Why the “Gated Community” Mindset on National Security is Here to Stay
Like it or not, new limits on all things global aren’t going away anytime soon
The news this week that the Biden administration will not lift most international travel restrictions because of the COVID-19 Delta variants and rising numbers of cases inside of the United States disappointed some people who were hoping things were trending back to normal.
The decision represents caution in the face of new uncertainties. It also is an indication that the long-term trend of a “gated community” or bunker mentality about America’s relationship with the world is likely to remain and perhaps deepen as a feature in U.S. foreign policy and international relations.
A year and a half into the COVID-19 crisis, several factors prompted America to keep its borders closed to travel from certain parts of the world: uncertainties about the COVID-19 variants, large pockets of unvaccinated Americans still vulnerable to the pandemic, the lack of comprehensive testing and tracing, and insufficient international cooperation on all aspects of the pandemic.
Over the past decade, I’ve taken to call the most recent trend to look inward, place limits on travel and immigration, put more emphasis on economic nationalism, and pull back from direct military involvement and sustained diplomacy in overseas conflicts a “gated community” mindset. This mindset is more nationalist and less internationalist in nature, but is not necessarily isolationist. I’m not an advocate for this view, but as an analyst, the trendlines are clear: there is a strong trend to pullback from the troubles of the world and take care of our own.
There’s nothing new about this way of thinking – the impulse to hunker down in tough times is human and has its roots back to the earliest days of civilization. In many ways, the latest period of globalization of the past thirty years starting in the early 1990s, including an explosion of international commerce and advances in technology and media that made the world more interconnected than ever before, was anomalous to most periods of history.
The “gated community” mindset began during the Obama administration, which took some steps to pull back from U.S. efforts to help countries like Iraq to reshape their own societies and deported more than 3 million immigrants from America. Obama’s failure to get support for his proposed trade deal in Asia as part of his border effort to compete with China was a sign of a lack of public support for the type of international economic engagement that defined much of the two decades after the end of the Cold War. Trump put the “gated community” mindset on steroids, literally starting to build a wall on America’s southern border, imposing strict restrictions on immigration, and ripping up and renegotiating trade deals in a new form of economic nationalism.
It is still early in the Biden administration and too soon to gauge its overall posture, but there are signs that the “gated community” mindset is likely here to stay for a while. Take a quick look around the world, and it’s a mindset that has gone global, with countries throwing up more barriers to the world on several fronts. In today’s America, the “gated community” mindset has three key features:
1. A lack of will and consensus on immigration. In America, the failure to implement comprehensive immigration reform is in large part due to a lack of political will and the divisive nature of the debate, with different voices from across the spectrum offering measures that divide rather than unify the country. This is an issue that’s not going to fade away, given that trends in climate change and conflicts around the world will likely lead even more people to cross borders. The Biden administration hasn’t yet clearly indicated how it will approach this important issue, and some of its early moves have given mixed signals.
2. Support for economic nationalism. The world has been going through a process of selective de-globalization for several years now, driven by rising economic populism on the right and left and the inequalities that have emerged in many open societies like America. In addition, some legitimate concerns about supply chain security, particularly involving key products like semiconductor chips, are prompting a more national approach that turns away from the notion of comparative advantage, even among more trusted democratic countries. Economic nationalism on its own isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but how it is defined and whether it produces inclusive prosperity are key questions. The Biden administration is seeking to advance a new type of economic nationalism that aims to invest in America’s ability to compete in the world.
3. Indifference to resolving conflicts and eliminating threats overseas. Another key feature of the gated community mindset is pulling back from costly efforts to address threats overseas with military operations and sustained diplomatic engagement. The post-9/11 mindset of “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here” is dead and gone in America, killed by the shortcomings of its own engagements in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and the failures of unrealistic efforts like nationwide counterinsurgency efforts in complicated societies. The Biden administration’s moves in places like Afghanistan and Iraq reflect a broadly shared sense that America needs to take care of its own problems, but there are always risks associated with the uncertainties that could arise when it pulls back.
People retreat to gated communities when there is widespread distrust and fear, the defining sentiment of our new era. There is a logic to it that is hard to avoid.
But here’s the rub: many of the biggest challenges the United States faces today are transnational in nature and know no borders, whether it’s the pandemic, climate change, cybersecurity, and the global energy system. The impulse to “take care of our own” that’s at the heart of a gated community mindset runs against the grain of what’s needed to solve these greatest of problems in the world: international cooperation.
The Biden administration seems to recognize this. The first six months of Biden’s foreign policy have involved a lot of diplomatic effort to rebuild cooperation with trusted partners in Europe and Asia, and that’s a step in the right direction. But it’s too soon to tell whether the action plan in development will produce tangible results on the key transnational issues, especially the COVID-19 crisis.
A key part of the challenge in navigating this gated community impulse is figuring out the best way to advance a sense of shared national purpose and define the common good in a way that appeals to broad constituencies at home. Countries that are more unified internally tend to be more confident in their ability to engage the world in ways that help solve problems at home and abroad.
The right pathway forward is defining a more confident and inclusive nationalism that keeps America open to the world and the cooperation needed to address the biggest challenges, but doing it in a way that protects and unifies the American people. Admittedly, that’s a tall order these days.