The current pandemic is a reminder that the public at times needs government to step in where the private sector falls short. This isn’t an argument for the government to take over in every which way, but simply a statement of fact that governments set the conditions, and often have the most immediate tools at hand, to help secure the public’s welfare. This becomes most obvious in times of crisis. The young Whig politician Abraham Lincoln probably never thought that, if ever President, he would be declaring martial law, suspending habeas corpus, and spending money on arms and supplies not appropriated by Congress. However, that’s what the times called for, and, under the color of law and the Constitution, he acted.
While securing the health and lives of American citizens should be the most immediate goal of the Administration and the Congress, it shouldn’t completely obscure other lessons to be learned from the pandemic, or some of the concrete problems arising from it.
Perhaps a point to start with is how vulnerable the world’s economy seems to serious disruption. The liberal economic order that has done so much to improve the lives of hundreds of millions rests on a peaceful and stable world. If a virus can cause this much economic and social pain, just imagine what a war between major powers might do to our lives. Although such a war might be unlikely, keeping it at bay largely rests with keeping America’s military sufficiently strong to deter the likes of Russia or China. It’s should be thought of as an insurance policy that is, in terms of the country’s GDP, just pennies on the dollar to prevent the worst from happening. We’ve largely become immune to that possibility because of our position of strength following the Cold War and the general weakness of our would-be competitors. But that preferential balance of power is no longer the case, and the line between being sufficiently preeminent and not has closed significantly in recent years.
One consequence of the pandemic will be to see that line get even blurrier. Following the Great Recession of 2008, defense budgets both in the United States and among allies began to fall—this on top of the reductions (the “peace dividend”) everyone took after the demise of the Soviet Union. In recent years, in response to Chinese and Russian behavior, the western democracies had begun to reverse course on military spending. One could argue that, neither here nor abroad, was the reversal sufficient or quick enough, but the fact is, billions upon billions were being added to boost military capabilities. Given the likely severity of the economic downturn resulting from the steps taken to mitigate the pandemic, and the amount of resources governments will pour into their economies to prevent an even more catastrophic downturn, it seems almost inevitable that defense budgets will be the bag governments dig into to find monies and balance their fiscal books. Both here, in Europe and in East Asia, allied militaries were finally digging out from the strategic hole in which they found themselves post-2008. A major consequence of the Pandemic of 2020 might well be to find ourselves back in that hole.
Drilling down further, the pandemic is going to have an immediate and longer-term affect on the defense industrial base. It’s hard to imagine defense production lines of major contractors and sub-contractors not being impacted. You can’t build a plane or ship from your study at home. Already, F-35-related manufacturing plants in Italy and Japan have been closed. Plus, an aerospace company like Boeing, which depends on a healthy airline industry and is already in financial straits because of the problems with the 737 MAX, is now facing major liquidity problems. Reading the market, the Dow Jones U.S. Aerospace & Defense Index was down by more than 30 percent this month. Congress and the White House are looking for ways to keep small businesses and lower-wage workers from falling off the fiscal cliff—as they should. But as the government works its way through the consequences of this crisis, it shouldn’t overlook larger companies who employ hundreds of thousands of skilled workers and keep what remains of the American defense industrial arsenal healthy.
As Eisenhower was ending his presidency, he gave a speech in January 1961 that famously suggested the public “guard against . . . the undue influence . . . [of] the military-industrial complex.” But he also noted that “a vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor my be tempted to risk his own destruction.” The truth is, the so-called military-industrial complex has become a much smaller “complex” from the time Eisenhower spoke, continually shrinking since Reagan’s second term until today. But Ike’s point about what keeps the peace has not changed.
It would be perverse if—as a result of People’s Republic’s failure to contain the spread of COVID-19 when it could have and saved thousands of its own people’s lives, or even alerted the world to its discovery in a timely way—the West is not only economically weaker but also less capable of guaranteeing its own security. The Pandemic of 2020 could be a strategic game-changer, if we are not careful.