Vandals looted the New Balance store on my corner Monday night, while others targeted the AT&T store a few blocks away. This was the second night of helicopters flying low above our house monitoring the unfolding situation in the normally quiet neighborhood of Lincoln Park. One night earlier, a mob had turned the Old Town neighborhood, just a few blocks south, into a staging ground, and there were reports of homes broken into and a school damaged. Almost every local business has boarded up its windows with what seems like a bottomless supply of brown speckled plywood. The National Guard is deployed, and while I haven’t seen their presence, my colleague at the Bulletin can see trucks filled with sand right outside her window, a Humvee parked on the corner making its presence known.
I live in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in America, but also a city of neighborhoods, home to some of the country’s most innovative education experiments and violence-reduction policies. It is led by a black female mayor determined and well equipped to right decades of wrong. As I write, a peaceful protest that started just north of me at Wrigley Field has swept up my two teenage daughters, who have disappeared into a flowing sea of humanity chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “George Floyd,” the name of the African American man who was killed by police just a week or so ago in Minneapolis. How as a society do we balance the need of a public health system that requires social distancing and a justice system that requires intense social mobilization?
We are faced with this Solomonic choice on the domestic front because our 20th century security strategies are proving ineffective in addressing America’s 21st century threats. But this failure to match security policy to security challenges does not stop at the water’s edge. The United States’ approach to international relations may work if the country ever finds itself in the two simultaneous and unlikely land wars in Asia and Europe that our military planners have envisioned in their budget requests. But that approach seems wildly ill-conceived, if the goal is to lessen the human toll that will be caused by an array of new threats—from climate change and fast-spreading viruses to the technologies behind cyber hacking and information warfare—that are undermining trust in institutions and have the potential to stop whole societies in their tracks.
To tackle these emerging challenges the United States will need to make significant investments in new security arrangements and forge new types of global coordination, because no one country alone can deal with this wide and expanding array of global threats. Alas, the United States is neither investing nor coordinating. It is walking away from global arms control arrangements without even planning a next step, in a vicious international form of the “repeal and replace” that has so dramatically failed to work with the US health care system. Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has set its gaze on the global public health system, announcing plans to defund the World Health Organization without doing the hard work needed to create a better, more agile institution to support or replace it—something that many experts would agree is required.
Our increasing retreat to nationalism and nativism in the face of problems that are global in nature will be unnecessarily expensive, leaving less and less money to spend on newly emerging threats and on our own domestic society, where equity gaps of many sorts have been growing ever wider. It is no coincidence that as the United States walks away from arms control agreements that have been put into place over the last 50 years to slow a nuclear arms race with Russia, the United States is also set to invest gobs of money in new nuclear weapons. In fact, such a result is predictable. Today, the United States is on the cusp of spending somewhere between $1.2 and $1.8 trillion over the next 30 years on new nuclear weapons, a large portion of which is unnecessary from a military security point of view and could be better invested elsewhere.
Back in the 1960s, African American leaders recognized that money spent on weapons reduced resources that could be distributed domestically. In 1967, Martin Luther King pointed out that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” It is the same argument that has compelled many African American leaders to advocate for nuclear disarmament.
Today, well into a new century, the United States government appears to be deaf to such common-sense arguments. But citizens could demand a different path. The pandemic provides important lessons that we would do well to heed. These include: inequities in public health make societies less, not more stable; prevention is always cheaper than reaction; science matters, and just because you can’t see a problem—germs in the air, say, or increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—doesn’t mean it is inconsequential; and individual action can make a big difference, whether the action be social distancing, demonstrating for social justice, reducing one’s carbon footprint, or demanding a rethink of our current nuclear strategy. As we deal with the COVID pandemic, breadcrumbs are being laid out for us, showing the way toward better decisions about how to use our resources in this no-longer-new 21st century. Shouldn’t we follow them?
A placard carried by a woman walking by my house just now reads “Disarm Dismantle Defund.” I suspect it was written with the police department in mind, but it is equally applicable to our broader national security paradigm, especially as it applies to nuclear weapons and their limited ability to combat a growing set of global challenges. Our current strategies and investments are anachronistic and do not seem to be making us safer. Twenty years in, isn’t it time to acknowledge the century we live in?
Editor’s note: Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom” in 1967, not the 1950s, as this article originally suggested.
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