The first months of this crisis suggest that the world order that emerges on the other end is likely to be permanently altered. America’s response to 9/11 committed the familiar mistake of hastening a superpower’s decline through overreach; the Trump presidency, and our failure to respond effectively to COVID-19, show us the dangers of a world in which America makes no effort at leadership at all.
Enormous upheaval, however, also offers the opportunity for enormous change. And that is what America needs. This is not simply a matter of winding down the remaining 9/11 wars—we need a transformation of what has been our whole way of looking at the world since 9/11. Yes, we have a continued need to fight terrorist groups, but the greatest threats we face going forward will come not from groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS, but from climate change, pandemics, the risks posed by emerging technologies, and the spread of a blend of nationalist authoritarianism and Chinese-style totalitarianism that could transform the way human beings live in every country, including our own.
To meet those challenges, Americans will have to rethink the current orientation of our own government and society, and move past our post-9/11 mindset. Any serious effort must change our government’s spending priorities. It makes no sense that the Pentagon budget is 13 times larger than the entire international-affairs budget, which funds the State Department, USAID, and global programs at other agencies. The entire pandemic-preparedness budget is a rounding error compared with a trillion-dollar plan to modernize America’s nuclear-weapons infrastructure. Smart investments in research and development, including for agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, used to help make America a global leader in health, science, and technology; now we are behind countries such as Germany and South Korea—countries we helped rebuild or build during the Cold War—in developing and deploying COVID-19 tests.
We need to change the way we think about national security and foreign policy. In the Obama administration, efforts to ramp up climate-change and global-health security didn’t mesh well with America’s sprawling counterterrorism infrastructure, or with the interests of Congress. These defining challenges must become the focus of far more personnel—at the White House, the State Department, and other agencies—and they must galvanize partnerships outside government. Meanwhile, if we are to continue to deploy the rhetoric about democracy that we have used since 9/11 toward our adversaries, we and our allies must live up to it ourselves.
We need to change our attitude about government itself. The multidecade assault on the role of government in American life led to a Trump administration that disregards expertise and disdains career civil servants. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that government is essential; that public service is valuable; that facts and science should guide decisions; and that competence matters more than Washington’s endless gamesmanship.
Donald Trump is the embodiment of trends that have been advancing for a long time—the crudeness of our culture, the meanness of our politics, the disintegration of our media. All those trends have accelerated since September 11, 2001. As we go through an indeterminate period of time separated from the normal rhythm of our lives, Americans are going to be forced to consider what’s most important to them. The answer, so far, appears to be family, community, and a sense of decency—whether it’s in the heroism of health-care workers or in the video that your friend shared of some random act of kindness. Our politics and government should reflect that decency in the priorities we set at home and the actions we take abroad.
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