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Analysis: Will Pandemic Make Trump Rethink National Security?

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WASHINGTON — President Trump insists that choosing when to reopen the economy is “the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make,” and, in the short term, he is undoubtedly right. It is a perilous balance of public safety versus economic revival that would test any president, even one not consumed by a looming election.

But behind it is an even broader challenge: Whether an avowedly “America First” president who has always measured national strength by the size of the Pentagon budget, the number of ships in the Navy and improving the nuclear arsenal has now seen a peril that would lead him to drastically shift how he thinks about the nation’s security.

Another president might see this as the moment to gather nations together in a collective fight against a virus that leaps borders at astounding speed.

But, so far, Mr. Trump has shown little interest in collective action, apart from episodic telephone calls with allies. His announcement on Tuesday that he would withhold American funding from the World Health Organization — for making the same mistakes he did, underreacting to the coronavirus outbreak and praising Chinese “transparency” — suggests that, if anything, he is again determined to go it alone.

The Cuban missile crisis forced President John F. Kennedy to reorient the United States toward arms control. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks forced President George W. Bush to ramp up America’s counterterrorism efforts abroad and expand defensive measures at home. The question now is whether the coronavirus could change the priorities of the national security world. Certainly, in his regular news conferences, Mr. Trump has shown no evidence that he is thinking about the long-range implications.

“President Trump has an aggressively narrow interpretation of national security,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

“It’s been all about border exclusion and military strikes,” said Ms. Schake, who was the deputy director of policy planning in the Pentagon under President Bush. “And this global pandemic shows the weaknesses of that pinched version,” she added, because it excluded threats that did not come from an enemy directing a weapon at the United States.

Every year since Mr. Trump took office, the administration tried to reduce or zero out the kind of “soft” security programs that would have better prepared the country for the pandemic that now consumes every Washington policymaker, according to former members of the president’s national security staff. The detailed examination of the Trump administration’s halting response published in The New York Times over the weekend — revealing a decision-making system bedeviled by delays, missed signals and little planning for what would happen if containment of the virus failed — also disclosed the cost of that neglect.

Stockpiles of masks and ventilators, depleted during the Obama administration, were never filled. Exercises like “Crimson Contagion,” which simulated a flu pandemic, were conducted but the lessons never bubbled up to senior leadership. Mr. Trump never spent the time or resources on those issues that he devoted to building a wall along the southwestern border or devising a game plan to pressure Iran. It is impossible to find a Trump speech dwelling at length on issues of public health, much less describing the subject as a risk to national security.

In fact, until the coronavirus struck, the administration’s public discussion of biological threats was usually cast in terms of defending against deliberate attacks, not in terms of Chinese wet markets or college students returning from spring break. A strategy developed in 2017 and 2018 explored the full range of biological dangers. But by the time it was published in fall 2018, its key authors, Thomas P. Bossert, who was the White House homeland security adviser, and Rear Adm. R. Timothy Ziemer, who held responsibilities for health and biodefense, had been forced out by the new national security adviser, John R. Bolton.

Introducing the strategy in September 2018, Mr. Bolton said it was, “we think, critical, for our defense purposes, looking at the range of weapons of mass destruction that the United States and our friends and allies face.” His briefing focused on how biological weapons are “particularly attractive to terrorist groups that want to try and cause great damage to us here at home.”

He left all discussion of combating naturally occurring viruses to the Health and Human Services secretary, Alex M. Azar II, who would run a cabinet-level “steering committee” on managing such threats. It turned out to be a classic Washington solution — a bureaucratic structure that had all the right buzz words and none of the resources or authority to fill the gaping holes in the system that one government report after another, across three administrations, had warned about.

“What happened is what often happens,” Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, said on Tuesday in a briefing sponsored by the Hoover Institution. “There’s a curve where we get mobilized and then we forget.” She added, “After this is over, we need to look at whether we need some more permanent structure on the pandemic side,” akin to the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center after Sept. 11, which built partnerships and networks across the government and around the globe.

It is easy to understand why: For three decades, there has been a well-funded defense lobbying establishment for spending billions setting up a land- and space-based sensor system to detect adversary missile launches, and comparatively little push to build a global surveillance system for emerging viruses. Even if there was, countries around the world often have an interest in denying the facts — the essential problem Mr. Trump and his aides complain about when they, accurately, blame China for sharing far too little data about what was happening in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected.

The resulting chaos is evident in reading the email exchanges of the “Red Dawn” group of elite infectious disease experts and government health officials, who from January to March were grappling in the dark to understand what kind of threat was headed to American shores, and where it would land.

Their warnings read a bit like the private messages to President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Joseph C. Grew, the American ambassador to Japan, in the years leading to Pearl Harbor. Both sensed what was coming but failed to figure out how to stop it. Such warnings became part of the congressional inquiry into Pearl Harbor — which contributed to the National Security Act in 1947 that created the Defense Department and, over time, the C.I.A.

In recent weeks, Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, who served as the manager for impeachment, has talked about a similar investigation run by the House Intelligence Committee, which he oversees. Mr. Trump, who has made no secret of how he despises Mr. Schiff, immediately dismissed the idea. But some kind of investigation seems inevitable, and when it happens, the big question may be whether America First accelerated this crisis, making it harder to manage — and in coming months, harder to introduce treatments and vaccines.

“Most global crises, even severe ones, do not fundamentally change — and rarely reverse — the course of world politics,” Philip H. Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro recently wrote in “War on the Rocks,” a national security and foreign policy site. “Crises more often serve as accelerators, highlighting existing fissures and widening them. Just as patients with underlying conditions are more vulnerable to the disease, pre-existing geopolitical fault lines will likely be exposed by the coronavirus crisis.”

It is already happening.

The decision to withhold American contributions that account for about a sixth of the World Health Organization’s budget arises from his argument that international institutions stack the deck against the United States. In this case, he is clearly right to examine why the W.H.O.’s early warning radar failed, and whether it is too much in the thrall of China, which has often wielded large influence over the organization (mostly on the question of excluding Taiwan from membership).

But withdrawing funds only opens the way for China to take a larger role.

“This is like defunding the fire department in the middle of a fire,” R. Nicholas Burns, the former under secretary of state for policy and now head of the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard, wrote after Mr. Trump’s announcement.

Mr. Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro, has already pointed toward another change in the offing: ending American dependence on global supply chains, especially for pharmaceuticals and critical medical equipment. Here the America First instinct may be more understandable. If the United States would never let itself be dependent on China for weapons, why would it let it be dependent for N95 masks? Or critical drugs and ventilators?

It will almost certainly be a race to develop a vaccine — in China, Europe and the United States. That will test how nations navigate the tension between treating their populations first or rolling out a cure for the world, on the theory that in a world where viruses do not need visas, no one will be secure until everyone is secure.

There are already signs that Mr. Trump’s instinct — and that of other world leaders — is to take care of domestic populations first. That most likely explains why he sought to get a German company to move its vaccine research to American soil.

But there is no assurance that the United States will win the vaccine race. And that may make a strong case for investing in a multinational research effort, with pre-established understandings about how the results, and manufacturing capacity, will be shared.

If there is a lesson from the past three months, it is that no wall can keep out a virus, and what happens in Wuhan and Lombardy, Italy, will make it to New York and Washington.


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