It is now clear that the Biden administration intends to go big against the greatest global threats we face, a natural response to the devastation of the continuing pandemic, the climate crisis, and other trends. This is an area of significant risk and opportunity for the United States and all nations. On biological threats, for example, technological advances are hastening the promise of early warning, rapid countermeasure development, and other elements of a system to find and quickly halt emerging infectious diseases before they produce mass effects. With the continued impact of SARS-CoV-2 and future potential pandemics very much on the minds of everyone around the globe, now is the perfect time for robust action and strong international cooperation to address biological threats.
An early, potentially transformative move was the March 2021 “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.” In this document, President Biden unveiled his vision for how America will engage the world, the challenges that need to be faced, and guidance to agencies and departments on what to expect and how best to align with the White House as it begins its work on the National Security Strategy. Below are our top three take-aways from this timely and important document.
- The threats that the nation and the world face are complex and interwoven: They are both independent and interconnected in nature. The ongoing case of COVID-19, on its own, highlights how an individual threat can have unacceptable consequences, which stands at 120 million cases and 2.5 million deaths across the globe. Unfortunately, pandemics are likely to emerge at an accelerated rate given climate change factors and ecological degradation. Further, COVID-19 also served as a catalyst for exacerbating nationalist and nativist trends. These trends directly impacted not only how nations responded to the pandemic, but also undermined democratic governments and turned citizens against each other at a time when unity was needed most. Therefore, the interconnected and complex nature of future threats requires the U.S. and the world to address emergent threats as having not only direct, but also secondary, tertiary, and quaternary effects that must be considered and addressed in a holistic manner.
- These threats require collective action: The acceleration of emerging biological threats like COVID-19 is just one example of the threats that the U.S. and the world faces. As noted in the guidance document, threats like the escalating climate crisis, protracted humanitarian crises, violent extremism and terrorism, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) pose great risks. Nuclear weapons, biological threats, and climate change are highlighted in particular as potentially existential threats to humanity. These are problems that no single nation can address alone, and it is vital that the U.S. and the world cooperate to avert these threats before it is too late.
- The technology race is hot: Beyond the need to build alliances and renew partnerships with the world to address an ever-complex security landscape, the U.S. and others also need to contend with the benefits and risks of accelerated advances in technology. Fields like biotechnology, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence are potential game-changers in shifting geopolitical dynamics in the global arena. The U.S. needs to be at the cutting edge of scientific and technological advancements to maintain relevancy and help shape the global activities, norms, acceptable and unacceptable practices, and the culture of trust and responsibility necessary to minimize risks and maximize the benefits of these and other emerging technologies.
Of course, this guidance means little without resources and implementation. We and two colleagues, for example, recently recommended a significant increase in the Department of Defense’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP) in order to meet the nation’s needs against biological threats. On April 9th, we got the first glimpse of the administration’s intentions in this area when the Biden administration released the topline numbers for its FY 2022 budget request. Some key indicators are:
- Making biological threats a defense priority: This is a significant change from even last year’s Defense budgets where CBDP faced cuts in funding in favor of hypersonic missiles, nuclear weapons, and other traditional defense initiatives as a way to offset China.
- Potential to innovate more in research and development at the intersection of public-private partnerships: If there is one lesson to be taken from Operation Warp Speed, it is that rapid advancements in science and innovation can happen through public-private partnerships driven by political will. In the post-pandemic world, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) will likely be a major player in next-generation defense technologies, programs that support reducing biological threats with global partners, refining and expanding early warning systems for biological threats, and cutting-edge medical countermeasures and therapeutics.
- Transnational threats like infectious diseases and climate change are more dominant than ever before—and they are recognized as the national security priorities they should be. This matches the reality that these trends are profoundly shaping the global strategic environment and will for decades into the future.
There is still much work to be done. We at CSR will track what follows from this guidance and update as new developments occur.