The National Security State Doesn’t Protect Us. Let’s Redefine Security for All.

After the nation watched white supremacists take over the Capitol building, the failure of the national security state to appropriately recognize and address the threat became a national scandal. But this “failure” shouldn’t have surprised us. If there is one thing that the trillion-dollar national security apparatus is good at, it’s under-hyping and misinterpreting threats that aren’t based on threats from “outsiders,” while overhyping the threats that are.

It’s not just white supremacy that the national security state often overlooks. The downplayed threats are often those that aren’t suggestive of national security “solutions.” Everyone knows that bombs can’t stop climate change, a virus or a hurricane (with the exception of one former president). In the case of white supremacist violence, the failure to appreciate the danger reflects a reluctance to use the full violence of state power against white citizens, but the effects are similar. And when it isn’t ignoring them, the national security state co-opts these threats rather than relinquish power to other arms of government.

Of course, the bread and butter of the national security state is the idea that we need plenty of bombs (and ships, jets, troops and so on) to deal with threats posed by terrorists from “over there,” or countries that would threaten U.S. global primacy. The overhyping of a supposed threat posed by China is particularly insidious, as it threatens not only to ignite a new Cold War, but to drag climate negotiations, future pandemic preparations and the rest of the world down with it.

National security needs to be reimagined twice: once to refocus it on real threats like climate change, global pandemics and authoritarianism, and again to refocus the response to those crises away from a militarized response and toward real solutions. It will take significant outside pressure to make that happen.

Overhyped Threats and Military Overreach

The U.S. military reaches around the globe, with approximately 800 foreign military installations in nearly half the world’s countries, and takes up more than half the discretionary budget that Congress allocates each year. Every decade or two, there is a new rationale for all this, with a new threat.

In recent decades, the threats have shifted from Russia (the first time), to terrorists in the Middle East, to “rogue states” like North Korea and Iran, and most recently to economic and ideological rivals like China and Russia. Each of these overhyped threats has generated a military response out of all proportion to what might reasonably be deemed necessary, both because the U.S. military already has more capacity than it needs to rebuff any military threat, and because in most of these cases, the threat can’t be addressed through military means anyway.

Through the 1980s, the U.S. and Russia engaged in an arms race that led to the two countries possessing enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other, and the planet, many times over. The primary justification on the U.S. side was an ideological fear of communism — a problem (if you can call it that) without a military solution. To this day, no other country comes even close to the number of nuclear weapons these two nations still hold, and the national security state continues to demand more resources for nuclear weapons. The same fear of communism was used to justify the U.S. war in Vietnam.

The next big threat was terrorism. Twenty years after the “war on terror” began, the U.S. continues to fight aimlessly and at great cost in lives and riches. According to the Brown University Costs of War project, more than 800,000 people have died, 37 million people have been displaced, and the U.S. has spent $6.4 trillion on the war on terror to date. The continuing violence in the region has spread and mutated beyond what anyone imagined in 2001. The ongoing U.S. war against terror is a case of an overblown threat without a military solution. And yet many national security voices insist that the U.S. military must not abandon the cause.

Today, the new oversold threats come from China and Russia. Recent national security strategy has set “great power competition” as the newest raison d’être for U.S. military hegemony, and signs point to the Biden administration largely continuing on this track, at great peril to crucial diplomatic efforts on climate. However, despite some disturbingly hawkish signs from the new administration, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has acknowledged that the primary U.S. response to China must be domestic “economic renewal” — in other words, not primarily a beefed-up military, but rather, a rejuvenation of U.S. education and jobs. It’s not that there aren’t real problems associated with these countries. It’s just that those problems have little to do with the supposed threats to the U.S., and they certainly have no military solutions.

Fear the Neighbors and Feed the Security State

The national security state reaches inside the United States, too, with its own mythology to justify its continued growth. The national security state justifies its existence by overhyping the threat from crimes ranging from drug selling and possession to the act of crossing the border without the right papers.

Even before the Trump administration, we witnessed the deportation of millions of people, falsely justified by fictions about “crime.” Today, overhyped fears about rising crime rates and scaremongering around demands to defund the police are accompanied by new calls for increased securitization. The supposed “threats” that justify the growth of the security state inside the U.S. are mostly our own neighbors.

If You Can’t Ignore It, Militarize It

The national security state inflates threats that justify its existence, but it also downplays or co-opts threats that in a different world would be the sole province of government agencies for energy, the environment, health care and so on. Instead of solving our problems, the national security state co-opts them for more resources and power.

The most obvious and immediate threat, the COVID-19 pandemic, has now killed more people in the United States than every war except the Civil War — as many as 165 9/11s in a row. It is abundantly clear that the U.S. did not adequately prepare for a pandemic. While a pandemic plan developed by the national security apparatus during the Obama administration was famously thrown out by the last president, it also raised the question of whether the national security apparatus is where pandemic plans should come from in the first place.

Likewise, the National Guard has deployed for everything from the pandemic to an unprecedented storm in Texas (and of course, the siege in Washington, D.C.). The constant reliance on the National Guard reflects the extent to which the national security state is the only arm of government that is resourced well enough to attempt to tackle big problems. In a vicious cycle, this fact continues to draw even more resources into the national security state — resources which are often misused. In a twist that seems all too cruel, the CIA co-opting of a vaccination program in Pakistan may now contribute to vaccine hesitation around COVID-19.

With white supremacist extremism now harder to deny, the national security state is moving from an attitude of avoidance to securitizing the response there, too. The military and law enforcement have chosen to excuse blatant white supremacy in their own ranks: In fact, throughout history, white supremacy has driven and shaped the growth of police departments in the U.S. and around the world. But here too, the national security state adopts the problem by calling for new domestic terrorism laws and more enforcement — another expansion of the national security state. Of course, it’s all too easy to imagine enhanced domestic terrorism laws enacted ostensibly to fight white supremacy being used against Black and Brown people, racial justice activists, environmental justice activists, and others.

Following the same pattern, the national security state alternately ignores, contributes to, and seeks to co-opt climate change. In military circles, climate change has long been recognized primarily as a “threat multiplier” — a factor that could increase conflict (and therefore opportunities for war) — and as a threat to military infrastructure like sea-level naval bases. The Pentagon has begun to recognize the problem with plans to “green” the military by reducing its own emissions, chasing an opportunity to burnish its own image in the process.

The Search for True Security

Living under COVID for the past year has driven home the reality that militarization doesn’t buy security. The new administration and Congress have an opportunity to redefine security, so that it encompasses justice, health, housing, food, education, civil rights and more. That’s a necessary step, but it’s not enough.

The next step has to be demilitarizing security by downsizing the massive security state. Movements like the Poor People’s Campaign, Defund Hate, Black Lives Matter, Dissenters, and People Over Pentagon have made real inroads at building power and accomplishing both, but the road ahead is long. The solution is to keep building power until these movements and others are strong enough to push back.