Novel Threats is a series of brief conversations with fellows and affiliates of the Reiss Center on Law and Security exploring the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and key national security challenges.
Lisa Monaco on Coronavirus and Looking Beyond the Horizon
September 30, 2020
Lisa Monaco is a Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Reiss Center on Law and Security and an Adjunct Professor of Law at NYU School of Law. She served as Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor to President Obama and before that as Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice, the Department’s top national security lawyer. She also worked as Chief of Staff at the FBI under Director Robert Mueller. Lisa is a partner at O’Melveny & Myers and serves as co-chair of the firm’s Data Security and Privacy group. She is also a member of the firm’s White Collar Defense and Corporate Investigations Practice Group. Lisa is a recipient of the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Service, the Justice Department’s highest award, for her work on the Enron Task Force. Lisa is also a member of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. Full bio
With COVID-19, the failures to harness government resources and implement a coherent national strategy arguably comes down to a failure in leadership, as many of our previous Novel Threats authors have contended. You have a wealth of experience leading the national security response to threats, including terrorism and past health crises such as Ebola. Is this a problem that can really be resolved by reorganizing bureaucracies, changing laws or implementing new policies? In future such crises, how can we solve for inadequate leadership?
Regardless of the cause of the crisis, there is no substitute for focused, capable and inspiring leadership. At the national level, the United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic has lacked all of the above. To be clear, any administration would have been profoundly challenged by COVID-19. But the past eight months have exposed what a lack of leadership in Washington D.C. in a global pandemic means for the United States and, frankly, for the international community.
The key elements of a coherent and effective response in a crisis—any crisis—come down to leadership. Effective leaders put organizations in place, before the crisis, informed by what experts tell them are likely to be the greatest challenges and based on lessons learned from past crises.
For instance, until last year the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) had identified emerging infectious disease and the potential for a global pandemic as one of the top worldwide threats facing the United States for seven years running. The United States established the Global Health Security Agenda in 2014 to galvanize U.S. and international support for efforts worldwide to improve global health surveillance and pandemic preparedness. And, after the Ebola epidemic in 2014-2015, the Obama Administration applied lessons learned from its own response and put in place a Global Health Security and Biodefense office within the White House—a dedicated unit within the National Security Council to act as a “smoke alarm” of sorts for emerging pandemics. Leadership also means being confident enough to admit when the approach you’ve taken needs adjustment in order to be adequate to the task. For that reason, President Obama appointed an Ebola Response Coordinator (aka Ebola Czar) in 2014 to ensure one person was making sure the government was working urgently and cohesively on the global and domestic challenges of the epidemic.
Having these sorts of structures in place—ones that provide dedicated focus on the issue before the crisis hits—can mitigate the impact of leadership failures. But, they can only do so if they are sustained, and unfortunately many of them have been actively dismantled or neglected over the past several years and even in the midst of the COVID crisis. For the first time in seven years, the IC has not publicly released the Worldwide Threat Assessment for 2020. The Trump Administration has cut funding for international pandemic prevention efforts. The White House has dismantled its pandemic office.
Ultimately, crises demand that leaders mount a policy response driven by facts and science, and one not buffeted by the political winds. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for what is needed most in a crisis: clear, credible and consistent communication, so that people know what they can do to keep themselves and their families safe and so that they can have confidence in the actions their government is taking and have the information they need to hold it accountable.
Back in early April, you wrote with former Defense Undersecretary Michèle Flournoy about how the U.S. needs to step up to lead a global COVID response, arguing that China or others might seek to fill a vacuum. Five months later, what is your assessment of how the pandemic will shape the geopolitical landscape for the future?
We warned back in April that COVID-19 could turn into a geopolitical tragedy as well as a public health tragedy. Unfortunately, that warning has been borne out and the result is an isolated United States and a missed opportunity to galvanize a global response and thereby improve the situation in the United States and the developing world. That said, I think there is an opportunity—if we seize it—to build much needed resilience into certain aspects of our geopolitical landscape over the long term.
In the short term, the United States has absented itself from global efforts to combat the virus and deliberately rejected the galvanizing role it played in past crises, including public health emergencies, and has seen its global standing plummet. Meanwhile China and Russia have continued to exploit the void left by the United States when it comes to global health security leadership. While China has tried to divert attention from its own failures and lack of transparency regarding COVID-19 by engaging in pandemic diplomacy—delivering PPE to our NATO allies—and Russia is garnering (albeit dubious) headlines for its vaccine development efforts, the United States has continued to spurn allies, leaving them unsure of our commitment and ability to mount an effective response. The United States has literally been cut off from the rest of the world, with U.S. travelers facing a ban on international travel even as countries in Europe and Asia are engaging in re-opening efforts for global travelers. In other instances, the United States has placed itself on the sidelines—as it did when it elected to leave the World Health Organization (WHO) and chose to sit out a global vaccine summit in May that included leaders of major industrialized nations pledging a unified front on vaccine development. And just recently, the United States declined to join a coalition of 156 countries in an agreement on global distribution of a vaccine.
Rather than take charge of organizing an international coalition to mount coordinated action against the devastation wrought by the pandemic (as the United States did in response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa), the United States has missed an important opportunity to help itself by helping others. Today, COVID-19 continues its rampage across the United States, passing the grim milestone recently of 200,000 deaths—more than the U.S. fatalities in every war it has been involved in since the Korean War and on pace to be the third leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease and cancer. The United States constitutes 25% of COVID fatalities while only having 4% of the world’s population. In the last 8 months, the United States has failed to convene the G20—the group of leading industrialized nations in the world—to mount a coordinated campaign of international assistance to the most vulnerable nations, and failed to increase funding to USAID to provide vitally needed humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, the devastation across the developing world tells the story of ongoing and long-lasting damage as a result of COVID-19. Cases continue to rise in India, South America, Indonesia and elsewhere, and concerns remain about how countries with more “fragile health systems” will handle increases in cases in the developing world. The comparatively low number of recorded cases in the developing world may also be indicative of lack of testing resources and contact tracing.
That’s the bad news. But perhaps the silver lining in all this, if there is one, is that there is an opportunity—if the United States will seize it—to learn from this experience and correct our course for the future. Others have warned about the dangers that the United States faces a “Suez moment,” referring to the British handling of the Suez crisis in 1956 that is viewed as the beginning of the end of its empire. While the U.S. response to COVID-19 has indeed been a failure of epic proportions, there is nonetheless an opportunity for the United States to meet the moment to move beyond the current crisis and build resilience for the future.
Among other things, COVID-19 has exposed dangerous U.S. dependencies on parts of the global supply chain. We, and our partners and allies, have faced critical shortages in much needed medical equipment and drugs. Indeed 80% of the ingredients for key drugs comes from abroad, specifically from China and India. We need to address this dangerous imbalance, to re-shore some of these efforts and bring back critical production to the United States—or at least identify those areas where simply as a matter of national and public health security we should tolerate redundancy in our manufacturing and supply chain. We need a full review of the critical gaps where we are most vulnerable, and a dedicated effort over the long term to fill those gaps and keep them filled. If we do so, we can build much needed resilience into the system for the long haul.
In the midst of the pandemic and in the face of COVID’s tragic consequences, it can be difficult to think about the horizon and how to prioritize amongst the array of threats the United States faces. Has national security been fundamentally altered by COVID-19, and if so, how? Would your advice for future Homeland Security Advisors change as a result of this pandemic?
The perennial challenge for the Homeland Security Advisor, and for that matter, the National Security Advisor, has been the ability to juggle both the urgent and the important. The vast array of threats facing the United States at any one time make this a challenge under the best of circumstances. As Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism from 2013-2017, my responsibilities ranged from terrorist threats at home and abroad, to cybersecurity, to natural disasters, to pandemic disease. The portfolio earned me the nickname Dr. Doom from President Obama because I was always coming to him with bad news.
The Homeland Security Advisor role was created after 9/11 to have one person within the White House focused 24/7 and directly responsible to the President on threats “to the homeland.” Implicit in this job description is a geographic boundary assigned to the responsibilities. But increasingly the geographic distinctions in the threats we face have fallen away; the common thread across them is that they know no borders. And COVID-19 and pandemic disease is the quintessential transnational threat. Our challenge then, is to reorient how we think about “homeland security” in general, and the threat of emerging infectious disease in particular.
Some debate has emerged in analysis of the U.S. response to the pandemic about whether COVID-19 and our response exposes the degree to which we need to treat pandemic disease as a national security issue, or whether using that frame simply reinforces the imbalances that may have contributed to inadequacies in the U.S. response and the inequalities it has exposed. Those inequalities have been revealed so disturbingly in the disparate impact the virus has had on communities of color in the United States.
I have written elsewhere that COVID-19 has exposed why we need to treat emerging infectious disease and the threat of deadly pandemics as a national security issue. Those who criticize this approach react to the tendency especially after 9/11 to put a wide range of issues under the national security umbrella, thereby implicitly downgrading all other issues. This is an understandable critique. When I urge treating pandemic disease as a national security issue, I do not believe that means we need to militarize or “securitize” the response. To the contrary, it means recognizing the magnitude of the threat and prioritizing it accordingly. It means applying the full range of tools to meet the challenge. In my mind, that means organizing ourselves to understand the nature of the threat and to place consistent focus on global health security. It means treating global health security as just that—a global endeavor. That means using tools of diplomacy, international coalitions and sustained international funding to raise the abilities of the most vulnerable countries around the world to prevent, detect and respond to pandemic disease before it reaches the United States. And it means increasing our upstream focus and resources on public health: chronic underfunding across multiple administrations has contributed to the dramatic and disturbing disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on communities of color in the United States, with these communities experiencing five times the rate of hospitalization and three times the death rate from COVID-19 that white communities have.
So the lesson here for the future is two-fold: that the geographic distinctions we used to assign to priority threats no longer apply; and addressing the disproportionate impact of those threats needs to be part of the front-end strategy.