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imagining a more equitable foreign policy

The COVID Catalyst

Imagining a more equitable post-pandemic foreign policy.

Words: Laila Ujayli
Pictures: Martin Sanchez

COVID-19 is currently transforming how many of us live our lives. It’s changing the ways we work, educate, experience and build community. And it’s also demonstrating the myriad ways business-as-usual has failed us. So rather than stress bake and hope for a return to a flawed normal, let’s stress bake and fight to ensure COVID-19 catalyzes the change we want to see in society, for example, by reorienting US foreign policy towards human security and justice.

We can start by defining security not in terms of militarized notions of hegemony and national supremacy, but by people – whether they have equitable access to healthcare, education, food, shelter, and justice. The economic precarity and healthcare disparities now confronting millions illustrate how overlooking local priorities at the expense of waging endless war totally fails to keep people safe. In the US, nearly 15,000 people have died — with the number of deaths in New York alone surpassing the number of lives taken by the 9/11 attacks that transformed US security policy. Globally, the virus has killed nearly 90,000 people, a death toll some experts predict could rise to the millions. And the economic impacts are already devastating. The dire consequences of COVID-19 represent the challenges we face today and will continue to face tomorrow. Our already-outdated vision of national security as mere military primacy must finally be consigned to history, replaced by one that centers on human security.

Our already-outdated vision of national security as mere military primacy must finally be consigned to history, replaced by one that centers on human security.

COVID-19 also makes abundantly clear that policies that claim to advance human security must advance economic and racial justice. While this pandemic may unite us in the face of a common challenge, communities suffer this pandemic differently. In the United States, COVID-19 heightens preexisting inequities, with poor people and people of color bearing a disproportionate burden. In Chicago, the virus is killing Black people at a rate six times higher than White people. And despite accounting for only about thirty-three percent of the population, Black people account for more than seventy percent of deaths in Louisiana. In New York state, which continues to experience the virus’ deadliest days on record, COVID-19 is twice as deadly for Black and Latino people than White people. Mass inequality and centuries of structural racism are security priorities — we must treat them as such to truly keep people safe.

Our post-pandemic foreign policy must also extend this commitment to advancing justice beyond US borders. Unless urgent action is taken to support poor countries, Oxfam predicts this pandemic could drive more than half a billion more people into poverty. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East already beset by violent conflict and the climate crisis will be hit the hardest. Moreover, our failure to enact a just policy towards migrants and refugees has placed millions of people at risk in camps with limited access to healthcare, where social distancing is impossible. To respond, we must reimagine the tools the US uses to engage with the world. Our foreign policy must advance diplomacy and global cooperation, champion a global ceasefire, and invest in peacebuilding, not bolster human rights abusers and rely on crushing sanctions that deprive civilians access to vital food and medicine, as we’re currently witnessing in Iran. COVID-19 reveals security for what it truly is — interconnected and people-centered. In a pandemic, the health and wellbeing of communities abroad directly impact communities at home. As a result, policies that compromise others’ security and fail to protect the most vulnerable are not only cruel and unjust, they’re defective.

To begin realizing the new foreign policy required to effectively respond to COVID-19 and prepare us for the next crisis, we must divest from weapons and invest in communities. A growing chorus of experts and advocates have pointed out the ways our security budget has failed to secure us. For example, we spend a mere $11 billion on global public health each year, as compared to a whopping $750 billion on the military. With the $35.1 billion the US spent last year alone on nuclear weapons, we could buy 300,000 new ICU beds, 35,000 ventilators, and pay the salaries of 150,000 nurses and 75,000 doctors. Rather than stockpiling nukes, we should be stockpiling proper Personal Protective Equipment for those on the front lines of pandemics. We should be increasing funding for international aid, not proposing cuts, because the US will struggle to contain this virus so long as it flourishes in other countries. And instead of accumulating and modernizing expensive arsenals to wage hypothetical wars, we must prepare to meet the global challenges that are already here — bolstering healthcare systems, alleviating mass inequality, and mitigating the effects of the climate crisis.

There are many, many more examples of what can and must be done in the face of this crisis, and a number of champions are already leading the charge. While we care for ourselves and each other, we must try to spare some time to imagine the world we’ll build once the familiar noise of traffic replaces the wail of sirens, and we cross our thresholds and occupy our public spaces once again. The problems in our foreign policy that many Americans may have viewed as hairline fractures have been exposed as gaping chasms. We can’t plaster over the gaps or salvage the status quo that existed before the pandemic because it failed us. Our foreign policy failed to keep us safe because it wasn’t designed to — it was designed to line pockets, control resources, and advance a militarized vision of security grounded in national hegemony, racism, and imperialism. But if, like our healthcare professionals and essential employees, we rise to meet the challenge this occasion demands, we can change it.

Many blockbuster screenplays utilize a structural tool called a “midpoint reversal.” It’s the point in the story where, after a major surprise or setback, everything changes. Frodo resolves to take the ring to Mordor and the fellowship forms. The T-Rex escapes its enclosure and unleashes Jurassic Park’s true danger. The Death Star ensnares the Millennium Falcon. The stakes are raised, the villains are revealed, our heroes set aside their differences and unite around a common goal. COVID-19 has the potential to be our midpoint, the point in our collective story where we dedicate ourselves to reversing an unjust status quo and advancing human security and justice for those in the United States and beyond.

Laila Ujayli focuses on the human impact of US foreign policy in the Middle East. She is a current graduate student at the University of Oxford and a member of Foreign Policy Generation. She was previously a Fall 2018 Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow.

Laila Ujayli

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