A New Org Chart Won’t Stop the Next Pandemic

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion will be running a series of features by our columnists that consider the long-term consequences of the crisis. This column is part of a package on how to strengthen three pillars of national security: defense, diplomacy and strategy. For more, see Hal Brands on  a framework for U.S. foreign policy and see James Stavridis on the U.S. military’s role in fighting pandemics.

Just as the 9/11 attacks changed the definition of national security and redirected the course of U.S. policy for two decades, so likely will the dire consequences of America’s unpreparedness for the global pandemic cast a long shadow across government policy. And they should.

Our definition of national security will broaden, certainly over the pinched confines of the Trump administration, and probably even over the more expansive definitions of the Clinton and Obama administrations. What had been metronomically intoned as the first priority of keeping Americans safe will no longer mean an expeditionary military, or even one deployed at our borders; it is likelier to mean funding posts for health-care professionals abroad, developing better forecasting tools to map disease spread or fielding intelligence agents who are trained in medicine and can infiltrate foreign laboratories as researchers.

The temptation among policy makers will be to reorganize the federal government and create vast new bureaucracies to oversee the mission of pandemic preparedness. Expect a resurgence of earnest appeals for “whole-of-government operations” that we have proven incapable of in 20 years of warfare. Yet the inability of the U.S. government to anticipate and prepare for the Covid-19 pandemic is not a failure of governmental design, or even of intelligence, but of imagination and management by its current stewards. Protecting Americans against future, even unexpected, threats doesn’t require a sweeping overhaul of the national-security system. It does require committing to, investing in and making effective use of the capabilities we already have. 

On this score, the Trump administration’s performance has been woeful. The administration identified the need to protect Americans from a pandemic as a major element of its 2017 National Security Strategy. It called for detecting and containing pandemics at their source, supporting biomedical innovation and improving emergency response.

The administration did none of those things. As with so many other elements of the National Security Strategy, the president doesn’t appear to have read it, and certainly isn’t carrying out policies advancing those objectives. To the contrary: The administration’s budgets have consistently proposed cutting funding for science research, the National Institutes of Health, and international organizations essential to detecting and containing pandemics.

At Congress’s insistence, the administration published a biodefense strategy in 2018. As with the National Security Strategy, it is reasonable enough on paper, but little evidence suggests that it guides policy. The key to effective government action is routine information exchange and interaction among agencies that will need to cooperate in crisis, and establishing decision processes so someone is in charge. A February 2020 Government Accountability Office evaluation, however, concluded that the biodefense strategy had “no clear processes, roles, or responsibilities for joint decision-making.”

The administration does not appear to have utilized the biodefense strategy in crafting its Covid-19 response: Instead of relying on the institutional bases for organization, President Trump created multiple ad hoc task forces that have led to a shambolic policy process and the dissemination of dangerously inaccurate information. As James V. Lawler, an infectious diseases specialist and public health expert at the University of Nebraska, put it in an email to fellow scientists tracking the pandemic and the government’s response, “We have thrown 15 years of institutional learning out the window and are making decisions based on intuition.”

Acknowledging the Trump administration’s disastrous mismanagement doesn’t solve our problem, though. The American people will from time to time elect reckless leaders who will fail us in crisis. Our challenge is how to build greater resilience into the system despite that occasional tendency, and how to populate the bureaucracy with relevant expertise and managerial talent.

Adequate authorities exist in the federal government to protect Americans from global pandemics: They reside in the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services – either one of which was well-positioned to lead a government-wide effort (indeed, the biodefense strategy gives HHS the lead role). The Department of Veterans Affairs can also make a major contribution with its medical professionals and facilities.

The Department of Defense can complement civilian efforts: National Guard personnel under the authority of governors can maintain public safety, active duty units can efficiently distribute federal supplies (logistics is the true brilliance of the American military), and provide medics and medical facilities like hospital ships. Putting the military in charge, though, risks marginalizing the civilian agencies best suited and responsible for managing these challenges, and diverting our military from its principal responsibilities in ways that could tempt our foreign adversaries.

And as our definition of national security expands and our resources for the Defense Department are constricted, America will still need to shape the world in ways beneficial to our interests, drawing on a wider array of tools. President Trump’s efforts to cut 30% of the State Department budget and his cancellation of USAID funding for pandemic early warning programs are particularly egregious, but prioritizing the military over other elements of national power has been a decades-long trend. We have seen a huge migration of inherently civilian tasks into the military, not because we are at war, but because we shortchanged those government functions that give us strategic depth — the ability to see what’s happening in the world and solve problems with resources larger than just our own.

We have also expressed toward our civilian national security agencies what President George W. Bush (in a different context) described as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” We don’t demand they prove as capable as our military, nor do we set them up to be successful. American diplomats are often excellent because they can be thrown in the deep end of the pool and they won’t drown. But we never teach them to swim. State expends nearly all of its training resources on foreign-language skills, relying on mentoring to teach management and other essential professional development skills. Our diplomats are generalists; the nature of our current challenge shows we need them to have specialized education and training. We need a G.I. Bill for America’s diplomats, and probably also for civil service professionals in HHS and other agencies.  

The most consequential improvement to U.S. national security would be to take more seriously the professionalism of our civilians in the departments of Health and Human Services, State, Homeland Security and its Federal Emergency Management Agency. We should require of them the kind of career-long education and training we provide to our military. In the State Department, for example, there is next to no required additional training after the initial orientation and before becoming an ambassador. If you’re going to serve in a country or region known for incubating pathogens, for instance, you should be given the knowledge, the inter-agency contacts and the tools to respond effectively before you arrive at post, rather than learn on the job. We should define the skills civilian agencies need, recruit for them, refine them by training and test for proficiency. And we should adjust the balance of our investment to give them as broad a range of tools as we provide our military forces.

From Germany to South Korea and Taiwan, the markedly better pandemic outcomes that other governments have achieved should be cause for humility and national reflection. Strengthening our civil service — its competence, integrity, skills and scope for action — is one of the best investments we could make in public safety. Rebuilding this source of national vitality could also reset America’s trajectory, revivify its merits. As Teddy Roosevelt wrote when he was head of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, civil service reform is “the most powerful implement with which to work for the moral regeneration of our public life.” Given the sorry and now disastrous events of the last three years, that’s no less true today. The best thing that could happen in post-coronavirus America is that competence and even expertise come back into fashion.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Kori Schake leads the foreign and defense policy team at the American Enterprise Institute.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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