Genova - Over the coming months, governments, government agencies, private companies, trade bodies, and single individuals will begin to take stock of what lessons the Covid-19 crisis has taught us. This process will deliver a series of lessons learned that will be shared and discussed in parliaments, institutions, conferences and online forums. There is, however, a less obvious aspect to this process, one that has somewhat sinister connotations.
While our attention is focused on how westerns nations are handling the immediate crisis, a response in many cases characterised at best by a lack of preparation and in many cases by manifest incompetence, our adversaries are focused on identifying and cataloging our weaknesses. These vulnerabilities will be studied in detail in order to understand how they can be exploited in the future to advance the geoeconomic, geopolitical and national ambitions of state actors. Of even greater concern is the fact that a series of non-state actors will also conduct their own analyses.
A SELECT FEW
The challenges faced by governments throughout the world in responding to the Covid-19 crisis demonstrates that pandemics are great equalizers: a virus has no interest in discriminating between rich or poor, developed or underdeveloped, democratic or otherwise. But this pandemic will not see us all emerge as equals, indeed quite the opposite. Those closely monitoring our reactions and capabilities will gather valuable information that can be used against a select group of countries. Some nations will emerge from this monitoring of their crisis response with more to fear than others.
A great deal of valuable information will be garnered in this period, in many cases the information in question will simply confirm existing suspicions, in other cases it will deliver fresh input useful to developing new strategies for future implementation.
Our emergency capabilities, industrial vulnerabilities, levels of social and political resilience, economic strategies, and relations with other nations and international bodies will all be carefully evaluated. The select few under close examination know who they are, but do they have a clear idea as to exactly what information will be gained from such a detailed analysis of their vulnerabilities and how it could be used against them in a future moment?
The short and long-term political, social and economic consequences generated by the pandemic are far from clear. However, what is perfectly clear is that it’s not enough to simply view it through the lens of a public health crisis. The challenges posed by Covid-19 make this the most extreme crisis of our lifetime and therefore the toughest and most efficient of stress tests.
Given the huge surge in demand caused by several million individuals working from home, our telecommunications networks are being pushed to their limits, critical supply chains such as the assurance that supermarket shelves continue to be stocked are facing logistical challenges, our hospitals and health services are in some cases on the verge of collapse. The examples listed above are the most obvious and represent a small fraction of the operational and response capabilities that are under analysis. Some nations have opted to employ the armed forces in their effort to ensure efficient lockdown, others are afraid of how this would be perceived by their citizens. A number of countries have adopted strategies that could not be implemented in other nations due to the fear that the local population would revolt.
Intelligence and security communities are concerned that dissatisfaction with their government’s actions will create the potential for coups, in at least one case the fear in question regards a European nation. While our responses, strategies, infrastructure, societies, economies, and overall resilience are stress tested to the limit, analysts elsewhere are taking careful note.
SOFT POWER FLIES IN
In his 1990 book, "Bound to Lead, the American political scientist and former Clinton administration official Joseph Nye put forth an idea that he defined as ‘soft power’. He explained the concept as being: "When one country gets other countries to want what it wants might be called co-optive or soft power in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants." Nye argued that states could use soft power: "To do things and control others," adding that this noncoercive approach could "get others to do what they otherwise would not," and thus assist the delivering party to cement a global leadership position. In a textbook example of soft power, shortly before midnight on March 12th 2020 a China Eastern Airlines Airbus A-350 touched down at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. The flight carried 31tons of urgent medical supplies and a team of Chinese Red Cross doctors led by the organisation’s vice-president Yang Huichuan. Amongst those present to greet the flight from Shanghai was Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Streaming live on Facebook, the Minister described the flight’s arrival as: "This is what we call solidarity and I’m certain that this only the beginning," adding that "We’re not alone, there are people around the world that want to help Italy."
While China’s example of solidarity is admirable and the support represented by the presence of so many experts will be of great importance, there remain some perplexities as to Beijing’s true objectives.
Interacting with their Italian colleagues will have given Yang Huichuan’s medical team the opportunity to study Italy’s strengths and weaknesses, this is inevitable and is normal in any scenario in which one party assists another.
However, equally inevitable is the likelihood that the Chinese experts will have been briefed in advance on exactly what to study and their reentry debriefing questions will have been prepared before their Airbus A-350’s wheels left the tarmac in Shanghai. Viewed in this optic, Beijing’s generosity might be considered by some as slightly less spontaneous than it may actually seem. China will have scored a double goal: a greater understanding of Italy’s virus response strengths and weaknesses, and the successful implementation of a soft power objective.
THE MARCH ON BERGAMO
China may well have been the first to arrive but Russia wasn’t very far behind. In an operation mirroring Beijing’s aparent generosity, Moscow launched operation ‘From Russia with Love’.
Promoted as an operation to assist the Italian city of Bergamo in particular, 120 Russian military specialists have been flown into Italy with the objective of offering support to the Italian Government and a select number of local authorities. Again, as in the earlier case of Beijing’s important support, the mission is welcomed and is without any doubt of great benefit to the authorities combatting the pandemic.
While both countries stand to gain from collaboration, indeed Russia has been very clear in stating that there are a number of useful lessons to be learned from the Italian response to the emergency, the very organisation of the mission seemed to be something of a statement in itself.
In a clear display of military efficiency and power, Moscow’s support effort was characterised by the rapid preparation and deployment of a task force flown from Moscow’s Chkalovsky airport into Italy’s Pratica di Mare military airport aboard a fleet of Ilyushin IL76 cargo planes carrying not only the specialists themselves, but much needed supplies and Russian military vehicles.
In addition to the doubts and observations regarding Beijing’s presence in Italy holding equally true for Moscow’s, there can be no doubt that a disappointed Washington views both responses as being a means via which drive a wedge between the United States and a European ally.
NATURE ABHORS A VOID
Over time the direct consequences of the economic damage caused by the pandemic will further compound insatisfaction with our governments. In some nations this will create fertile ground for the interests of proscribed organisations such as Daesh and Boko Haram, in others, organised crime will benefit considerably.
While a detailed examination of the specific risks in question is outwith the scope of this analysis, it is necessary to highlight how our collective assistance, or lack of it, will impact a number of less advantaged nations. In the most recent edition of Islamic State’s newsletter Al Naba, the pandemic was described as a form of divine punishment that would strike western nations without mercy. Readers were invited to take advantage of a situation of fear and confusion to further the organisation’s goals and strike terror within western nations.
Rhetorical messages have always defined Al Naba’s contents and thus there is nothing new in the invitations or analyses presented in the latest edition, however, the space dedicated to Covid-19 is proof of the organisation’s level of interest in how the pandemic can be used to their advantage. Despite Al Naba’s claim that "True believers will be spared", in many African countries in particular the organisation’s ranks will be decimated at the same level as those of the general population.
Nevertheless, a certain operative capacity will remain and will be focused in particular on recruiting new members and undermining the already precarious situations in a number of Sub-Saharan countries.
A coordinated and efficient international effort to support countries such as Mali, the Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso to name but three will be required less the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic play into the hands and interests of fundamentalists.
Where the state is perceived as being absent, the void will be filled and it is therefore of fundamental importance that the impact of Covid-19 is evaluated not only in terms of damage to the economies and social structures of developed nations, but also in terms of the radical changes that it could bring to the security of a number of less developed regions.
THE TRUE LESSON LEARNED
Our response to the pandemic will define a considerable number of future scenarios. If we are to protect ourselves from any number of potential risks, the focus today, despite the realities and emergencies of the current moment, must be on identifying and understanding how others could benefit from our vulnerabilities.
*Editor in Chief, Maritime Security Review