Lt. Gen. Richard Newton: Coronavirus shows US national security will depend on this

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President Trump was spot-on when he called the COVID-19 pandemic “our big war.” Our battle with it may not be the kind of war we are used to fighting, but when an enemy has killed tens of thousands of our fellow Americans, severely damaged our economy and upended our daily society – make no mistake we are at war.

As long as COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, the lives of Americans will not be safe.

And when this stealth invader respects no border or boundary, this new war needs a new kind of battle strategy.

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When I was coming up the ranks in the Air Force, we were taught national security strategy through the DIME framework – Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic. While these civilian and military elements of power are essential, we now must expand the paradigm to include investments in global health in order to protect our homeland. To win this war, we must approach this national security crisis with a truly global response.

Viewing disease threats around the world as a national security threat is not without precedent. In 2005, President George W. Bush presciently said, “a pandemic is a lot like a forest fire. If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.”

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These words resonate with striking accuracy today. President Bush saw the global health threats on the horizon that could attack our country. He invested in programs to combat them because he understood cutting off disease at its source was necessary to protect Americans in our interconnected world.

Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Zambia to see the impact of two global health programs in action, started under the former president. I saw how America’s global HIV/AIDS program has saved more than 17 million lives. And in a small, rural village, I witnessed how the provision of mosquito nets and spray through the president’s malaria initiative is working to reduce malaria-related mortality by 50 percent across 15 high-burden countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

President Trump has addressed the importance of these and similar programs as part of a global health strategy, stating during a recent COVID-19 White House briefing “there would be tremendous death” if we pulled funding – and has suggested America may need to step in to provide additional support to countries battling COVID-19.

And the truth is these programs are not just good for these countries, they are good for America. When we do not act to stop the spread of disease around the world, we not only put the health and safety of our people at risk, we put the primacy of American power in danger.

Throughout my career and beyond, I have seen how American intervention in the world responding to national security threats has made us stronger and safer at home. 

Right now, China is already exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to make power plays and extend its economic reach. They know that putting a stake in developing nations and emerging economies means more opportunities for diplomatic and economic power in key markets for them and fewer for us.

Since I was in Zambia, China has previewed how it is leveraging loan agreements to gain access to strategic state assets. In an April 17, 2020, report, the Wall Street Journal detailed how “two senior Zambian officials on a government panel negotiating with China said they are considering giving the Chinese copper-mining assets, including the country’s third-largest mine… in exchange for debt relief.”

When we disengage, China fills the void in an effort to weaken our strategic advantage on the global stage. We must not cede our position to them, particularly when developing and emerging markets will be essential to our own economic recovery. Before COVID-19, more than half of U.S. exports were going to the developing world.

It is not only the Chinese we need to be concerned with during this crisis. The coronavirus has the power to completely destabilize countries already teetering on the edge of collapse. If these states fail, dangerous actors can fill the power vacuum, leading to refugee crises and creating breeding grounds for terrorism that can end up knocking on our front door.

These threats alone are enough to merit a global response, but COVID-19 also presents a real danger to our most valued national security asset, our military. Just look to the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, where over 800 crewmembers have tested positive for the virus and one sailor has died. This virus has the ability to quickly stampede through our ships and military bases around the world unchecked, creating soft targets and sickening our men and women in uniform during one of our greatest global crises. This is a risk we cannot take.

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Now is the time for swift action. Throughout my career and beyond, I have seen how American intervention in the world responding to national security threats has made us stronger and safer at home. And today, we are up against one of the greatest national security threats our country has ever faced. I am confident we will defeat this enemy as we have others, but doing so requires us to lead a global response to COVID-19.

Our country’s future and security depend on it.

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