There’s a five-year-old video making the rounds in which Bill Gates warns about the next big catastrophe. Of course, the next big catastrophe looks like the coronavirus. But what did Bill Gates and various other doom-sayers warn about that hasn’t happened (and probably won’t happen)? Make enough predictions and some of them will come true.

In any event, how prepared was the U.S. for the current crisis? A team assembled under the aegis of Johns Hopkins University studied the problem last year. The report is here.

Scroll down to the ranking of countries by estimated level of preparedness. The U.S. is at the top of the list. Nevertheless, the authors of the study concluded that overall preparedness was weak; the U.S. simply looked like the best prepared among generally ill-prepared countries.

A big gap in such assessments, and in thinking generally about preparedness, is the ability of a country’s private sector (the actual producers of products and services) to respond to and rebound from major shocks. The U.S. certainly ranks high (if not highest) on that score.

The Old Normal

The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Lahore might lead the impressionable to conclude that the world is falling apart. I submit that terrorist attacks shock because they occur against a backdrop of relative peacefulness. Yes, there are wars here and there, but they are mere skirmishes — albeit with tragic consequences for many — compared with what happened in the twentieth century.

From 1914 to 1973 — a span of two generations — World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the genocides presided over by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao produced casualties on a scale never attained before or since.  Despite subsequent events — the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Gulf War, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dozens of terror attacks, large and small in scale — the world today is more quiescent than it has been in more than a century.

But the problem with history is that the future isn’t part of it. It is fatuous to suggest, as some have, that the better angels of our nature have conquered violence on a twentieth-century scale. That was the prevailing view in Europe for several years before the outbreak of World War I.

Violence is in fact an essential, ineradicable component of human nature. There will always be armed conflict, and sometimes it will involve the forces of many nations. The proximate causes and timing of war are unpredictable. Conciliatory gestures can be just as provocative as saber-rattling; the former can be taken as as sign of weakness and unpreparedness, the latter as a sign of resolve and preparedness.

If history holds any lesson regarding war, it is this one: Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This is a lesson that American leftists seem dead set on ignoring.

Delusions of Preparedness

The current push to trim the defense budget is foolish on two counts. First, the huge deficits projected for the federal government arise mainly from commitments to continue and expand three major entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (Obamacare represents an expansion of all three). Second, the defense budget should be geared to external threats, not to the federal government’s fiscal problems. Cutting the defense budget to fund profligate spending on “social services” is like preparing for a street brawl by spending money on a new suit instead of brass knuckles.

There is, nevertheless, a tendency in political-punditry circles to bemoan the amounts spent on defense. Anti-defense zealots get it into their heads that the government spends “too much” on defense — period. What they mean, of course, is that the government spends money to execute wars of which they disapprove, and to prepare for wars that they would rather not think about. There is also the fear — now that the looming bankruptcy of entitlement programs cannot be denied — that money will be taken from “social services” rather than defense.

On that score, it is well to remember the words of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor:

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditures on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.

Rather than take money from defense, our “leaders” should be thinking about how to spend more on defense. Nothing is more inviting to an aggressor than his intended victim’s lack of preparedness.

A common mistake, even among students of war, is to assume that there will be time to mobilize American’s economic engine, as in World War II. But that was before the advent of nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, and the ability of terrorists and cyber-warriors to create economic and military chaos. I submit that America’s strength vis-a-vis its actual and potential enemies now requires the following:

1. secured/hardened/redundant telecommunications (including internet), transportation, and energy networks

2. effective strategic and tactical intelligence (necessarily more intrusive than desired by civil-liberties purists)

3. quick response (at home and abroad) to tactical intelligence via special operations units (including some that can respond in kind to cyber-attacks)

4. a large “standing army,” with a broad range of strategic and conventional forces that are fully manned and trained, well-maintained and supplied, and technologically advanced — to deter and, as necessary, fight hostile regimes that pose threats to Americans and their overseas interests.

It is my sense that our current and planned defenses do not measure up to those requirements. The talk of cutting the defense budget should be scuttled, as should the “social services” that are the real cause of the government’s fiscal problems.