Special Commentary: The Impact of COVID-19 on Civil-Military Relations

C. Anthony Pfaff
Content Type
Commentary and Analysis
The Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College
There has been a great deal of speculation regarding how the current COVID-19 pandemic could affect civil-military relations in the United States. Oona Hathaway observes that after the terrorists attacks on September 11, 2001, which killed approximately three thousand Americans, the United States “radically re-oriented” its security priorities and embarked on a two-decadelong global war on terror that cost $2.8 trillion from 2002 to 2017. Given that COVID-19 could kill more than one hundred thousand Americans, she argues that it is time to re-orient those priorities again.1 Of course, simply re-orienting security priorities by themselves will not be transformative. Nora Bensahel and David Barno, for example, argue that diminished defense budgets resulting from shrinking revenues will make less funds available to maintain expensive forward bases and legacy weapons programs. Moreover, they argue, the increased sense of vulnerability will give the National Guard and reserve components a greater priority than active forces given their more prominent role in addressing the current crisis.2 They are probably right that these things will occur. However, a smaller active force and an empowered National Guard and reserve components will not fundamentally alter the role the military plays in American society. That kind of transformation requires not only taking on new missions, but more importantly, taking on new expert knowledge. Since a profession’s status is contingent on a distinct body of expert knowledge, and the autonomy to apply that knowledge within a given jurisdiction, prioritizing human security will require developing expertise in more than the use of force. Doing so will shift the military’s focus from lethality to the prevention, or failing that, the alleviation of suffering, potentially blurring the lines between military and civilian realms. Of course, such an outcome is not inevitable and the US military has played a role in disaster response before without re-orienting its security priorities. However, the COVID-19 pandemic may prove a pivotal moment but not simply because of reduced funding for military expenditures or increased vulnerability to pandemics. Diminishing external security threats, due in some part to the effects of the virus, coupled with increasing demand to assure human well-being both in the United States and abroad, could lead to a rethinking of the military’s role in American society. This rethinking could include the redistribution of roles between the military, civilian agencies, and other organizations, which extends beyond simply decreasing funds spent on defense.
Security, Armed Forces, Pandemic, COVID-19, Civil-Military Relations
Political Geography
North America, United States of America