In 2017, President Donald Trump announced a new National Security Strategy that focused on great-power competition with China and Russia. While the plans also note the role of alliances and cooperation, the implementation has not. Today, COVID-19 shows that the strategy is inadequate. Competition and an “America First” approach is not enough to protect the United States. Close cooperation with both allies and adversaries is also essential for American security.
Under the influence of the information revolution and globalization, world politics is changing dramatically. Even if the United States prevails in the traditional great-power competition, it cannot protect its security acting alone. COVID-19 is not the only example. Global financial stability is vital to U.S. prosperity, but Americans need the cooperation of others to ensure it. And while trade wars have set back economic globalization, there is no stopping the environmental globalization represented by pandemics and climate change. In a world where borders are becoming more porous to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to cyber terrorism, the United States must use its soft power of attraction to develop networks and institutions that address these new threats. For example, this administration proposed halving the U.S. contribution to the World Health Organization’s budget — now we need it more than ever.
A successful national security strategy should start with the fact that “America First” means America has to lead efforts at cooperation. A classic problem with public goods (like clean air, which all can share and from which none can be excluded) is that if the largest consumer does not take the lead, others will free-ride and the public goods will not be produced. As the technology expert Richard Danzig summarizes the problem:
Twenty-first century technologies are global not just in their distribution, but also in their consequences. Pathogens, AI systems, computer viruses, and radiation that others may accidentally release could become as much our problem as theirs. Agreed reporting systems, shared controls, common contingency plans, norms and treaties must be pursued as a means of moderating our numerous mutual risks.