We need a public health approach to national security strategy

(Reposted with permission from: Responsible Statecraft.  April 13, 2020)

Editor’s Intro: Redefining Security

Some guiding inquiries

Eli McCarthy responds to the need for positive conceptualization of global issues, in this case security, with the life-affirming approach of public health. Also offered here is a three-point framework for organizing a learning inquiry into the substance of the approach that comprises concepts and values already familiar to many peace educators, a platform for an inquiry into the implementation of what are posed as guidelines for change that could be an early step in strategizing for a renewed world. If these values and conditions are what we hope for in a post-COVID-19 society, how do we achieve them? Here is a positive and constructive perspective on learning for a more safe world in a future that we know will continue to be challenged by pandemics. What can we learn from this approach by exploring the changes in our present concepts of security and institutions for its provision that would be required for the implementation of McCarthy’s proposals?

What are the security implications of President Trump’s intention to de-fund the World Health Organization? What are the multiple roles it might play in the implementation of these guidelines? How might citizens respond to the President’s intention?

Peace educators who may be interested in further interconnections of public health with peace and security issues may be interested in Albie Sharpe, “Public Health and Patriarchy: Militarism and Gender as Determinants of Health Insecurity,” in B. Reardon and A. Hans, eds, The Gender Imperative: Human Security vs. State Security 2nd ed. Routledge, New York. (2019)


By Eli S. McCarthy

Turning our gaze to the less visible. We may not easily see it, but we know it’s there.

In this time of COVID-19, we are turned somewhat inside-out. Previously, the more visible predominated our attention, particularly in the area of foreign policy and its subset of national security strategies.

We attended to nuclear weapons, testing, and enrichment sites. We attended to troop movements of non-state actors in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, etc. We attended to the latest weapons technology, drones, planes, ships, and deployments into outer space. The predominant ideas and frames have been resource competition, the U.S. first and Americans first, economic and energy dominance, and big power or military dominance. However, we are now facing a reality drawing us to give the less visible more of our focus.

Perhaps this has a deeper meaning as well, beyond national security strategy. It appears, that this resembles a near paradigm shift in how we frame and prepare security strategies, but also in how we flourish as human beings. Even self-identified “hawks” are calling for a significant shift in such security strategies.

In the sphere of national security strategy, the shift draws us toward a public health approach and way of developing security strategies. This enables us to see that cross-border harm, destruction, and violence are more synonymous with a contagious disease. Prevention and interrupting transmission become central strategies.

With the experience of COVID-19 and with a public health approach, we better sense the less visible, that is, not only our cross-border interconnectedness but also our deep interdependence. We are deeply interdependent on our health care workers, adequate medical supplies, how others choose to prevent the transmission or not, and how other states and countries respond.

With a public health approach, we better sense how destruction and violence are rooted in failures of public health, which includes a call to focus on healthy persons, local communities, societies, and cross-border relationships. In turn, we are more attentive to the well-being of those who have been less visible, i.e. on the margins of our communities, such as the elderly, persons experiencing homelessness, persons living in poverty, persons with impaired immune systems, persons with mental and emotional health challenges, persons without legal status, persons in prison, etc. We are more attentive to less visible factors, such as class, gender, and race in relation to public health. Our investments, priorities, and strategies would reflect such attentiveness, especially in national security strategies and U.S. foreign policy.

The reader may begin to notice that this shift in national security strategy is also fundamentally embedded in and enabled by a shift of our gaze towards the question about how we flourish as human beings. We need our national security strategies and foreign policy to become more oriented by this question if they are to be more effective and relevant to our reality. The public health approach moves us in this direction. To enhance this movement and draw us further into this pivotal question, we may draw on a just peace framework for normative guidance. Such an ethical framework better enables us to build sustainable peace, engage conflict constructively, and break cycles of violence.

A brief summary of the just peace framework I am referring to includes:

  1. Build sustainable peace: relationality and reconciliation, robust civil society and just governance, human dignity and rights, ecological sustainability, as well as economic, racial, and gender justice;
  2. Develop virtues and skills to engage conflict constructively: spiritual disciplines (meditation, discernment, forgiveness), key virtues (empathy, humility, courage, nonviolence, solidarity, compassion), education and skill training in nonviolence, participatory processes, forming peacemaking communities; and
  3. Break cycles of violence: reflexivity (means and ends consistent), re-humanization, conflict transformation (includes root causes), acknowledge responsibility for harm (including restorative justice and trauma-healing), nonviolent direct action, and integral disarmament.

For instance, with just peace norms such as human dignity and re-humanization we better value and re-humanize those less visible persons, who are crucial to a national security system oriented by a public health approach. Rather than being indifferent toward the deaths of elderly, prisoners, detained immigrants, or Iranians in the context of COVID-19, we would generate actions and policies that better ensure their safety and well-being.

With norms such as relationality and the virtue of solidarity we better strengthen the constructive elements of our interconnectedness and interdependence. With norms such as economic, gender, and racial justice we better share resources and build just systems. Rather than focusing on and investing more in the elites of the economy in the context of COVID-19, we would focus on and invest in those most in need and more consistent with equity.

With the norm of integral disarmament, we would be more apt to not only better disarm within by reducing our resentment, distrust, or hatred towards others, but also to find creative ways to reduce the role of armed weapons. Rather than selling and buying more weapons in the U.S. or abroad in the context of COVID-19, we would support the U.N.’s call for a global ceasefire and shift significant weapons production and spending towards the Center for Disease Control, medical supplies, hospitals, and basic living resources for those most in need.

With the norm of ecological sustainability, we would better see the value of caring for the environment or our common home. Rather than isolating this case of COVID-19, we would recognize the relationship to destructive practices towards the environment that make such pandemics more probable and more damaging. We would prioritize another less visible but enormous threat, i.e. climate and global warming, as part of our strategy to deal with COVID-19.

In turn, embedding our security strategy within the broader and pivotal question about how we flourish as human beings in our common home, illuminates for us the significance of the two just peace norms characterized as spiritual disciplines and virtues. These particular norms also represent the less visible in national security strategy and U.S. foreign policy discourse. Yet, they are crucial to deciphering and actualizing human flourishing. Their significance crystalizes within a public health approach to security strategies. For instance, the virtue of empathy enables a deep embodied sensitivity to the suffering of all others, and the spiritual discipline of meditation enables us to be less reactive and more creative in our responses to conflict.

In the midst of COVID-19, we have an invitation and urgent challenge to shift from the more visible to the less visible in our national security strategies and U.S. foreign policy. In this shift, if we focus on a public health approach complemented by a just peace ethical framework, then we may generate better overall security strategies as we enhance human flourishing in our common home.

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