In his address to the nation, French President Emmanuel Macron repeatedly stated, “We are at war”. It was a phrase that both hit home and made sense. It drew attention to the gravity and urgency of the situation. It quite rightly pinpointed a mortal threat to each and every one of us. And it usefully called for a nationwide mobilization. Going further, it also tied in with classical theory, more specifically that of Clausewitz, in that it outlined a clear objective: strike down the cause of the threat and engage without delay in a massive effort that calls upon all sectors of community life.
We should not forget, however, that these words are just a metaphor—a sound and effective metaphor perhaps—but one that is disconnected from a concrete reality that we must always keep in mind. In the current turmoil, let’s not make the same mistake we have been making since 1989: that of treating new regional and international conflicts—whether in the Middle East, Afghanistan or the Sahel—as if they were ancient wars, only to fail and fail again in our attempts to curb them. If the pain we are all going through has taught us one thing, it is that you cannot cure a brand-new ailment with homespun remedies. There are four big differences between this war and previous ones, and they will all be crucial, so now is a good time to be aware of them.
The COVID-19 war: discovering the global threat
First, the threat itself. There is no longer the emblematic figure of the enemy of bygone wars. The enemy used to refer to the “other”, whose gains were our losses and whose losses were our gains. We must now find out what a global threat actually means: a threat against which the whole world stands united, and where the danger is not the work of an evil strategist but instead something we cannot control.
As human beings, our interest has become common and our view of otherness has been profoundly altered: in order for me to win, it is now crucial for the other to win, and at as low a cost as possible. The solution is no longer to re-erect borders, as this only makes sense temporarily, as does a lockdown in reducing the intensity of the spread: instead, the solution will be found in solidarity and global governance. The purely formal role to which the WHO is now reduced is nothing short of frightening; this body should be coordinating health policy and producing new standards to be shared by all.
Multilateralism as an absolute necessity
The second major change is the pointlessness of alliances. Based on a longstanding coalition between certain States, an alliance presupposes that in order to survive and prosper, a common enemy must exist, a rival coalition… NATO is desperately seeking a second wind, even as its members envisage breaking the ties between them. Now is not the time for a new League of Augsburg—and still less for increasing military spending, as Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, has startlingly suggested. Now is the time for integration.
For the first time in human experience, the threat is joint rather than adversarial. So it is obvious that the only appropriate responses should also be joint, whether regionally (Europe) or internationally (global multilateralism). And we are nowhere near them yet! But unless we progress in this perspective, we will not survive. Sometimes fear brings progress. Right now we do not need a war, but intelligence.
The real battle to be won in this war is societal
The third difference is the battleground, which is of a very different nature. War used to be territorial, while this new challenge is societal. The enemy of yore was on the other side of the border, where it occupied a space and had a nationality; only Donald Trump still believes that the virus carries a passport. This new adversary knows no borders and hides away inside complex inter-social relationships. The real battle to be won is thus within societies, which need to be strengthened, protected and made aware of their responsibilities: in other words, they need the antithesis of neoliberal prescriptions, which have dissolved social concerns in the acid of the marketplace.
It was as early as 1994 that the UNDP first drew attention to this new need to take care of human safety. Few people listened. Yet the social battle is not played out with artillery in Iraq or the Sahel, but through bold action intended to rebuild social ties, so that these ties become the vector of the new human safety—health safety, environmental safety, and above all food safety. Each year hunger results in around 9 million deaths worldwide, with what will ultimately be catastrophic effects for everyone; but has anyone declared war on food shortages? Yet they are likely to provoke a social unrest that will be a threat to us all.
In this war, weakness is at the forefront
Lastly, the wars of yesteryear pitted the powerful against the powerful. Today, it is weakness that has become the instrument of war. It was the poor sanitary conditions of a livestock market that was at the origin of the disaster. It is the precarious living conditions of the poorest that has become one of the most serious causes of the spread of the disease. And it is the inadequate facilities in southern countries, particularly in Africa, which are likely to raise the pandemic to truly dramatic proportions.
In the past, the target of war was power, and traditional instruments of power were used. But now weakness is the heart of the matter. Weakness is the biggest threat to us all and justifies the mobilization of social rather than military responses. Our unforgivable mistake has been not to understand this in time; it has been not to have taken heed of Kofi Annan’s millennium speech. Erroneously, we have preferred to play with toy soldiers. It may be hoped that this crisis will bring valuable lessons that lead us to the New Deal we need, that of a global governance to face down a challenge devoid of any national substance.
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