Nuclear war was the great fear of the 20th century and our institutions were built to respond to such threats. But Covid-19 has shown the world’s defence experts that we were blind

Stephan Blank, Author

Coronavirus has changed the future of national security forever. Here’s how

Today, the biggest threats are in fact cellular. And the 21st century’s biggest threats are not ones we can defend against using standing armies or sophisticated weapons.

That’s why COVID-19 is changing the world and its major defence institutions. But whether that change can take place at the speed and scale the world needs is questionable.

That’s because even before COVID-19, the rise of ‘anti-globalism’, propelled by the meteoric popularity of extreme-right politics, threatened to unravel the world’s post-war security architecture. And the divisive political and economic trends of that shift led to the rapid weakening of institutions, alliances and agreements created to avoid diplomatic disagreements from turning into full-blown conflicts. Thais is why we are today witnessing a disjointed global response to COVID-19.

This lack of coordination against a global pandemic is one of the biggest challenges the world faces today. After all, the 21st Century’s biggest threats are systemic: and to fend them off, we need to rethink the very nature of national security.

Climate change, for instance, is now increasingly recognized by national security agencies as the pre-eminent security threat, precisely due to its capacity to act as a ‘threat amplifier’ that increases the risk of social disruption, conflict, food insecurity, economic crisis, and of course, disease outbreaks.

And while the COVID-19 is bound to do significant damage – in terms of both loss of life and socio-economic disruption – scientists have warned for years that climate change will massively increase the risk of future pandemics, by amplifying disease vectors. The coronavirus is horrifying – but it’s probably a dry-run for worse future pandemics.

To prepare for this brave and frightening new world, we need a different approach. Ironically, for instance, the global pandemic erupted during an escalating cascade of trade wars engulfing the US, EU, China and Asia, greatly radicalised by nationalist priorities, all of which massively undermined global preparedness for the global climate security threat.

While it’s entirely expected that sovereign nations must focus on their own interests, we can now see that there must be a bigger picture approach. The US-China trade dispute, for instance, had undermined critical climate action by endangering access to critical raw materials required for the clean energy transition, imported largely from China. The US and EU were exchanging draconian tariffs on each other for industrial production relating to cars, aircraft and beyond. These mutual tariffs were hurting both economies and undermining incentives within these industries to invest in sustainable innovation. At the same time, they encouraged each side to compete ferociously, risking environmentally dangerous practices.

The UK and EU Brexit break-up, which showed no signs of an affable resolution prior to the pandemic, had put at risk joint efforts to achieve the 2050 emissions-neutrality goal – which both parties had committed to. While the EU planned to speed ahead with a robust green policy framework, the UK as yet did not have anything remotely similar.

Similarly, the EU’s clean transport plan had depended on an incoherent biofuels policy which needlessly created the risk of a new trade war with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which include fastest growing economies in the world. The EU had simultaneously banned palm oil for biodiesel, labelling it unsustainable, while protecting its own dirty biofuel industries. The irony is that while scientists warn that banning palm oil would worsen deforestation (it uses far less land, fertilizer and pesticides than other oilseeds), they have also highlighted how domestic EU biofuels can still produce higher carbon emissions than petrol.

While the coronavirus pandemic has temporarily alleviated attention to these tensions, the reality is that it was the myopic preoccupation with these issues that heightened our global vulnerability to a systemic crisis in the first place.

As nations have tried to tear chunks out of each other, they each weakened their national security capabilities. They did not plan meaningfully for climate change. They did not invest sufficiently in pandemic preparedness. They did not build sufficiently robust national security partnerships to foster resilience to complex problems.

That is why as the coronavirus pandemic escalates, the task of rethinking the political and economic fundamentals of a more coherent approach to national security remains increasingly urgent. National security, federal politics and economic priorities, need to adapt holistically to the new global landscape of complex security threats.

Pre-COVID19 preoccupations with narrowly conceived conventional issues like state adversaries, non-state terror, or economic competition, are not unimportant – but if pursued without nuance, undermine the sophisticated planning, coordination and rapid response tools we need for the 21st century.

No country can realize its national security imperatives without adopting a global mindset. National sovereignty requires a new form of preparedness on an international scale which has hitherto been neglected. That, in turn, requires strengthening institutions which support cross-sector strategic cooperation. The challenges of the 21st century are fraught and deeply complex. Thus, defending our national sovereignty requires us to work cooperatively with other nations, much like we did to mitigate the nuclear threat.

The alternative scenario – extreme nationalism and protectionist economics creating a second great humanitarian disaster, is simply not an option.