule.
The US relationship with China will worsen
The pandemic has demonstrated the vulnerability of global supply chains and may achieve what President Donald Trump could not do, which is to pull significant elements of American manufacturing from China and elsewhere back to the states, especially in industries such as pharmaceuticals.
Trade conflicts and business competition are manageable. What’s more dangerous is the likelihood of ever-more aggressive political posturing between China and the United States, both of which have blamed the other for the spread of the virus.
Last Sunday, on ABC’s “This Week,” for instance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was “enormous evidence” that the virus emerged in a Chinese lab. The Global Times, a state-owned Chinese newspaper, said Pompeo had “stunned the world with groundless accusations.”
These tensions could not come at a worse moment, when managing the consequences of the coming global recession requires coordination between the world’s two largest economies.
Populism, nationalism and authoritarianism will grow
Authoritarian leaders are using the pandemic to grab more power. In Hungary, once viewed as among the most successful post-authoritarian democracies, compliant lawmakers gave Viktor Orban, the elected prime minister, the authority to rule by decree indefinitely.
More than 80 countries have declared states of emergency, and authoritarian states like China have used the cover of the crisis to arrest leaders of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, the democratically elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro earlier this month came out in public at a protest supporting the military dictators who ruled Brazil from 1964-1985. “I am here because I believe in you. You are here because you believe in Brazil,” Bolsonaro, a former army captain told the protesters.
Truth faces new challenges
The pandemic has produced a deluge of disinformation and misinformation, ranging from conspiracy theories, propagated by the Iranian and Chinese government, that the US government manufactured the virus, to multiple internet scams for coronavirus cures.
The risk here does not lie only in the presentation of false tales, but the broader impact of eroding trust in experts and science.
There is also a paradox: Even as the pandemic reveals the benefits that decades of research and public health expertise have brought to tackling diseases like this, the rampant false claims that undermine support for scientific consensus make it difficult to ensure that the public, in the US and elsewhere, has a clear, informed understanding of actual risks and productive policy responses.
The only way to improve this situation is to create and nurture trusted sources of information whose legitimacy and commitment to objective and non-politicized information is repeatedly and publicly presented as widely respected. Not an easy goal at a time of great social and political division.
The era of small government is over
Former President Bill Clinton famously said, “The era of big government is over.” We can now reverse that and say, “The era of small government is over.” Americans whose jobs and businesses have disappeared because of the pandemic will be looking for much more from their government going forward.
The initial $2 trillion-stimulus package passed by Congress in March was just the first step. The US Federal Reserve is now supporting businesses and states in unprecedented ways. According to the Wall Street Journal’s calculations, the Fed’s portfolio is expected to grow from $4 trillion last year to between $8 to $11 trillion dollars, which means that it is taking a larger role in the economy than was the case during the Great Depression or World War II.
Hinging into the future
The speed and scope of the transformations we are living through are proof of both our vulnerability and our capacity to respond to serious challenges. To the degree the pandemic is a hinge event, it will likely inspire both the best and worst impulses of leaders, states and peoples.
What is needed now, more than ever, is vision, resilience and a willingness to learn the core lesson of this disease: we are all deeply connected at a time of great danger.