New RD Publication - COVID-19: NATO in the Age of Pandemics
Because of its magnitude, economic dimension, and lethality, the COVID-19 crisis has raised a wide range of questions that pertain to how seismic the crisis is, how much it will shape international politics and in what ways it is going to change the way we live. These are strategic-level questions (with very practical consequences) that only arose to the same degree in the context of the Second World War.
The analysis of the impact of the current crisis on international security is not an easy exercise given that a) the crisis is not over and b) it will impact so many interconnected domains over such a long period that the number of unknowns is immense. The way and speed in which COVID-19 has already changed our lives – who would have thought in January 2020 that just three months later all of Europe’s economies would be totally paralyzed with most of their populations at home under lock-down? – are also an invitation to some prudence, or modesty, when it comes to predicting the fallout. On three occasions over the last 20 years, major events on the international scene – 9/11, the Arab Spring, and the current health crisis – have come as strategic surprises to our societies (if not to policy-makers and security experts). Not that global terrorism, political and social unrest in the MENA region or pandemics were absent from strategic foresight exercises, but the way they happened and, even more uncertainly, the type of cascading effects they provoked, were simply beyond any predictive capacity.
The topic of the day, and of this Research Paper, is more the cascading effects of the current crisis than its non-prediction. Looking back at 9/11 and the Arab Spring, and at what those events meant for NATO, one can only acknowledge that such implications could hardly have been fully comprehended in the midst of the two events.
Who would have predicted, on 12 September 2001, that what had happened the day before would inter alia lead NATO to run its largest operation ever, at more than 7,000 km away from Europe, and in a country – Afghanistan – that arguably did not appear in the national security and defence strategies of the vast majority of Allies? Ten years later, in the context of the Arab Spring, and a few months after NATO Allies adopted their New Strategic Concept, how likely was the type of operation that NATO ran in Libya, in the name of the Responsibility to Protect, and who fully grasped what this operation would mean for the overall stability of the entire MENA region (and, slightly ironically, for NATO’s Projecting Stability agenda as framed at the 2016 Warsaw Summit)?
Those uncertainties, and methodological difficulties, complicate any broad strategic stock-taking exercise in the current context; incidentally, this will have to be factored in by the newly-established NATO Reflection Group, mandated at the December 2019 London Leaders Meeting to “offer recommendations to reinforce Alliance unity, increase political consultation and coordination between Allies, and strengthen NATO’s political role”.
Against this backdrop, and with the above caveats in mind, issues such as the nature of the strategic environment, the evolution of war, our understanding of the notion of threat and security (and whose security we are talking about), as well as how all of these may impact NATO as a politico-military alliance, are to be debated. The seven chapters of this NDC Research Paper aim to shed light on some of these issues; they were produced by the researchers and visiting fellows of the NDC Research Division in the weeks that followed the outbreak of the crisis.
In the first Chapter, Andrea Gilli looks at some of the implications of the COVID-19 crisis on the international system, and identifies five main consequences, articulated around the idea that micro-parasites may favour an age of “bigness”. First, important choices lie ahead of us. Decisions taken in the domains of health, economics or the place of multilateral frameworks will likely significantly affect the years to come, although the full effects are difficult to grasp at this stage. Second, a big divide in our societies will probably emerge, including between those who have access to healthcare, digital technologies and financial resources and those who do not, with all the consequences on society and national cohesion that this divide may create. Third, the COVID-19 crisis has further emphasized the importance of technology, and the necessity to adapt those technologies to much bigger needs, to the benefit of big tech companies. Fourth, the health crisis will bring about a big recession as well as it will challenge some of the premises of globalization; the State will grow in importance as a consequence. Finally, the crisis could lead to a big retrenchment, as Western countries may have to concentrate more on domestic issues.
In the second Chapter, Thierry Tardy unpacks the possible consequences of the crisis on the very notion of security, and on NATO. With the current crisis, pandemics have moved from the category of possible contingencies to that of reality. Yet COVID-19 is a threat with no enemy, i.e. “there is no Clausewitzian ‘collision of two living forces’ or the confrontation of two opposing strategies”. Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis epitomizes both the transnational dimension of the threat and the individual as a target, leading to the “individual-centric” notion of human security, making resilience a key element of any security policy. This will impact security entities’ narratives, threat prioritization, and even thinking and policy-making about war-fighting in different ways. Insofar as NATO is concerned, the current COVID-19 risks further exacerbating the challenges that NATO is facing. The Alliance will remain indispensable as the overall international security environment deteriorates; however, issues such as internal cohesion, burden-sharing or assessment of and adaptation to the “new” threats will be further tested, in an environment where new priorities – in relation to health or simply economic recovery – will appear on national radar screens.
Third, Marc Ozawa explores Russia’s policy in the first months of the crisis, and in particular the disinformation campaign that Russia has instigated, largely targeting NATO and its member states. Those campaigns fit a recurring pattern. Not only do they “support the usual goals of discrediting NATO and undermining its cohesion”, they also aim to “advance geopolitical circumstances towards the optimal strategic outcome” of Russia’s decision-makers. In response, NATO has implemented a series of actions, through the systematic tracking of false and misleading messages, to developing counter narratives backed up by facts and data. For Ozawa, the Russian efforts at information manipulation may, however, be counterproductive. They have the potential to “backfire not only in terms of their desired propaganda effects, but also on the overall state of bilateral relations between Russia and key members of the Alliance”. As with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which had a unifying effect within NATO, “Russia’s actions in the age of the Coronavirus could have an even deeper unifying impact on NATO and ultimately on its cohesion”.
In the fourth Chapter, Chloé Berger and Cynthia Salloum analyze the possible consequences of the crisis for the MENA region, what it means for NATO and the Alliance’s Projecting Stability agenda. The “South” appears highly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic due to generally fragile health systems, but also as a result of political instability and conflicts in the region. Berger and Salloum acknowledge that NATO is not a first responder in the management of the COVID-19 crisis, and that given the nature of the vulnerabilities in the South, NATO’s role can only be limited. However, they also point to the intertwining of security developments in the South with our own situation, making the involvement of the Alliance in building the resilience of societies on our periphery indispensable. This is what Projecting Stability is supposed to be about. In practice though, the potential destabilization of the entire region as a result of the current crisis, and the transformation of the health crisis into a security crisis, may lead NATO to be involved in very different ways, and not only through capacity-building.
Fifth, Dumitru Minzarari offers an evaluation of the possible impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the nature of war. He first argues that the pandemic is likely to serve as a catalyst for escalating violence in conflicts by encouraging the choosing of risky military strategies. More fundamentally, Minzarari contends that the current crisis will trigger a shift in interstate aggression practices, moving away from “war in the physical realm” towards “war in the social realm”, of which hybrid hostilities are an example. While conventional wars aim to conquer and control territory, for Minzarari, “war in the social realm” aims at “acquiring control over the other two elements of a state’s sovereignty, which are ruling elites and population”. And because conventional wars have become too costly and ineffective, “targeting population and ruling elites” through other means is becoming the dominant model in modern interstate conflict. For Minzarari, this shift from one type of confrontation to the other is facilitated by the health crisis as it creates a conducive environment for the manipulation of citizens and the influencing of elites, in particular by Russia. If confirmed, the shift will arguably demand a fundamental review of NATO’s and member states’ defence policies, planning processes and strategies.
In the sixth Chapter, Ion Iftimie looks at the weaponization of biological agents and discusses NATO’s role as a guarantor of biodefence and deterrence. While COVID-19 is not categorized as a biological weapon, the current crisis offers a real-life scenario of what bioterrorism could lead to. In the fight against bioterrorism, the Allies will continue to play the most central role. The Alliance, however, should be “prepared (if called upon) to assist members and partner nations during growing threats in the biosphere or in the germs domain”. For Iftimie, enhancing NATO’s situational awareness, capabilities and engagements, is critical in at least four lines of effort: “first, to prevent the increase in intent and capabilities of terrorist entities; second to pursue indicators and warnings of bioterrorism activities; third to protect civilians and critical infrastructure of NATO members; and fourth to prepare for future bioterrorism attacks”. As Iftimie puts it, the post-COVID-19 crisis era “offers a good moment for lessons to be identified and learned, and for these issues to be actively considered and acted upon, for the next biological attack may be even more deadly and destabilizing”.
Finally, in the last Chapter, Howard Coombs offers a historical perspective of the current crisis, in relation to the 1918-19 Spanish Flu. A retrospective of 1918-1919 provides a glimpse of the impact of that outbreak on the various combatant forces of that time. From that, one can discern some of the choices that modern militaries must grapple with during a global pandemic. Coombs makes three sets of observations that are pertinent to the current situation, relative to force protection, operational tempo, and support to civilian authorities. At these three levels, a century ago as today, armed forces have proved simultaneously vulnerable and able to adapt, most notably to support their own civilian partners. Coombs concludes with some thoughts about the handling of future pandemics, and how NATO can adapt. For him, NATO militaries “not only need to consider the impact of illness on both military and civilian personnel”, but must also “contingency plan for how they will simultaneously conduct operations while protecting and preserving their forces for future activities”.
These seven texts do not offer an exhaustive overview of all the challenges lying ahead. They nonetheless put into perspective some key developments that may occur as a result of the current COVID-19 crisis. In doing this at least three levels of analysis appear, dealing respectively with the nature of globalization, the nature of threats and wars, and the nature of security governance, by states, non-state actors, or institutions, including NATO.
As far as globalization is concerned, the crisis may accelerate already recognized trends such as a questioning of globalization and its effects on the sovereignty of states and the well-being of their people. The nature of global supply chains, over-dependence on China in some areas of goods production, the virtues of free travel and borderless regions, or the overexploitation of natural resources (and incidentally, the increasing proximity of human populations to wild species, which explains the spread of some diseases) are but a few examples of issues that will be looked at differently in the post-crisis era. Whether this leads to a better world is uncertain, as most of the sources of instability will remain; and there is no guarantee that the current crisis will make the environment a priority of public policies, especially at a time of unprecedented economic crisis.
Second, the COVID-19 crisis will shape our own conception of threats and subsequently the nature of security policies and warfighting. Two parallel trends are possible here: on the one hand, the nature of the current threat may lead to an increased focus on human security considerations over strictly-defined defence matters. Debates on issues such as health security, resilience or civil protection will gain momentum and likely lead to policy choices – far beyond the defence and security realm – that would have been difficult to envisage prior to the crisis. On the other hand, the general destabilization of countries or regions, or the increased tensions between great powers that may result from the health crisis – scenario of a health crisis morphing into a security crisis – may lead to conflicts that will call for some sort of renewed defence (and crisis management) efforts.
Finally, how states, non-state actors and international organizations assume their responsibilities as security actors and interact with one another remains difficult to assess at this stage. What has already been observed is how the state with its highest prerogatives has been at the centre of the policy response to COVID-19, in line with a narrow understanding of the “national interest”. In this picture though, none of the great powers has appeared in a real position of leadership, and the US risks coming out of the crisis in a relatively weaker position than before. As for China, early hesitations in the management of the crisis and the fact that the virus may have originated from there, will tarnish China’s profile as a great, responsible, power; and how adjustments to the meaning of globalization will impact its position is unclear; in the medium term though, China may well benefit from the relative decline of the US, and therefore confirm its rise on the international scene. In the meantime, non-state actors have also played an important role in some domains, most notably the GAFAMs though the provision of technological tools that have enabled entire sectors to continue to operate despite the lockdown. In this context, multilateralinstitutions have not appeared as a privileged tool of governance of the crisis, and they may suffer from the strengthening of nationalist policies. In the longer run, the virtues of multilateral institutions are likely to appear in a better light, in the broad global governance domain (including health), but also in the security domain, where the transnational nature of threats is difficult to reconcile with a predominantly national response.
Overall, authors of this publication converge on one point: none of the current threats to our security is likely to be attenuated as a consequence of the crisis; pre-COVID-19 threats will continue to exist once the health crisis is over, quite a few may well be worse, and new ones will appear. The pressure this will create on the international system will be huge. This will likely make security institutions such as NATO even more indispensable, yet one effect of the crisis may also be the necessity to once again revisit the added-value of the military alliance, at a time when a lot of the threats out there call for very broad types of responses.
Download the publication to keep reading.