Consequences of COVID-19 and their Implications for Disarmament

Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi, former Austrian Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva

The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing the inadequacy of decades old concepts pretending to be indispensable for both national and international security. The virus does not respect any borders, political views, economic strength or ambition to be superior. As in previous pandemics death is the big equalizer.

The pandemic has underlined that security, be it on national or international scale, always is human security, the security of people living in a certain state or more broadly on our globe. The fallacy of juxtaposing human and national security has become evident.

Thomas Hajnoczi presents at the Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare Conference in Vienna in October 2019. Credit: Mahmoud | BMEIA, 2019.
Thomas Hajnoczi presents at the Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare Conference in Vienna in October 2019. Credit: Mahmoud | BMEIA, 2019.

Human beings face many different dangers. Climate change and natural catastrophes rank high among them. Only one of them, and certainly not the most likely one, is a military attack by another state. While governments should strive to prepare for all possible challenges to the security of their populations, hundreds of thousands of people are now paying the price for a disproportionate concentration on the military dimension. COVID-19 shows that more often than not arms cannot buy security. And certainly not the most costly ones, nuclear weapons. According to figures publicly available, in 2019 alone US$73 billion have been spent on nuclear weapons worldwide. Only a tiny fraction of this spent on the health care sector would have made our societies better prepared and more resilient to coronavirus. According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), for the UK’s share of nuclear weapons-related expenditure 100,000 intensive care unit beds, 30,000 ventilators, 50,000 nurses and 40,000 doctors could have been financed.

In a world suffering from COVID-19 it is beyond any doubt that investment in health should be a priority. Furthermore, the trillions of dollars necessary for shoring up severely hit economies and sustaining millions of jobless people will have to be repaid over the next years. So public expenditure will have to be cut in some sectors. This makes spending billions on arms programs every year a logical candidate. The ongoing modernisation programs of nuclear weapons alone reaches trillions of dollars over the next years. Insistence on a certain budget percentage for defence or continuing the qualitative arms race seem out of touch with the post-COVID reality. It remains to be seen whether rationality will prevail here.

The lack of rationality of political leaders has contributed to making COVID-19 such a pandemic. Academia and the World Health Organization (WHO) have warned already for years that a new zoonotic disease or a new strain of a known one will spread sooner or later. In spite of those exhortations to prepare better for a possible pandemic, the preparations undertaken were at best insufficient. An international organization always depends on the cooperation of its member states starting from receiving relevant data speedily to sending missions. A late response will delay and hamper the effective addressing of a pandemic. An international Lessons Learned exercise after COVID-19 will be essential and will need reinforced international cooperation to be better prepared for the next potential pandemic. An important aspect should be focussing on improved international cooperation in early detection of a dangerous virus and its spread. A possible area to study might be setting up an international monitoring system regarding surveillance of viruses and other biological agents.

A highly successful example of an international organization achieving just that is to be found in the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). The organisation has built up its International Monitoring System (IMS) providing a global surveillance system regarding nuclear tests. The IMS is complemented by a global communications structure and the International Data Center ensuring the rapid dissemination of relevant information to all States Parties. This phenomenal achievement has proved to be helpful beyond its main function, detecting nuclear tests, in the speedy identification of earthquakes leading to the prevention of tsunamis and the provision of rapid assistance.  An approach modelled on the CTBTO for viruses might help to depoliticize the issue and allow for far greater resilience through international cooperation.

It is a trait of human nature that we do not like to stand out by providing bad news on issues in our areas of responsibility. A well-rehearsed procedure to collect and swiftly transfer relevant data in a neutral way to a competent, impartial international organization can limit the risk of suppression and speed up the distribution of relevant information to all countries. This could in turn enable taking the necessary precautionary measures and preparations as early as possible. Blaming certain groups or each other for being the culprit of a pandemic has happened many times in history, but never made the world a safer place.

In addition to this lack of rationality in preventing a pandemic, a number of political leaders have not excelled in taking rational decisions in order to give absolute priority to saving lives. A political or sometimes personal agenda, like a short-term advantage over locked-up economies, success at elections, or military parades, was sometimes prioritized over the advice of scientific experts. This behaviour jeopardized human lives and led to increased damage to the economy. It is most disconcerting that such irrational behaviour of political leaders happened often in nuclear armed states. Similar irrational behaviour would pose an existential risk in a crisis that might lead to the use of nuclear weapons. Then the number of victims of wrong decisions would not be counted in the tens of thousands, but millions of people. The concept of nuclear deterrence that nuclear armed states still adhere to presupposes total rationality of political decision makers. The evidence of the coronavirus crisis shows, however, that this cannot be relied upon, which in turn demonstrates the lack of credibility of the very concept of nuclear deterrence. Other reasons why nuclear deterrence cannot provide security in today’s world exist as well: the impact of cyber and hypersonic speed making retaliation unreliable and multipolarity just to name a few. In the post-COVID world a serious discussion on how to get away from basing national security on such an outdated concept is overdue.

In the history of mankind pandemics came time and again. Statisticians warned that the fact that no dramatic pandemic broke out in the 100 years after the 1918 influenza did not mean that it had been the last one in modern times. On the contrary, with every year the probability of an outbreak increased. But decision makers preferred to look the other way and then were surprised when COVID-19 came and reacted mostly too little and too late. Statisticians also underline that the fact that no nuclear weapon use has happened over 75 years does not mean that the probability has decreased close to zero. On the contrary, the longer the time without a nuclear weapon explosion, the higher the probability of one in the next years, be it unintentionally or intentionally. In spite of a very small margin of probability for each nuclear warhead, the present global arsenal of approximately 13,400 carries a considerable risk. Here, too, decision makers look the other way, instead of intensifying nuclear disarmament and taking risk reduction measures such as de-alerting or no first use policies. The lack of preventive measures against nuclear weapons use would lead to a health crisis of a volume that could not be coped with even after taking the best preparatory measures. The best window into the inhumane effects of a single atomic bomb might be gleaned from the devastation and lingering effects for generations inflicted on innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago. And yet these two bombs were a fraction of the size of the thousands of warheads that make up today’s arsenals.

Experts assume that COVID-19 may return in the form of a slightly modified virus, but also other pathogen substances might cause old or new forms of pandemics. Technological progress might well allow states or terrorist groups to manufacture a synthetic pathogen. As in the case of nuclear weapons, a confined localized use of a synthetic pathogen as a weapon would not be possible, so the user state or terrorist group would inflict damage on its own people. Since the attack by a sect in Tokyo many years ago, we have the proof that this does not scare away some people. Others believe that nuclear weapons are usable weapons. The catastrophic humanitarian consequences are evident, yet no guarantee can be construed that such a weapon use could not happen nevertheless. After COVID-19 work on strengthening the biological weapons convention now seems more urgent then before.

The fundamental question is whether our world view reflects real needs or just our preferences. Do we want to see the world as a zero sum game between two powers – absurd in a multipolar world – where geopolitical and economic competition are determining the course of history? Such a worldview is appealing to our archaic instinct that our tribe is superior to the other one, but how can it contribute to the solution of big global security issues like climate change, the nuclear threat or the solution to the present COVID-19 crisis? The clear answer is that it does in no way – it only leads to a confrontational spirit that hinders necessary worldwide cooperation.

There is hardly a better example than COVID-19 for the need of international cooperation and multilateralism. As long as the disease is rampant and the world population not vaccinated, we will see further outbreaks that will spread again. Effectively addressing this danger necessitates multilateral cooperation going beyond states and international organisations. The multi-stakeholder model that also encompasses science, industry, academia and civil society is the most effective way of working together in the 21st century. The platforms for such cooperation are multilateral fora and international organisations. This applies equally to addressing the nuclear weapons threat. Confining the discussion to military security specialists and diplomats of nuclear armed states blocks gaining a comprehensive and more realistic view. Since it concerns the security of all states and ultimately the survival of mankind, the stakeholders are universal.

At a time when most nuclear disarmament treaties are ended and multilateral negotiations are not taking place at all, it is time to look for a new impetus. Will some of the lessons from the COVID-19 crisis also be applied in disarmament affairs?

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