America last overhauled its national security paradigm in the wake of 9/11. In the months and years that followed the attacks, government officials attempted to eradicate the threat of terrorism, fundamentally transforming both domestic and international policy for the worse. Nearly 20 years later, Americans still live with the consequences of those choices, from unending warfare to increasing global instability to ever diminishing U.S. influence.
The destruction caused by COVID-19 could, and should, force the United States finally to move out of 9/11’s shadow. Worryingly, however, Washington’s early choices in responding to the novel coronavirus echo many of the overreaching policies of the post-9/11 era.
But policy responses are not foreordained. A global war on terrorism wasn’t an inevitable consequence of the 9/11 attacks, and the coronavirus response has just begun. If this is truly to become the closing salvo to the post-9/11 era, and the start of a new security paradigm, policymakers must remember the lessons of the chapter they wish to close so they do not repeat them.
Americans are acutely aware of the post-9/11 abuses committed in the name of keeping them safe. Public weariness with U.S. foreign policy’s indefinite pursuit of indeterminate goals crosses party lines and spans generational divides. The veterans who experienced the consequences of adventurism firsthand are turning against it too; a majority now wish the United States were less engaged in military conflicts overseas.
Many in the foreign–policy community have also called for a reckoning. The massive post-9/11 security apparatus failed to protect the public from the coronavirus outbreak, and tragic images of bodies packed in freezer trucks and buried in mass graves in New York make stark the inadequacy of Washington’s shortsighted policy choices.