What Constitutes “National Security?”

What constitutes “national security?” 

It’s not meant to be a trick question, but it is one that perhaps needs to be rethought for our modern world. 

This has become all the more apparent as the White House and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy work on a possible deal to avert a United States debt default. We wrote earlier why this is not really a “negotiation” (more like a hostage crisis), but if legislation emerges (still in doubt at the time of this writing), it’s going to contain spending caps. 

Everyone has already taken Social Security and Medicare off the table, so that leaves so-called discretionary spending, which can be divided into two buckets: the defense budget and everything else. 

The Republican viewpoint is that defense spending should remain unaffected while deep cuts are made in the “everything else” category. The Biden administration, which actually asked for more money for defense in its budget, still wants to protect as much of “everything else” as possible. 

Republicans make the point that we live in a dangerous world, with rising threats from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and others. This is true. And they argue that cuts to the defense department could harm “national security.”

Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota recently told The Hill, “Once they do the caps, the big fights in the appropriations process will be how money gets prioritized and allocated. For sure, the Republican priority is going to be national security” (emphasis ours). 

The phrase “national security” is often used as a synonym for the military and related functions intended to curb threats from abroad. The Department of Defense website says the agency “provides the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation’s security.” The CIA says on its website homepage that “the work we do … is vital to U.S. national security.” Then there’s the Department of Homeland Security, which basically has a synonym of “national security” in its very name. And of course the National Security Agency itself.

But if we were to define “national security” in more holistic terms as the general safety and security of the United States and its people, perhaps we should see it through a much wider aperture. The State Department is vital for our national security. So is our investment in science, the health of our children, education, our infrastructure, mitigating the dangers from the climate crisis, and on and on. 

Many Democrats are making a version of this point. “There are a lot of federal agencies that contribute directly or indirectly to national security,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed of Rhode Island in the same article from The Hill. “They’re trying to set up a zero-sum game: defense wins, domestic loses. But it doesn’t make sense because national security embraces so many different agencies.” 

While this argument is more expansive than the Republican talking points, it’s still too rooted in Washington-speak about agencies and budgets. Yes, those are currently in the crosshairs. But there is a much broader narrative that could resonate with the public to reframe the debate more permanently and may be particularly appealing for younger voters. 

For those raised during the Cold War and with memories of World War II still recent, national security could be readily envisioned in tangible military assets like aircraft carriers, missile systems, and standing armies. 

These still remain necessary aspects of the defense of the homeland and our global interests (while recognizing that the defense budget is prone to bloat and even corruption, as we did in this previous Steady piece). 

At the same time, what about national security in an age of a pandemic? Rising sea levels? And artificial intelligence? 

There are some who argue that we don’t need a strong military or that we can slash the defense budget by large percentages. But these are not mainstream positions or likely to happen. Much more concerning are those who still view national security through the antiquated lens of the 20th century. 

And recently, it’s gotten even worse. In fact, many elected officials who rage about the prospect of cuts to defense spending support actual measures that undermine our national security. 

Allowing weapons of war on our streets while obstructing commonsense gun laws undermines our national security, an effect we can measure in thousands of lost lives and the terror and trauma of mass shootings. 

Attacking marginalized groups also undermines our national security because we are weakened by division.

Promoting the “Big Lie” about stolen elections threatens our national security because it undermines our democracy. 

Banning books threatens our national security because we need a citizenry of informed critical thinkers. 

Our adversaries measure our vulnerabilities not only via our troop deployments and fighter jets. They see our political extremism, our animosities, our anger, and our selfishness and seek to exploit them. 

And frankly, they see a faction willing to blow up our economy by threatening to default on the debt unless they get their way. Talk about a threat to national security.

— Read on steady.substack.com/p/what-constitutes-national-security


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