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Seven hundred and fifty billion dollars. That’s roughly how much the United States is spending annually on weapons and war. About $35 billion of that is for nuclear weapons, which, in a best-case scenario, sit in holes in the ground and never get used.

But the most advanced and powerful military in the world didn’t deter the coronavirus. It didn’t provide us with the tools to prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. The Pentagon can’t even save its own personnel from succumbing to the virus.

Someday the COVID-19 pandemic will be seared into our memories much the way 9/11 was. By the middle of April, COVID-19 had claimed more than 10 times as many American lives as the 9/11 attacks. This year it is expected to kill more Americans than all the wars since World War II combined.

Protesters on the anniversary of the Iraq war.
Rick Reinhard
Protesters on the anniversary of the Iraq war.

If nothing else, this global catastrophe should illustrate the waste, futility, and immorality of spending so much on ways to destroy life when we are spending too little on ways to preserve it. How is it that the richest country on earth can’t seem to find the test kits, ventilators, and face masks to protect its own people? No other industrialized nation has so profoundly failed its population.

As former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said, “Is it not clear by now that wars and the arms race cannot solve today’s global problems? War is a sign of defeat, a failure of politics.” He is right. Now is the time for governments to put aside their differences and come together to address the common challenges that face all of us. Not only health security but climate change, extreme inequality, environmental degradation, and large-scale migration.

Rather than engaging in finger-pointing and blame over the COVID-19 crisis, the U. S. must respond with generosity and compassion. Instead of withdrawing from treaties and withholding funds from multilateral institutions, the administration should seek to extend and strengthen them.

Negotiated agreements like the New START and Open Skies treaties not only save money by preventing arms races and uncontrolled nuclear spending, but also save lives by making war less likely and freeing up funds for better uses. Agencies like the World Health Organization may not be perfect, but to suspend funding in the middle of a global crisis is like denying lifeboats to passengers on a sinking ship.

We should also use this opportunity to examine the violence wrought by our broad economic sanctions. The current crisis illustrates how financial and trade sanctions have prevented innocent civilians in Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, and other countries from getting food, medical equipment, and basic health supplies. And the humanitarian impact of our sanctions is not limited to times of global pandemic. U.S. sanctions have caused suffering and deprivation for millions of people around the globe without undermining—and sometimes even strengthening—repressive regimes.

Rather than engaging in finger-pointing and blame over the COVID-19 crisis, the U. S. must respond with generosity and compassion.

Many U.S. politicians who oppose military operations view economic sanctions as a kinder, gentler alternative, but it’s time to acknowledge that these attempts to bully countries into submission are neither ethical nor effective. FCNL’s stand on sanctions is clear. All economic sanctions must be carefully calibrated to minimize their impact on innocent civilians.

After the end of the Cold War, the world expected to see a “peace dividend” from the de-escalation of superpower tensions. It was a time for Americans to reflect on what kind of power and presence they wanted their country to have around the world, and what the new U.S. global role would be.

That deep introspection never happened, and when we awoke to planes hitting the twin towers that sunny September morning in 2001, our immediate reaction was to treat it as a war.

Nearly 20 years later, we are fighting never-ending, ever-expanding, and increasingly expensive wars across the globe. We fight enemies we have not publicly named and we do it largely out of sight of the American public.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it plain that our current path is unsustainable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it plain that our current path is unsustainable. We must make a choice. We can unite in recognition of our common humanity, or we can ratchet up the threats and rivalries.

We can reorient our budget to address the most serious challenges to the health and safety of people at home and around the world, or we can continue providing a blank check for limitless wars.

No doubt we’ll hear arguments that defense spending stimulates jobs and growth, and that cutting arms purchases would hurt the economy. But it’s worth remembering that investments in the defense sector produce far fewer jobs than investments in other sectors, such as health and education. A single year of nuclear spending would pay for 300,000 intensive care unit beds, 35,000 ventilators, and the salaries of 75,000 doctors.

The choice is between a world of violence and war, and a world of human security. It ought to be an easy choice to make.

Diana Ohlbaum, Senior Strategist and Legislative Director for Foreign Policy

Diana Ohlbaum

Senior Strategist and Legislative Director for Foreign Policy
Diana Ohlbaum directs FCNL’s foreign policy lobbying team and leads an effort to replace the current U.S. foreign policy paradigm of military domination and national superiority with a more ethical and effective one based on cooperation and mutual respect.

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