After the crisis

George Robertson on the multiple impacts of Covid and the future global response

Whatever the conspiracists assert, Covid-19 came randomly from nature but has had unimagined and dramatic effects. So much so that virologists have now speculated on the creation of biological pathogens created to specifically attack racial or ethnic types. In a world where there are no surprises left, the mind boggles at that horrific prospect. It also prompts some practical thoughts.

The world will not be the same when this pandemic has been tamed. There will be a recession, maybe a depression and it will be deep and long. Firms will be bankrupted. Millions will be unemployed – and angry. And the security implication of all this will involve a rise in nationalism, populism, protectionism, and new waves of migration – leading to instability, fragile states, and governance failures.

Despite a crying need for international cooperation on what is a global pandemic on a single novel virus, we are witnessing fragmentation, competition, and purely national solutions. Instead of the kind of response shown in 2008 when the G20 saved the planet from a financial melt-down or the assembled international coalition when ISIS declared the Caliphate, there is a patchwork of policies.

Low probability, high impact events usually top a national risk register. But even though that is a fact, far too little had been done to cope with what had been assessed. It is absurd to do lessons-learned exercises if no one implements the conclusions.

The risk registers of low probability, high impact items also include the UK’s highly vulnerable critical national infrastructure. Water, electricity, telecommunications, internet, gas storage; these are all on a knife edge and the failure of one or other could cripple the smooth running of our society. We are currently seeing but a glimpse of the effects of our just-in-time society in this semi-paralysis.

Among the first instincts of national self-preservation has been to close borders. After decades of promoting borderless travel, visa free movement and cheap effortless international journeying, we are back to borders with barbed wire.

Conflict is now moving to the Grey Zone. Cyber warfare, disinformation, electoral interference, organised crime, corruption, and people trafficking will increasingly replace hard military rivalry. Pushed to the margins, the rivals to the ordered world seek respect and attention by other means, including disruption, subversion, and information manipulation.

An acute and lingering economic crisis will weaken the threads of benign democratic societies. Our politics still suffers from the deep grievance felt from the banking fiasco. The legacy of this new episode will be all the greater. Disenchantment and distrust with politician and governance is serious in a democracy. It sours the publics approach to remedies which will have to follow the inevitable massive spending hangover. Trust and transparency will be the casualties.

In the post-Covid world, what should the UK do? Survive is the most basic answer but newly out of the EU and adrift from a distracted United States, we will have trouble getting noticed. Yet possibilities exist and we have always had a unique strength in our convening powers. If the economic situation is not to lead to a deep global depression, a practical international response will not wait for the US President and we could initiate this action. As our new Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey said this week, we should encourage NATO to increase what it is doing on logistics on PPE and drugs. It has unique skills in that area.

Beyond what we are now experiencing, the world should be alert to the fragile nature of globalisation and the tight rope on which we are walking. That might be too much to hope for but the norms of security and safety that we have grown used to will be shaken violently. The new normal will require imagination, sobriety, frankness and enlightened leadership. Therein lies a mighty challenge. 

Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen is a Labour Peer and a former Secretary General of NATO

Published 8th May 2020

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