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Commentary | 14 April 2020

The coronavirus pandemic hits NATO: Five potential implications

The NATO Secretary General chose a strange time to present the Alliance’s annual activity report. When every NATO Ally is fighting hard to mitigate the deadly consequences of the novel Covid-19 virus, Jens Stoltenberg evidently felt that he should address NATO’s 2019 achievements before public attention completely evaporated. In a video press conference on 19th March 2020, he acknowledged the severe economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis. But he also repeated NATO’s 2% defence spending mantra: “I expect Allies to stay committed to investing more in our security”, Stoltenberg said.

Reminding NATO Allies of their commitment to spend 2% of their GDP on defence ignores the fundamental challenges that the coronavirus pandemic poses to the world. Last month, a group of scientific researchers from Imperial College London estimated that “in the absence of interventions, Covid-19 could result in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year.” While current mitigation strategies aim to reduce these nightmarish numbers, there is little doubt that the pandemic’s magnitude is unprecedented. Once the viral cyclone has blown through, there will be no business as usual, including in international affairs and national security.

The post-coronavirus world, whenever it arrives, will likely be profoundly different from the one we knew before Covid-19 killed its first victim in Wuhan. While it seems too early to determine all the long-term consequences of this global health emergency, there should be little doubt that the strategic ramifications of the current crisis will be multi-faceted, profound and far-reaching.

Below are five potential implications of Covid-19 for NATO, which Secretary General Stoltenberg and his advisors may wish to consider.

No 1: Shrinking defence budgets

A few months after Covid-19 started to travel the world, it is clear that large parts of the global economy are bound to face a deep recession in the near-future whose scope and impact, according to the International Monetary Fund, may go far beyond the 2008/2009 global financial crisis. Due to the many unknowns related to how the pandemic will further evolve, economic forecasts range between a 5-10 % drop in global GDP. Once national lockdown restrictions are lifted, national governments will have to focus their political energies on reinvigorating economic productivity, encouraging public consumption, reducing mass unemployment and delivering on basic social and public services.

Depending on how long Covid-19 continues to ravage Europe, North America, Asia and other continents, economic recovery will take years, not months. Despite substantial financial support from the European Union’s financial institutions, the vast majority of European countries will be extremely reluctant to assign their limited financial resources to upgrade national defence capabilities and maintain costly procurement programmes. Making the case in favour of spending billions of euros on increased defence budgets – something that was agreed prior to the outbreak of the pandemic – will neither be acceptable to the public nor to policymakers, across Europe. Habitual finger-pointing exchanges across the Atlantic about security free-riders will not be helpful. Rather, NATO Allies will have to find smart ways to adjust defence capability requirements geared towards traditional security threats (nuclear, conventional, cyber and hybrid) and new challenges that stem from climate change, pandemics, mass migration or disruptive technologies. All this is bound to turn into difficult political discussions in Brussels.

No 2: Leadership without leading

In recent years political relations between the two sides of the Atlantic have turned sour, due to US President Trump’s transactional policies and his erratic style. But transatlantic solidarity hit another low point since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis. Instead of garnering political solidarity among America’s closest allies, providing practical support for Europeans in dire need (such as Italy and Spain) and leading a consolidated effort to mitigate the global health crisis, President Trump has made abundantly clear that he is solely eyeing his personal and political gains. More significantly, he continues to question the urgency of the threat. The prospect of building a US-led grand coalition to combat Covid-19, using, for example, NATO or a coalition of the willing, seems remote. Meanwhile, evidence is growing that the US is being dramatically affected by the pandemic; both in terms of the skyrocketing numbers of infected people and, more broadly, economically and politically. America’s economy seems to be on the verge of suffering a major blow with potential long-term consequences for its status as the world’s leading power.

Looking ahead, it may prove difficult for President Trump to survive the pandemic politically. If the November elections still take place as planned, plausible arguments can be made that either a Democrat or a surprise candidate could win the White House. Top leadership changes could eventually also occur in those NATO and EU countries where governments are gravely mishandling the coronavirus crisis, public health systems are severely stressed, and governments lack financial resources to relaunch the national economy. Whatever the long-term political fallout of the current health crisis for individual NATO member countries, America’s reputation as a global leader has already taken a heavy toll.

No 3: Intra-Alliance unity and cohesion

These two terms – that NATO ritually uses in its strategic messaging – are also bound to become even more strained than before. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, controversial issues ranged from Turkey’s intervention in Syria and burden sharing all the way to how to respond to security challenges on NATO’s southern borders. At the heart of these issues and related political disagreements, rests an extremely fragile consensus on NATO’s core threats and the way to respond to them. To be sure, these and other political disagreements will not go away in the future, but intra-European rivalry regarding access to financial funds and EU-sponsored modalities for economic recovery will strongly come to the fore once national lockdowns are lifted.

Disagreements between NATO allies must also be expected about their future relations with China. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, Washington pressed European capitals hard to ban Huawei G5 technologies from their markets. Under US pressure China was described as an “aggressive strategic competitor” in NATO documents. But will this view be as strongly held by all Allies now that Beijing has provided considerable medical support to Europe? Whilst China’s Communist leadership will not reconsider the country’s long-term strategic goals, in the absence of a credible US leadership role in this global emergency, a number of European allies may be tempted to look more at Beijing and somewhat less towards Washington as they absorb the many ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic.

How the global pandemic will play out in terms of the West’s relationship with Russia is difficult to judge at present. Much will depend on the degree to which Russia is affected by the disease in the next few months, and whether President Putin will be prepared to use the current political crisis management mood across Europe to signal his readiness for “emergency cooperation” with some European countries. We should, however, expect him to try to benefit from the current political turbulence in the US and, once the time is right, to suggest Russia is a partner for Europe’s economic recovery. For this to happen, one can expect Putin to stress the importance of lifting economic sanctions against Russia.

No 4: How capable will NATO’s military forces be in 12 months or so?

Military forces (and their families) are not immune to disease. Quarantine measures and an increasing number of infected military personnel can severely jeopardise the planning, deployment and operations of forces as well as important logistic, supply and transport functions. The continuous performance of key assets (for example special forces, command and control units and missile forces) are particularly vulnerable as they require specialised know-how and training, meaning infected units cannot easily be replaced.

The Alliance has already started to feel the effects of the pandemic in a number of ways. Norway called off an important regional exercise (Cold Defender 2020) and another major exercise “European Defender”, aimed at demonstrating both NATO’s steadfast resolve towards Russia and the US’s ability to quickly reinforce the continent, has been radically restructured and trimmed. Meanwhile, the US European Command has published a list of other long-planned exercises that will be cancelled or postponed until later this year.

On 25 March 2020, the Pentagon ordered all US forces abroad to stay put for 60 days; meaning they are not allowed to move in any direction. The British, German and Dutch decisions to withdraw remaining forces from NATO’s training mission in Iraq in order to redeploy them for domestic services may well be followed by other NATO Allies. Other missions and operations abroad, like NATO’s Resolute Support in Afghanistan, must also be expected to face postponement of troop rotation and withdrawal plans because of quarantine measure affecting both contributing troops and Afghan security forces. Moreover, Germany, France and Italy have started to rely on their militaries to set-up medical facilities and provide transport in support of hospitals at home, and other NATO allies may follow suit.

Depending on how much longer the virus rages across Europe and North America, NATO troop levels in support of deterrence and defence missions will have to be adjusted too, since Covid-19 has started to spread into the Latvian-based NATO Battle Group. Other units of NATO’s enhanced forward presence in eastern and south-eastern Europe, geared towards deterring Russia, may follow in the future. Against this background, NATO military authorities would be well advised to develop contingency plans for a situation in which larger number of troops are affected by the coronavirus. In order to do so, it would be useful to start generating reliable data about infected military personnel across NATO countries. While a strong political commitment by the Allies to ensure that NATO will be able to perform its core tasks and missions in the future will no doubt be sustained, one key lesson of the grim Covid-19 reality is that nothing can be taken for granted.

No 5:  NATO’s south

In the past few years, NATO has looked at its southern borders primarily through the threat prism of terrorism, illegal migration and state failure. On a case-by-case basis, the Allies decided to help stabilise countries in the Middle East and North Africa region through training and security capacity-building programmes. In the future, the NATO Allies’ political preparedness to deploy military forces and resources in the fragile southern region may drastically shrink. This is because, first, financial and military resources will likely be limited so national governments will face hard policy choices; and secondly, countries in the Middle East and North Africa could have to deal with exponentially rising numbers of Covid-19 infections, too, in which case NATO countries will likely call their forces home. A worst-case scenario would certainly be an aggressive outbreak of coronavirus infections in countries like Egypt, Algeria, or in one of the refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan or Syria. In such a scenario, European countries would most likely consider robust border control operations to prevent massive flows of infected migrants from entering Europe’s shores. To this end, the Alliance would be well advised to develop dedicated scenarios for a significantly aggravated situation on its southern borders.

There are certainly other potential ramifications of the Covid-19 crisis that NATO should seriously consider and for which it should plan in the months ahead. No NATO Ally has done well on both predicting and implementing mitigating measures for a global pandemic. But planning for such black swans and building Alliance resilience to cope with them – alongside all NATO’s other challenges – will now be at a premium.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Flickr, NATO