When in 2020 the Coronavirus made clear it was here to stay countries worldwide dealt with it in their own unique way. Politicians made statements on how this is a unique situation that requires different social measures. Perhaps for some, it was a warm welcome to finally be able to tell the colleague at the office to keep 6 feet distance when they were coughing or just simply stay home, instead of hearing the excuse that they had “work to do”. Or just getting people to simply wash their hands. And within weeks governments, under the guidance of medical experts, formed policy based on information about the virus that was rather unique.
For the first time in recent history in democracies, governments were imposing themselves in the personal lives of their citizens on a scale never seen before. Creating mobile apps that would trace people based on symptoms without really contemplating the privacy implications, were advertised by government organizations on national TV. Some countries panicked to such an extent that they delayed their elections like New Zealand did. Anything and everything was deemed possible to combat this coronavirus. Strangely enough, the majority of the citizens of these democratic countries went along with it. And this process sparked the interest of several actors out there. Democracy finally met its match, a virus with a case fatality rate that isn’t constant.
When the virus outbreak started in Wuhan something interesting happened. Depending on where you live the virus had a different name. The Wuhan virus, the Chinese virus, were the first names to be used. The World Health Organization (WHO) took an active stance in making sure the usage of the Wuhan or Chinese Virus as a name would be discouraged. Strangely enough, this form of political correctness was not applied to other viruses in the past such as the West Nile Virus.
In the efforts not to upset the Chinese administration too much, the focus has been put on naming the virus “correctly” by its scientific name. But also, a lot of effort was put into observing how the Chinese government combatted the virus by restricting their citizens’ freedom even further. The fear of death, random death took hold globally. This was something new, and governments struggled to handle it.
Although COVID-19 may be new, the scenario of a deadly virus wreaking havoc is not new. As a matter of fact, long before a "Bill Gates" or "World Health Organization" made it their interest, political scientists already dealt with biological warfare. These dangers were already recognized in treaties going back as far as 1874 in Brussels.
Over the course of the past 100 years, governments were reminded of the dangers of biological warfare. Both World Wars and the subsequent Cold War produced enough material (treaties and policy papers) on the dangers of biological warfare and the impact it would have on democratic governments. Even the option of a virus that “escaped” out of a lab or a random mutation in nature were taken into the risk assessments.
So, it is not something novel, a virus that spreads and wreaks havoc. How then is it possible that, despite these warnings over the past 100 years, we were not prepared for this virus outbreak?
The end of the Cold War
When the Cold War ended (some believe it never did) the world sighed in relief. The imminent threat of total annihilation due to an atomic strike was reduced and the world could relax. Globalization spurred as we started to trade even more than before, barriers and borders started to erode and for the first time in a century, more than 60 years went by without a world war.
Organizations like NATO became the focal point of politicians who saw the 2% required budget reservation of their GDP as a problem. Most member states in Europe started to reduce their spending on NATO. They believed it was no longer required. The USSR ceased to exist, and they didn’t perceive Russia or China (or anyone else) for that matter as a threat. With the USA being the last remaining superpower and the advocate of freedom and democracy, they could always fall back on the USA in time of need. This because at least 70% of the total NATO spending is being covered by the USA.
All of the member states that spend either the required 2% or more are located at the outer borders of the NATO alliance. In other words, they are the ones that are being confronted with threats on a daily basis.
Simply said, the member states on the European mainland, focused more on the economic aspect and put the security and safety aspect on a back burner. The reasons are numerous; lack of money, NATO is obsolete, the Russians will never attack, there are no other threats anymore, etc. Yugoslavia showed the world, that a federation could fall apart, and its inhabitants could be brought to violate each other’s human rights. All within a number of years. It showed that there are still international threats out there.
Yet despite Yugoslavia, Iraq, 911, Ukraine, Crimea, Taiwan, Syria, Iran, West Nile Virus, Climate Change, etc. the calls to defund NATO continued. For some reason, politicians in the EU simply do not see any threats anymore. Their logic states that treaties were signed, therefore there is no longer a threat. This in combination with the financial incentive that comes with the current trade is for them enough deterrent. For these politicians, the approximate 13,410 nuclear weapons do not pose the same threat as the 70,300 estimates on the height of the Cold War. However, the reduced number doesn’t mean anything as only a small fraction of these 13,410 nuclear weapons is needed to wipe out all human life.
The defense is no longer about content; it is all about money. And the EU and most of the European NATO members do not see the imminent threat anymore.
Warfare is ever-changing, and there are some parts of classical warfare that have been confined to the history books because we have certain technological means that render them obsolete. Despite the end of the Cold War certain aspects of that specific war are still very real and pose a daily threat. The first, and perhaps most obvious one is the nuclear threat. COVID-19 is by no means as deadly as a nuclear attack. It’s much worse as Hellman wrote in 1985: “Nuclear war is 100 percent certain, unless …”. That should scare the average person more than a coronavirus, which by comparison has a case fatality and a mortality rate that doesn’t even come close to that of a nuclear war. The risk of death is higher with a nuclear war than with the COVID-19 outbreak.
Warfare has changed at a faster pace since the end of the Cold War, specifically due to the end of open hostilities. In that sense, the Cold War, or being at war, is still applicable to today’s situation. We are still at war, but not classical war. Instead of that countries are focusing on other forms of warfare. Economic warfare, digital warfare, information warfare, undermining governments, undermining institutes and the list goes on. But unlike classical warfare, it is very difficult for Western politicians to convey this concept to their people. Every single time they fail to convey that e.g. in St. Petersburg the Russian government has a large division of staff with only one purpose, information warfare. What does this mean? What are the effects?
Yet despite this information, western democracies seem to be inapt to defend themselves against this type of warfare, just as much as they are struggling with coping on how to deal with a virus. For some reason, some of us in the West decided that we wouldn’t spend 2% on NATO and defend ourselves against information warfare, or a virus (manmade or not). Some politicians decided to wait and worry about it when it is happening.
The information warfare that is going on at the moment shows an interesting feature. Polarizing politicians become popular and get more votes than ever before. And this isn’t something we should be amazed at. One is more prone to feel an emotion with someone who advocates something with zeal and effort than a politician that uses a spin doctor to make sure he/she is using the right words. Add to that the lack of vision and political usurping over the past decades; politicians blame NATO for when something goes wrong but attribute success to themselves instead of the common good. One of the reasons BREXIT was easy to sell.
Even the fact that Brussels failed to order enough vaccines due to management, while the UK showed leadership. It doesn’t matter if you agree with the politicians in charge or not, but the fact that the UK had a clear vision and that it had to be done is much more appealing than the EU approach. Which is still unclear today.
One cannot speak of leadership at this moment in Europe, one can speak of managerialism. A prime example is the Netherlands. The Netherlands has a population of 17,2 million and only 1350 Intensive Care beds available in its hospitals. Meaning 6.4 per 100.000 and no plans to increase the number due to budgetary agreements. Apparently, the Dutch citizens do not mind that their government feels comfortable restricting them in their freedom over budgetary agreements.
While no one seems to point out that we could have been prepared for a scenario like this one. There is no clear vision, no clear enemy and it is all vague. And the 2% norm that we had for NATO, we could have utilized in our defense infrastructure to make sure our citizens get the best care possible without sacrificing our freedom and our democratic voice. Simply because we are under attack from a variety of sources, not just one. This virus just shows our weakness, and this should be a moment to remember and think about waking up and being aware of what is going on globally.
We need leaders to lead us with a clear vision, not managers maneuvering us into a grey zone. This will only increase the number of disenfranchised people out there and an increased distrust against the democratic process and democratic governments. We need to see the dangers for what they really are. COVID-19 is as bad as we want to make it as e.g. Germany did fueling fear. The number of nuclear weapons out there however is far more dangerous. And as long as they are there the following still applies: “Nuclear war is 100 percent certain, unless …”
Trump: What does the US contribute to Nato in Europe?, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-44717074
Status of World Nuclear Forces, FAS, https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/#:~:text=Despite%20progress%20in%20reducing%20Cold,warheads%20as%20of%20early%2D2020.
On the Probability of Nuclear War, Hellman, M.E., https://ee.stanford.edu/~hellman/opinion/inevitability.html
Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Joe Hasell (2020) - "Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19)". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus' [Online Resource]
St Petersburg 'troll farm' had 90 dedicated staff working to influence US election campaign, Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-us-election-donald-trump-st-petersburg-troll-farm-hillary-clinton-a8005276.html
The history of biological warfare, Frischknecht, F., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1326439/
Wenn der Staatssekretär Wissenschaftler zu „maximaler Kollaboration“ aufruft, Die Welt, https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/plus225868061/Corona-Politik-Wie-das-Innenministerium-Wissenschaftler-einspannte.html