Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in December 2019, researchers and experts have been discussing its impact on all spheres of life – economic, political, cultural, and social and security. As a result, the post-Covid-19 world has already become a familiar term and gained wider currency all over the world in referring to the potential changes due to the pandemic.
National security priorities are undoubtedly set to undergo drastic changes, especially as Covid-19 has exposed the weaknesses of health systems in many developed countries. This is why the post-Covid-19 period may witness a reconsideration of the concept of national security and a greater focus on holistic human security. This would include the security of individuals, society and the state, and give top priority to health security.
Evolution of national security in recent decades:
To understand the possible impact of Covid-19 on the concept and policies related to national security, it is worth looking at how thinking about the concept has evolved in recent decades. The concept’s main theories and approaches have all undergone significant change in recent times.
1- The pragmatic (conventional) approach: This approach prevailed during the Cold War era and focused on military security as the cornerstone of international relations. In this view international politics is seen as a power struggle between superpowers seeking to achieve their national interests by asserting their sovereignty and securing their territorial integrity.
Proponents of this approach consider the state as the pivot on which the entire mechanism of national security operates. Therefore, the state should be militarily stronger than its rivals, build up its military capabilities and assert its sovereignty or at least achieve a military power balance with other states. However, critics say this approach ignores the transformations in the concept of security. It, therefore, doesn’t help as a framework for analysis in studying the emerging or prolonged conflicts seen in today’s world.
2- Strategic economic approach: This approach had emerged strongly in the aftermath of the 6th of October 1973 war – also called the Yom Kippur War – when the protection of vital resources became an integral part of the theory of national security in a European context and American understanding in particular. At that stage, the focus was on economic security as a goal for the state in achieving self-sufficiency and not succumbing to foreign economic pressure of any sort. Economic sovereignty had been the core of national security. In this approach, development and security had become two sides of the same coin.
However, this approach has been subjected to criticism because it ignores important dimensions of national security. The economic dimension might be an important aspect of security, but not the main one: its relative significance is determined by the situation prevailing in the society and the dangers it faces. This approach has been met with strong opposition from developing countries which have meager economic resources and face demand pressure from their populations, in addition to exorbitant expenditure needed to achieve development.
2- Integrative approach: This adopts a comprehensive view of the nature of threats to a nation’s security by including all the potential threats to security. It does not only focus on the state but also individuals, society and the internal or external threats facing them. This approach encompasses threats from terrorist groups and economic, environmental and ideological threats, as well as natural disasters. When these threats transcend borders, they become a common threat to international peace and security.
This approach emphasizes the importance of enhancing international cooperation because the effects of such threats are not limited to a particular state or region. The Covid-19 outbreak, which started in China and then spread worldwide to acquire global dimensions, is a case in point.
Covid-19 as a threat to global security
The catastrophic impact of Covid-19 on all aspects of life across the globe shows that the pandemic is a threat to security at national and international levels. Its threat is being witnessed at various levels:
1- Human security: The rising death toll and the number of infections around the world, especially in Europe and the United States, has plunged the international community into an unprecedented disaster. The rapid spread of the pandemic and the extent of the resulting human loss pose an existential challenge, not only to the international system but to all humanity. The difficulties in finding a vaccine or cure, which might take at least a year, explains the scale of this threat. It also suggests that the pandemic will continue to spread and threaten the health of millions around the world.
2- Social security: Covid-19 poses a growing threat to social security in terms of job losses and high unemployment rates in many countries, and a decline in the level of services provided to individuals in some countries as a result of lockdowns. All this would lead to resentment which may evolve into protest movements that threaten social security and stability.
There is also the possibility that victims of the pandemic, who have lost their jobs or have not received the necessary support and healthcare, may find themselves forced to engage in illegal activities such as robbery and looting. The National Interest magazine, in a study published in March, said: “America is facing a potentially perfect economic storm that could plunge the nation into a recession just as the coronavirus begins to manifest its deadly effects […]. The coronavirus and the near-term social disruption it could cause for millions of Americans is likely going to be serious and severe.”
The Arab region too will not be immune to social unrest caused by this pandemic, which is already leading to heavy job losses and forcing the private sector in many Arab countries to lay off a large number of workers. Salaries and benefits may have to be reduced in some cases. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) predicts that Covid-19 may lead to the loss of more than 1.7 million jobs in Arab countries with the unemployment rate increasing by 1.2 percentage points.
ESCWA also expects that the GDP of the Arab states will experience a decline by at least $42 billion this year due to the decline in oil prices and the impact of Covid-19. In its latest report released on April 1, ESCWA said that 8.3 million people in the Arab region will fall into poverty in 2020 due to Covid-19, and a total of 101.4 million people in the region would be classified as poor, and 52 million as undernourished. The report adds that the consequences will be particularly severe on vulnerable groups, especially women and young adults, and those working in the informal sector with no access to social protection and unemployment insurance.
Covid-19 will also affect food security in many Arab countries because of their heavy dependence on food imports. The prospect of rising unemployment and lack of social services pose a potential threat to security in Arab countries. If not tackled properly, socio-economic depravation could create a fertile ground for extremism as the region has experienced in recent times.
3- Collective security: Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of the current system of collective international security and its inability to deal with unconventional threats such as pandemics. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) is indeed playing a vital role in tackling the pandemic, there is no unified international will to confront the outbreak. Instead of cooperating and developing a proactive global response, differences have emerged between major countries over who bears responsibility for spreading the virus and how best to take coordinated action to suppress it.
The ways in which countries have responded to this pandemic has revealed the flaws of a collective international security system. Many countries have continued to focus on traditional sources of threats such as armed conflicts while almost completely ignoring new sources of invisible threats such as cross-border pandemics. A pandemic, as we now know, can claim many more human lives and cause material losses than conventional wars.
Impact on national security policies
As the catastrophic effects of Covid-19 pandemic continue to unfold across the world, especially regarding human and social security, the coming period may see a shift in the nature of national and international security policies. This is likely to manifest differently at different levels:
1- A renewed focus on health security: This would be the most important requirement for achieving comprehensive national security. It means increasing investment in scientific research to invent new vaccines and medicines for different diseases, and raising the budget for the healthcare sector, especially to improve existing hospitals and building new ones. Developing the entire health sector would be at the heart of the comprehensive national security of states and societies.
Going forward, countries are also expected to pay more attention to fighting viruses and pandemics as they are among the most serious threats to national security. The American Foreign Affairs magazine recently published an article, “Pandemic Disease is a Threat to National Security; Washington Should Treat it Like One,” which narrates the serious threat pandemics pose to the security of states and societies.
Covid-19 has revived the concept of health security and inspired a new focus on the field among national security experts and researchers. Countries most, affected such as the US and European nations, are expected to reconsider their health security policies in the future to avoid a recurrence of a disaster of this scale. Some believe that this pandemic will force these countries to put health security at the same footing as technology and defense.
2– Collective international security priorities: This change, and a greater focus on human and social security, will be the outcome of the Covid-19 experience. This crisis will reaffirm the importance of international solidarity in dealing with crises and humanitarian disasters, especially cross-border pandemics. Also, the historic focus on traditional security and military concepts, such as military alliances, arms race, and intercontinental strategic missiles, is likely to decline, even if temporarily. It has become evident that ventilators are way more important than the huge weapons arsenals most of the major powers have.
In the aftermath of Covid-19, there is likely to be an increased interest in comprehensive global human security. This would mean a shift to a wider umbrella for national security that is not limited to the state. Covid-19 pandemic has proved that traditional national security, which primarily focuses on the state, no longer guarantees the security of individuals. Real security is centered on human beings because freeing them from fear is the end objective. When individuals lose their sense of security, national security may ultimately be undermined.
3- New roles for security and defense establishments: This would ensure that the functions of these institutions are not limited to addressing conventional threats, but would also include active participation in tackling new threats to human security. In this time of Covid-19, military and police establishments have assumed a vital role in ensuring human security and shifted their function from the management of wars and conflicts to safeguarding individuals and societies.
Countries, where civil institutions have failed to tackle Covid-19, have sought the help of their armed forces in fighting the pandemic. Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia have used their armed forces to help tackle the virus. Also, the European Union militaries have become a spearhead in the fight against the virus. France has called on its armed forces to enforce a state of emergency and deployed them in the affected areas. President Emmanuel Macron has announced the setting up of a military field hospital in Alsace region, bordering Germany. Spain has also used its military to enforce a curfew. Swiss authorities have mobilized 8,000 soldiers to help the government in case of an outbreak. In Italy, which is the hardest hit by the virus so far, the government has deployed the armed forces to impose isolation in areas infected by Covid-19.
The increasing use of militaries in fighting the pandemic is mainly due to their enormous capabilities. They are trained to operate in a world of bio-weapons and have the heavy equipment and personal protective gear necessary in an infected environment. They have huge medical establishments and strong research capabilities that can be applied to tactical treatments and a search for vaccines and palliative drugs. Militaries also have logistical abilities to move manpower, equipment and even hospitals across the globe within days or even hours. With this know-how, they can play a vital role in the fight against deadly pandemics.
4– Measuring the strength of the state: In a traditional environment, the overall strength of the state is measured in the military, economic and security terms. However, Covid-19 has added new criteria, a strong system that ensures good health for the population, a good public health infrastructure, and advanced scientific research capabilities. The health of the population will be a fundamental criterion for measuring the strength of a state, its position and influence in the international system. Perhaps, the ongoing race between major powers for the production of medical supplies, such as protective face masks, ventilators, testing kits, vaccines, and other necessities, confirms this eventuality.
5- Renewed interest in cyber-security: In light of social isolation imposed by many countries to protect people from infection, a large number of government bodies, institutions, and companies have opted to continue their work remotely using telecommunication devices. Educational institutions have chosen to work through digital and e-learning platforms. Given this huge dependence on the Internet in almost every activity, the risks and disruptive potentiality of cyber-crimes are expected to rise.
There is concern that the increasing reliance on digital systems and virtual platforms to do business remotely may create technical loopholes whereby hackers can launch cyber-attacks on some institutions and bring them to a halt. It is worth noting that there has already been an attempt to breach the WHO system at the beginning of March 2020.
In addition to the growing fear of an increase in cyber-crimes targeting bank accounts, and electronic spying on financial and business companies, which indicate an escalation of threats to national security of many countries in the next phase, it will also be necessary to strengthen digital and electronic security to ensure the smooth remote running of businesses.
Preparing for new security challenges:
Given the impact of Covid-19, the international community should act seriously and effectively to fight this deadly pandemic which threatens the entire world. It requires work on the following strategies:
1- Reconsideration of security and defense policies to take into account the Covid-19-induced changes. Before Covid-19, the focus was on armament issues relating to nuclear deterrence, nuclear non-proliferation, organized crime, terrorism, and cross-border radical organizations as these have been the primary sources of threat in recent decades. However, in a post-Covid-19 world, the focus should be on building advanced medical systems capable of dealing with cross-border pandemics and enhancing the health security of individuals and societies.
2– Greater focus on international crisis and disaster management: This is critical because crises and disasters threaten national and international security, especially given the fact that Covid-19 has exposed a severe lack of proactive international response to unexpected crises.
3- Reconsideration of state’s role in overseeing basic services: While Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the helplessness, even in advanced countries, over the inability to provide the necessary healthcare services, many governments have largely managed to mitigate and contain the spread of the virus in their territories. The comparatively successful governments have invested in building advanced health and protective systems that have enabled them to achieve strong health security for their people.
They have even become active players in the fight against the global spread of the pandemic. Some examples of these countries include China which has hastened to provide aids to Italy, Spain, and Serbia. The UAE which has played an effective role by assisting many countries around the world while also targeting urgent aid to vulnerable populations in the Middle East. Therefore, on the basis of some of the most effective national responses, the post-Covid-19 stage may witness a shift toward enhancing the state’s role in formulating health security policies to ensure a proactive response to such pandemics.
Although Covid-19 is not yet over, it has exposed the shortcomings in the concept and idea of security that has prevailed for decades. It has revived the need to invest in human security in its comprehensive sense which aligns with peoples’ basic needs, particularly health and food security. The pandemic has proved that the hundreds of billions spent by major global powers on developing modern weapons could have been money well spent if a portion of that had been directed toward the improvement of health systems. Such an approach would have been more helpful in fighting this pandemic, which continues to threaten the lives of millions across the world.
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