Joe Cirincione, Ploughshares Fund - National Health as National Security

Joe Cirincione, Ploughshares Fund
National Health as National Security


Bubbi was right.

My grandmother always blessed every gift she gave with a blessing – “may you wear or use it in good health” – usually followed by the observation, “good health is everything.”

I thought of this when my friend Joseph Cirincione, the president of Ploughshares Fund, told me he’d been obsessed with the need to redefine the idea of national security so it fits the next new normal.

As we live, together and singly, through the social and economic paralysis imposed by the global threat of Covid-19, as we absorb more losses of people we admired or people we knew, or loved, we become more conscious that our health is precious.

And so is national health.  Here’s the pandemic’s revelation: national health is the first element of national security.  In the pre-pandemic era, old-fashioned national security thinking was dominated by the psychology and brass hats of national defense.  But even they knew: a sick military cannot outfight a healthier one.  Health matters.

But one big message in the power of the virus is … military might is just a component in national security and so are intelligence and counter-intelligence.  But after a couple of months locked down to stop, or at least slow the spread of a killer disease, do we not see, do we not feel that the nation’s security, its safety, its stability are less dependent on the strength of a defensive wall around us than on the physical and mental health of the people inside our borders?

Not incidentally, a big part of our predicament as the hardest hit country in the world in this year of coronavirus pandemic can be directly traced to rigid, out-of-touch (and quite possibly corrupt) old-fashioned defense-dominated thinking about national security.

Remember back in March in the first weeks of frantic activity to ward off a pandemic the Trump Administration had been ignoring or downplaying since January? Remember when we went to the National Strategic Stockpile of medical equipment to counter the threat and discovered it was about as full of protective masks and gowns and ventilators and reagent chemicals as your average junior high school broom closet?  Well, the guy in charge of that was Dr. Robert Kadlec, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Kadlec had spent 30 years in the military-industrial-political complex, all of it selling the threat of biological warfare, specifically enemy attacks using smallpox and anthrax.  When he got his big job at HHS, his experts told him, the big health threat to the USA was some new kind of coronavirus coming at us in a pandemic.  Kadlec blew them off, in some cases disappearing their jobs, in some cases reassigning his critics.  Bottom line, he shifted hundreds of millions of HHS budget dollars away from preparing for an infectious pandemic and tossed it all to projects combating – you guessed it – smallpox and anthrax.

And the details of his big no-bid contract for smallpox vaccine will make you sicker than the pox.  But, the point here is …. Dr. Kadlec, sincerely or self-interestedly thought the threat to national security was an enemy using a bio-weapon when the real threat was a natural infectious disease capable of true mass destruction.



Joseph Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He is also the host of Press The Button, a weekly podcast from Ploughshares Fund dedicated to nuclear policy and national security. A new episode is available every Tuesday.

Cirincione is the author of the books Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too LateBomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons and Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats. He has worked on nuclear weapons policy in Washington for over 35 years and is considered one of the top experts in the field. He served previously as vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress, director for non-proliferation at Carnegie Endowment, and senior associate at Stimson. He worked for nine years as professional staff on the U.S. House of Representatives Committees on Armed Services and Government Operations. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former member of the International Security Advisory Board for Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. He also teaches at the Georgetown University Graduate School of Foreign Service.



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