Commentary: What a container ship stranded in the Suez Canal showed us about globalization

Elizabeth Shackelford - Chicago Tribune

The Ever Given had been stuck in Suez sand for nearly a week when my neighbor asked if we were sure the giant container ship hadn’t been sabotaged. It seemed too globally consequential to have been caused by accident, he thought. That it was ultimately freed by a lucky alignment of sun and moon didn’t instill confidence in the global order on which we all rely.

My neighbor is neither conspiracy theorist nor foreign policy expert. He’s a carpenter, and he had a point. Who could blame ordinary Americans for assuming that, when something bad happens on this scale, it must have been an attack?

A similar sentiment fed rumors last year that the coronavirus was an intentional Chinese ploy. Americans are conditioned to imagine threats as hostile and believe a big military will keep us safe. Our armed forces stand ready for a conventional fight. But as this past year demonstrated, we are not nearly as prepared to respond to the unconventional threats that emerge in our deeply intertwined world. Most Americans don’t realize that we have underinvested in the very tools that would help us survive them better.

Thanks to globalization, the world is full of opportunity, but also threats that cannot be overcome by military might. Global events have serious impacts on our democratic institutions, economy and health. We are vulnerable to extreme weather, environmental damage, disease and cyberattacks. Even the hostile threats we face today are unlikely to be defeated by the traditional military capabilities we prize. Just consider Russia’s hacking of U.S. federal agencies and its widespread COVID-19 disinformation campaign last year.

While our military has been fighting a global war on terror and countering China’s aggression in the South China Sea, our citizens fight disinformation, global price fluctuations, access to imported medicines and jobs moved overseas. Investments in our domestic capacity to face these challenges have dropped. Education access and quality have declined while health care costs and inequity have risen. Our communities lack the resilience and skills they need to thrive in the face of what America cannot control.

Americans can better navigate globalization’s challenges if we reassess our understanding of national security risks and apply our resources accordingly.

To do this, two areas should be prioritized.

First, we need to invest in America’s economic resilience, so Americans can compete with workers, technology and entrepreneurs worldwide. This same resilience will help Americans safely weather global disruptions.

Second, we must work closer with our allies to address nonmilitary threats together. These two initiatives combined will not only help American families overcome global challenges but will help democracies across the world do the same.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which he calls the American Jobs Plan, takes on the need to invest in our economic resilience at home by focusing on both physical and human infrastructure. It will invest in research and development, workforce development and manufacturing, all necessary to level the global playing field on which we compete.

Many have balked at the $2.3 trillion price tag, but Americans spent nearly as much on the Iraq War with nothing to show for it. We are quick to scrutinize spending on ourselves but far less likely to scrutinize how military spending delivers for our people. At over $700 billion a year, the military budget still accounts for over half of our nation’s discretionary budget, exceeding federal spending on education, health, transportation, civilian foreign affairs, and science and technology combined. This disparity has left us playing catch-up in areas that affect American citizens every day.

While investing at home is essential, America shouldn’t seek to inoculate itself from global mishaps alone. We work with our allies on joint military capabilities. We could work closer with them in joint economic capabilities as well. President Biden’s plan to rebuild our alliances can reinforce this effort. Biden’s executive order to review supply chain vulnerabilities provides an opportunity to address these risks with help from our friends. Such an approach would combine our economic interests with our commitment to democracy by building economic partnerships with allies we can trust.

Our values are our comparative advantage over authoritarian China. Working economically with allies who share these values is a more promising approach to combating China’s rising influence than any amount of military hardware. It could reinforce our economic security while also strengthening the position of democracy in a world where autocracy is a growing threat.

Enhancing these partnerships in nonmilitary areas requires enhancing our civilian foreign affairs capabilities. This is particularly important after an administration that took pains to undermine the role of diplomacy and development.

These tools are how we engage on everything from international trade and treaties to democracy promotion and global health, but their budget is only 7% of what we spend on military defense. If we prioritized civilian foreign affairs and resourced it better, we could help each other not only in addressing global risks, such as disinformation and cyberattacks, but also in finding domestic solutions for challenges that we all share at home.

A military defense can’t insulate us from the risks of globalization, but reliable partners along with a more competitive domestic economy can. It’s time we started investing more in both.

Elizabeth Shackelford

Chicago Tribune

Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was a U.S. diplomat until December 2017 and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age,” published in May 2020.

Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was a U.S. diplomat until December 2017 and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age,” published in May 2020.

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