Coronavirus and International Security: Risks and Opportunities

Main Image Credit Courtesy of Radila / Adobe Stock.

The positive acts of compassion, creativity and solidarity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic are heartening. From incredible feats of fundraising and human ingenuity retooling factories to produce personal protective equipment, to the outpouring of support to frontline workers, doorstep ovations and reconnecting through Zoom, there is a popular narrative of the triumph of the human spirit. Clearly, there is also a terrible human cost and mounting concerns about the long-term economic impact, but there is a pervasive sense in the Global North that even if we cannot return entirely to the status quo ante, we will bounce back with a new sense of perspective and purpose, as well as renewed insight into what really matters.

As the latest report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) confirms, the picture looks somewhat different in the Global South, in what are often termed ‘fragile and conflict-affected states’. The IRC predict up to 3.2 million deaths as these countries contend with coronavirus on top of existing humanitarian vulnerabilities and political and economic fragility. If anyone is in any doubt about the risks of coronavirus exacerbating pre-existing vulnerabilities, take a look at Lebanon, where a political and economic crisis has been compounded by the pandemic, with a currency in free fall and almost half the country now living below the poverty line.

Even if our shared humanity is insufficient to spur us into collective action, naked self-interest should. As the UN Secretary General said in April, ‘In an interconnected world, none of us is safe until all of us are safe. COVID-19 respects no borders. COVID-19 anywhere is a threat to people everywhere’.

There has been a temptation in recent years to think that we can somehow ignore international threats to peace and security. One would think that the refugee crisis following the Syrian conflict or the irregular migration explosion in recent years would have dashed that thinking, but sadly not. Syria confirms the maxim that inaction is also a course of action and as such will have consequences. There is no doubt that the waves of refugees caused by the Syrian conflict directly fed into a narrative of Europe being ‘swamped’ – this not only fuelled nationalist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic sentiment across the continent, but was also exploited by a range of state and non-state actors in disinformation campaigns designed to undermine democratic systems and social cohesion. The irony of the public outpouring of support for migrant and refugee personnel working in the NHS should not be lost on anyone.

Undoubtedly, the coronavirus pandemic will negatively impact national and international security in profound ways that go way beyond public health, with increased vulnerability, hardship, resource competition, economic collapse, irregular migration, unemployment, and governance and service delivery failures, and that is saying nothing of the risks to democracy, freedom of speech, access to information, civil society and the social contract occasioned by the securitised response of many states. 

Our collective ability both to understand and address these new multifaceted security challenges is questionable, to say nothing of our willingness to do so. The failure of our collective response to the Syria tragedy, Yemen’s conflict and the rush for what is hoped is an exit in Afghanistan are indicative of a turning inward (that perhaps many may welcome) that has been evident for years, and is likely to be exacerbated by coronavirus as we seek to look after ‘our own people’ first.

Our ability to assist others is also constrained on many practical levels. International and local travel restrictions and lockdowns, which are likely to be in evidence for many months, mean the flow of information and insight required to inform policy and programmes is much diminished, as is the ability to meet partners and beneficiaries, supply equipment, conduct training and deliver capacity building and mentoring. At the same time, the global economic downturn and domestic pressures mean that foreign security and development assistance budgets that were already under strain are likely to face the prospect of resource allocations that meet priorities closer to home.

But it is not all bad. For many years, international security, stability and assistance programmes have asserted the primacy of local ownership, the co-design of support packages with local partners, training the trainer, sustainability and value for money. Too often, this has been more aspirational than a reality. With travel restrictions, to say nothing of fiscal realities, there is a renewed urgency to establish credible, equal and equitable partnerships that focus on local insights and needs but also competencies and capabilities that can be leveraged to mutual, not just donor, benefit. I recall many years ago, after the 2009 underwear bomber incident, discussing with an international partner in Yemen the need to work with local actors to understand and respond to the legitimate grievances that fuelled extremist recruitment there. I was informed, ‘as long as we have an effective visa regime and archway metal detectors at the airport, we will be fine, they will not make it to our country’. Pandemics are oblivious to such concerns, reiterating the importance of a genuine commitment to understanding and addressing the drivers of instability and insecurity in countries that will not only be ravaged by coronavirus, but whose pre-existing vulnerabilities will be exacerbated by it, with consequences for international security that go beyond the immediate public health emergency.

Accentuating the positive, it is possible to imagine the global response to coronavirus could positively impact our collective desire to end conflict. Even in the most intractable conflicts, such as in Israel and Palestine, there are glimmers of hope. As the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process stated last week, ‘The recognition of this interdependence could – if there is political will – translate into tangible progress towards resolving the conflict’. The UN Secretary General has called for a global ceasefire to enable us to battle this common threat together, a call that over 2.3 million people have signed a petition to support. In Yemen, which recorded its first coronavirus cases in April, opportunities now exist to work across the conflict lines and focus on what unites Yemenis, not divides them. As localised ceasefires take hold and fighters lay down their guns, why should we not rethink our approaches to demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration, and repurpose these individuals and units as rapid-response sanitation and public health units, much as hundreds of thousands in the UK heeded the call to assist the NHS and volunteer organisations? 

As someone who works in a sector that implements programmes of support in fragile and conflict-affected states, my plea to bilateral and multilateral partners is that we must now create and seize opportunities to support the most vulnerable, not only within our own national boundaries. Whether out of pure self-interest or a more enlightened sense of our shared humanity, the imperative is clear. As much as there are fears that the governmental response to coronavirus may retrench authoritarianism, promote securitised responses and negatively impact fundamental freedoms, it is possible to imagine a future where coronavirus spurs collective action, fosters enhanced accountability and transparency, reinforces the social contract and reminds us of our shared humanity and interdependence.

Whilst there is still considerable uncertainty in relation to the pandemic, one thing is clear: threats to international security and stability are proliferating as a result of coronavirus in a way that is inversely proportional to our perceived ability and, dare I say, willingness to respond to them. This should concern us greatly as the second and third-order effects of coronavirus, to say nothing of the impact of the pandemic on resurgent great power competition, are likely to be felt long after the curve has flattened and a modus vivendi has been reached with the virus in the West. Coronavirus presents challenges to international security, but also opportunities and a growing realisation that there is no ‘them’, only ‘us’.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Alistair Harris OBE

Associate Fellow

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