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ASU experts call the coronavirus a ‘hinge event,' talk about how the country can move forward

COVID-19 global impact
November 09, 2020

The coronavirus crisis has dominated the headlines and many discussions this year about how the country, and even the world, can move forward from this devastating pandemic. According to the experts at Arizona State University's Council for Arabic and Islamic Studies and ASU’s Center on the Future of War, the answer may lie in how we label — or treat — the crisis.

Professor Souad T. Ali, founding chair of the Council for Arabic and Islamic Studies, moderated a conversation with the Center on the Future of War co-directors Peter L. Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg on Oct. 14, as they discussed how the coronavirus crisis is shaping up to be a “hinge event” in American history, requiring radical new perspectives on national and global security.

“This pandemic is forcing us to rethink and update our understanding of national security,” Ali said. “COVID-19 has profoundly interfered with the life of our nation and we must treat it as one of the most significant threats to our national security in decades. Well over 200,000 people have died from the coronavirus, as millions of jobs have been lost and entire industries devastated. Indeed, the coronavirus crisis is shaping up to be a ‘hinge event’ in American history, like the Great Depression or 9/11. It is reshaping the world politically, globally, socially and economically, and it is also revealing major structural weaknesses in American society and undermining already fraying trust in the capacity of the U.S. government to respond effectively to core security challenges.”

Hinge events, said Bergen and Rothenberg, change the way people understand the world, as well as their concept of what leaders and institutions should do to keep their country secure. They explained how the economic collapse of the Great Depression, a hinge event, caused the nation-remaking reforms of the New Deal, including Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, banking reforms, rural electrification and crop insurance.

Bergen and Rothenberg agreed that COVID-19 is a hinge event in American history, and that it will require reimagining how we approach living our lives and how we structure our society.

“The value of thinking through whether or not the COVID-19 pandemic is a hinge event is that that term focuses our attention on its significance, not just the significance of it in terms of obvious public health impact, but what this will mean in the long term,” said Rothenberg. “How will this be remembered? What substantive transformations and realizations will come out of our encounter with COVID-19?”

The pandemic will have far-ranging implications for our society, including reframing how we think about and pay for national security.

“George Kennan, in 1948, defined national security as the ability to live a normal life without the interference from a foreign power,” Bergen said. “We need to update that. The pandemic underlines the fact that there are many things that could potentially interfere with the ability of Americans to lead their normal lives, and this is one of them. We need a broader conception of what it means to be secure, which includes being free from disinformation campaigns that interfere with our electoral process. It means being secure from pandemics.”       

This new, adjusted definition of national security, according to Bergen and Rothenberg, would be national security as “the continued ability of the country to pursue the development of its internal life without serious interference, or threat of interference, from foreign powers or other diverse threats,” which acknowledges the growing threat of nonstate actors to American security.

“Rahm Emanuel once famously counseled, 'Never allow a good crisis go to waste. It's an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible,'" Bergen said. “In other words, for all the dislocation, uncertainty, stress, and suffering they bring, crises are also opportunities for reimagining and rebuilding our social order.”

Bergen and Rothenberg believe that the coronavirus hinge event will present both opportunities and threats for the future. They believe we are already beginning to see the what the postcoronavirus future could bring: a focus on addressing climate change, paid family leave as a right and Medicare for those who want to opt into it, the death of the traditional office, distance working and a better internet and affordable broadband.

What could be more likely, however, are “dystopian” reactions to the hinge event, such as further embedding of surveillance technology in our everyday lives, a worsening U.S.-China relationship, surging authoritarian movements worldwide and a continued assault on truth and knowledge.

“What is needed now, more than ever, is vision, resilience, and a willingness to learn the core lesson of this disease: We are all deeply connected at a time of great danger,” Rothenberg said.

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