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Incrementalism Won’t Save Us, Bold Internationalism Will

Words: Kate Kizer
Pictures: Benjamin Suter

A few weeks ago, most Americans were going about their day-to-day lives, largely unaware of the looming security crisis we now find ourselves in. The fundamental threat to human security posed by the novel coronavirus is matched perhaps only by the existential challenges of nuclear war and the climate crisis. Yet neither of these threats is tangible or present enough in everyday life to spark a fundamental rethinking of the way we envision security.

The novel coronavirus, however, presents an opportunity for the United States to finally move past a militarist vision of security to one rooted in human solidarity and dignity that can address the cross-cutting, transnational threats humankind faces in the twenty-first century.

The incredible speed and scale of disruption this pandemic has caused in the US has exposed how woefully inadequate the United States’ current approach to security is. For decades, the US has militarized its approach to security, spending trillions on maintaining military dominance around the world. Yet it’s been painfully apparent for at least the last two decades — if not longer — that we cannot bomb our way to peace, nor build economic and social security by prioritizing the pursuit of US military power above all else. This tunnel vision has ultimately gutted the resilience of our own and other societies, leaving us drastically unprepared for the current crisis.

As the UN Secretary-General said earlier this month, “We simply cannot return to where we were before novel coronavirus struck, with societies unnecessarily vulnerable to crisis.” We cannot. So we have a choice.

On the one hand, Trump, the cult of the Republican party, and its wealthy grifters seek a world in which a dangerous xenophobic nationalism carries the day. In this option, the threat of Trumpism’s “fortress America” would be realized, where only certain (wealthy and white) citizens have the privilege of economic and physical security. Meanwhile, the plight of others around the world would be ignored, along with the United States’ role in their suffering. This option would mean more bombs, more bans, and more xenophobic nationalism that pits the United States against enemy powers lurking in every corner of the world – from China to Russia. It would focus on eliminating international cooperation and furthering militarism, racism, and environmental devastation. 

The novel coronavirus has exposed not only this need for a reconceptualization of security, but also a new social compact between people and their governments.

The other way forward is an internationalist response that rejects incrementalism and prioritizes fundamental, structural changes to our society to build holistic human security. This second option would reverse decades of bad behavior, in which the US has treated foreign countries as threats to US power and undermined our ability to work together to confront shared global challenges. In an increasingly interconnected world, this approach recognizes that we simply can no longer expect to create security here in the United States through policies that terrorize others; our own fate is fundamentally intertwined with the rest of the world’s. In an age where the greatest security challenges we face ignore borders – the survivability of the planet, the spread of nuclear weapons and materials, the rise of artificial intelligence, growing transnational corruption and authoritarian backsliding, and global pandemics – it would be ignorant, if not fatal, to deprioritize cooperation and human needs in favor of brinkmanship and fear. 

The novel coronavirus has exposed not only this need for a reconceptualization of security, but also a new social compact between people and their governments. US security is not guaranteed by US military domination of the world and it is time to reject the profit-driven belief that every security challenge has a military solution. During and following this crisis, national security spending must be refocused on helping everyday people in the United States build both economic and physical security. In the immediate term, the US government must focus on helping working people mitigate the economic crisis and save as many lives as possible. In the long-term, this will mean a holistic reworking of our economy to focus on preparing for the next crisis – most likely caused by climate change – by investing in a green, just transition to prepare for the seismic shifts that will take place in the US and global economies. 

This new conception of security cannot be limited to domestic policy, however. And a focus on building resiliency at home does not necessarily mean US disengagement from the world. In fact, continuing a narrow conception of foreign policy as “problems over there” ignores the reality that international security challenges mirror the security challenges within our borders. If we are to reject the “America First” xenophobia of the right, it is imperative to recognize that this current political ideology is deeply rooted in the failed status quo of the past that elevated American exceptionalism and the American “right” to do as it wants on the world stage. A new way of engaging the world, namely defining US interests on the basis of the shared security and dignity of all people around the world, is the only way for the US to beat back the tides of nationalism and autocracy. 

If the United States’ goal on the world stage is to help facilitate the realization of safety and justice for all around the world, it must learn from its mistakes of the past. The last several decades have shown that violence cannot be solved through more violence. Instead of investing in weapons of mass destruction and military brinkmanship, the US must invest in tools like peacebuilding, public health, and multilateralism that can undermine local drivers to violence, address human rights abuses, and help create more equitable societies. To do so, however, requires the United States to lead by example and hold itself accountable.

Further, while the world order of yesteryear is certainly one that benefited the United States and should not necessarily be thrown out with the bathwater, it undoubtedly did not create a more just and equitable world system for the majority of the world’s or our own population. The international rules-based system has centered on the needs of the Global North at the cost of the Global South, who are now most vulnerable to the threats of global pandemics, climate change, and grand corruption. To prepare for the future – and ensure that future still seeks the realization of human rights and justice for all – the US must help lead the structural reforms necessary to the United Nations and Bretton Woods system to not only reverse their reliance on neoliberal economic governance, but also increase their credibility by democratizing the international system to reflect the balance of power in a multi-polar world. 

It’s likely this proposal will be scoffed at as too bold, naive and ill-suited to our current era of “great power” competition. Yet we are already seeing what the overt focus on great power competition in Washington has created: more militarization, more authoritarian power grabs, and more fear mongering xenophobia. Donald Trump and his allies have sought to push a xenophobic, nationalist agenda to distract from their failure to adequately prepare and respond to the pandemic by refusing to cooperate with other countries, blaming foreigners for the outbreak, and even making aggressive threats against China. Their hope is to divide us so greatly that we don’t notice the horrific failures of their policies. Authoritarians are seeking to use this crisis to consolidate their power around the globe and forward a pernicious nationalism that undermines the unprecedented levels of equitable global cooperation this crisis and future human security crises demand. 

Rather than doubling down on Washington’s competitive mindset, which pits people in the US against others around the world, we must seek deep investment in democratic reform and economic resiliency here at home, and diplomacy, multilateralism, and cooperation abroad. Only by doing so will we be able to weather this crisis, remain resilient in the face of foreign and domestic actors that seek to divide us, and build a more just system for all in the face of one of the greatest upheavals in modern times.

Kate Kizer


Kate Kizer is a leading progressive foreign policy strategist and legislative advocate. Kate was most recently the Policy Director at Win Without War, where she was a key leader in the fights to stop Trump's worst national security impulses, and to push Democrats to adopt bold alternatives. At the forefront of the legislative strategy and grassroots organizing of the recent war powers and weapons sales fights in Congress, Kate's work has helped lay the foundation for future transformational change in U.S. foreign policy. Follow her work on Twitter @KateKizer.


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