WASHINGTON (May 10, 2020) — Seven hundred and fifty billion dollars. That’s roughly how much the United States is spending annually on weapons and war. About $35 billion of that is for nuclear weapons, which, in a best-case scenario, sit in holes in the ground and never get used.
But the most advanced and powerful military in the world didn’t deter the coronavirus. It didn’t provide us with the tools to prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. The Pentagon can’t even save its own personnel from succumbing to the virus.
Someday the COVID-19 pandemic will be seared into our memories much the way 9/11 was. By the middle of April, COVID-19 had claimed more than 10 times as many American lives as the 9/11 attacks. This year it is expected to kill more Americans than all the wars since World War II combined.
If nothing else, this global catastrophe should illustrate the waste, futility, and immorality of spending so much on ways to destroy life when we are spending too little on ways to preserve it. How is it that the richest country on earth can’t seem to find the test kits, ventilators, and facemasks to protect its own people? No other industrialized nation has so profoundly failed its population.
As former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said, “Is it not clear by now that wars and the arms race cannot solve today’s global problems? War is a sign of defeat, a failure of politics.” He is right. Now is the time for governments to put aside their differences and come together to address the common challenges that face all of us. Not only health security but climate change, extreme inequality, environmental degradation, and large-scale migration.
Rather than engaging in finger-pointing and blame over the COVID-19 crisis, the US must respond with generosity and compassion. Instead of withdrawing from treaties and withholding funds from multilateral institutions, the administration should seek to extend and strengthen them.
Negotiated agreements like the New START and Open Skies treaties not only save money by preventing arms races and uncontrolled nuclear spending, but also save lives by making war less likely and freeing up funds for better uses. Agencies like the World Health Organization may not be perfect, but to suspend funding in the middle of a global crisis is like denying lifeboats to passengers on a sinking ship.
We should also use this opportunity to examine the violence wrought by our broad economic sanctions. The current crisis illustrates how financial and trade sanctions have prevented innocent civilians in Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, and other countries from getting food, medical equipment, and basic health supplies. And the humanitarian impact of our sanctions is not limited to times of global pandemic. US sanctions have caused suffering and deprivation for millions of people around the globe without undermining—and sometimes even strengthening—repressive regimes.
Many US politicians who oppose military operations view economic sanctions as a kinder, gentler alternative, but it’s time to acknowledge that these attempts to bully countries into submission are neither ethical nor effective. FCNL’s stand on sanctions is clear. All economic sanctions must be carefully calibrated to minimize their impact on innocent civilians.
After the end of the Cold War, the world expected to see a “peace dividend” from the de-escalation of superpower tensions. It was a time for Americans to reflect on what kind of power and presence they wanted their country to have around the world, and what the new US global role would be.
That deep introspection never happened, and when we awoke to planes hitting the twin towers that sunny September morning in 2001, our immediate reaction was to treat it as a war.
Nearly 20 years later, we are fighting never-ending, ever-expanding, and increasingly expensive wars across the globe. We fight enemies we have not publicly named and we do it largely out of sight of the American public.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it plain that our current path is unsustainable. We must make a choice. We can unite in recognition of our common humanity, or we can ratchet up the threats and rivalries.
We can reorient our budget to address the most serious challenges to the health and safety of people at home and around the world, or we can continue providing a blank check for limitless wars.
No doubt we’ll hear arguments that defense spending stimulates jobs and growth, and that cutting arms purchases would hurt the economy. But it’s worth remembering that investments in the defense sector produce far fewer jobs than investments in other sectors, such as health and education. A single year of nuclear spending would pay for 300,000 intensive care unit beds, 35,000 ventilators, and the salaries of 75,000 doctors.
The choice is between a world of violence and war, and a world of human security. It ought to be an easy choice to make.
Diana Ohlbaum is FCNL’s senior strategist and legislative director for foreign policy.
There’s No Weapons System that Can Defeat COVID-19
(May 10, 2020) — Dr. Alex Stark is clerk of the FCNL policy committee. She works as senior researcher at New America Foundation. Dr. Stark worked as a research fellow at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative and the United States Institute of Peace. She was an FCNL Young Fellow, 2011-2012.
What has been the focus of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?
Since the end of World War II, U.S. policy in the Middle East has been built around a quid pro quo: access to oil in exchange for military protection. Since 9/11, the military defeat of terrorist groups has been added to that fundamental bargain. Democratic and Republican administrations have tried to thread the needle of fighting terrorist groups without putting many U.S. troops on the ground. This has meant using drones, arming proxy forces, and supporting dictators in the name of “stability.”
Is this premise still valid during this pandemic?
It has never worked particularly well! Two decades after 9/11, we’re still fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. ISIS and Al-Qaeda have metastasized. We’ve been unable to stop our partners from fighting a devastating war in Yemen.
The COVID-19 pandemic shows that this paradigm no longer works. It has had a far more direct effect on most Americans over the past couple of months than terrorism has in almost two decades. Like terrorism, the spread of infectious disease is not best fought by military means; there’s no weapons system capable of defeating COVID-19.
How are Middle Eastern countries coping with the pandemic?
The only thing we know for sure is that things are going to get much worse before they get better. Many countries in the Middle East already have poor health systems and governments that lack legitimacy to provide good crisis leadership. U.S. policies have made conditions even worse, such as the Saudi-led coalition targeting healthcare workers in Yemen.
Armed conflicts in several Middle Eastern countries have resulted in massive population displacements. Our humanitarian response has been inadequate.
In Yemen, Libya, and Syria, U.S. policy has focused on arming and supporting the right proxy actors, rather than providing aid to alleviate the humanitarian fallout of these proxy wars. The federal budget has consistently prioritized funding for military solutions rather than diplomacy and aid. As the global spread of coronavirus has clearly shown us, what happens to vulnerable populations in the Middle East will have a direct effect on our well-being.
Is peace ever attainable in the Middle East?
It’s easy to feel hopeless when looking at the conflict and humanitarian suffering in the Middle East, but I’ll always believe there’s hope for peace. For inspiration, I often think back to the legislation that FCNL helped pass in Congress on the Yemen war.
Yes, this legislation was ultimately vetoed by the president, but it helped lead to the 2018 Stockholm Agreement. Peace rarely happens all at once; rather, it’s usually due to many years of hard work by activists and governments.
What advice would you give those lobbying Congress as we seek a world free from war and the threat of war?
Polling consistently shows that Americans support withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. They support cuts to defense spending, and they oppose war with Iran.
Even in an age where Americans are particularly polarized, don’t forget that the majority of Americans are on our side when it comes to a world free of war and the threat of war.
Alex Stark is clerk of the FCNL policy committee. She also works as senior researcher at New America Foundation.
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