International Security after the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Case for Multilateralism

30 July, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to unearth the fault lines in our global security, and not only in the countries already grappling with preexisting conditions. The security threats between nations are taking center stage as the world struggles to adapt to the new normal, causing mass instability in countries that until now did not appear wrought with fragility. With the global economy in free-fall, unemployment on the rise, and food insecurity becoming a greater concern, the risks of political unrest and conflict around the world are growing considerably.

The COVID-19 pandemic should be “a wake-up call for multilateralism,” according to Germany’s Federal Foreign Office. While many nations in Europe have turned inward to focus on domestic concerns during these uncertain times, this does not mean that the world has ceased to need international cooperation and aid. Multilateralism is even more essential now than ever to ensure global health and security; after all, a virus knows no borders and conflicts will continue to escalate in the absence of aid.

Although crimes have decreased in some areas, tensions continue to build in others, and not always in places with pre-existing conflicts. Unrest is not isolated to lower income nations, as shown by the yellow vests movement that has recently grown in Paris. In recent years, the World Bank and the United Nations have concluded that conflict and unrest are produced under conditions of failing institutions and grievances from groups that feel neglected by society. If these conditions sound familiar, it is because they are chiefly among those produced by the COVID-19 pandemic in nations all across the globe, including in Europe. As the pandemic rages on, these conditions will grow, along with the risks of violent conflict.

COVID-19 has proven to exacerbate existing tensions and wreak havoc in already fragile states. The widespread unrest is worsened by disruptions in humanitarian aid and the limited peace operations, drawing a global international security crisis while most nations are pulling inward. Already in more vulnerable countries, terrorists and armed groups are not letting these opportunities go to waste. Domestic violence against women has spiked along with human rights abuses, which are generally precursors to more expansive forms of violence and conflict.

While there are numerous international security implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, one is certainly that the limited contact between countries has led to less time devoted to working on peace processes and conflict resolution. For instance, the summit between EU leaders and the “G5 Sahel countries” will no longer take place, setting considerable consequences for counterterrorism operations in the region. European officials are also no longer giving adequate attention to securing a ceasefire in Libya, which was a priority issue for Berlin and Brussels only five short months ago. Even further, multinational peacekeeping operations have been greatly affected by the radical change in priority, reducing or removing many unit rotations of blue helmet operations.

Aside from the threats posed by growing unrest, disinformation has its own contribution to offer to the international security crisis. It has already become clear that COVID-19 has unleashed a wealth of xenophobia, leading people in countries with large immigrant populations to harass the East Asian communities. Especially as people across the world hear U.S. President Trump make xenophobic comments calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” on television and social media, the prejudices against people of Chinese ethnicity have become a serious risk to racist violence. Experts in the EU have also warned of Russia’s attempts to promote disinformation about the extent and implications of COVID-19 in Western Europe, potentially complicating cooperation of these nations against the pandemic and making it more difficult for them to cooperate on political disputes.

These complications, among others, create concern over an upsurge in violence while governments are otherwise occupied playing an endless game of “whack-a-mole”, trying to tackle each new issue while international security is being undermined. As more states deal with growing conflicts domestically, international cooperation will only become harder to reach. Furthermore, people are often triggered to support populism or nationalism when overwhelmed with unrest themselves, fueling the fires of discord.

We cannot yet know where in the world the virus will strike the hardest, nor how the economic and social consequences will affect or spark violent conflicts.  While there is a tendency of nations to focus domestically right now, the EU needs to remain involved in de-escalating conflict in more vulnerable countries. The EU and other regional bodies should work toward deescalating the growing geopolitical tensions between the US and China, as well as ensure peace and security in other conflict zones. International institutions should strive for a level of international coordination that rivals that of the Second World War and work toward tracking signals of unrest before they manifest into conflicts. As violence against women and children has already grown and is often a precursor to other forms of violence, the EU and the UN, among other institutions, must work toward ensuring the safety of these vulnerable groups during and beyond COVID-19. Until the pandemic subsides, the EU should utilize multilateral frameworks to offer relief to those most affected by COVID-19 and maintain humanitarian aid throughout the crisis. In order to prevent a growing international security crisis, global institutions need to signal that security is still a priority despite the current challenges.

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