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Nuclear Weapons

Pandemic Chronicles: Are We Fighting a War Against COVID-19?

by Marina Favaro
April 27, 2020

Using the language of war allows governments to use extraordinary measures to deal with the pandemic. We need to make sure that it doesn't become our new normal.

The world's introduction to COVID-19 has led to daily, clichéd analogies to war. This includes talk of ‘battling’ against an ‘unseen enemy’, ‘field hospitals’, ‘war cabinet’, ‘state of emergency’ and ‘front line’ workers mobilising in support of the (war) effort. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), an international organization that promotes economic cooperation, opines: ‘It feels like a war, and in many ways it is.’

Likewise, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the current coronavirus outbreak is the biggest global challenge since World War II. Queen Elizabeth II delivered a rare speech to her subjects that called to mind galvanizing wartime rhetoric and martial courage. Even before he put substantial mitigation efforts in place, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared himself the head of a ‘wartime government’ and pronounced that Britons ‘have the resolve and the resources to win the fight.’

Queen Elizabeth on TV

Queen Elizabeth II addresses the nation in a special broadcast to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth in relation to the Coronavirus outbreak at Windsor Castle on April 05, 2020.

Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

Calling the fight against COVID-19 a war ‘securitizes’ the conversation. This can have short-term benefits in responding to the pandemic. But, there may be longer-term social consequences.

There is a mythological tone to these allusions to war. But, the impact extends far beyond persuasive words. Calling the fight against COVID-19 a war ‘securitizes’ the conversation. This can have short-term benefits in responding to the pandemic. But, there may be longer-term social consequences. If the extraordinary measures don’t end with the state of emergency, then we risk these measures constituting the new normal. The same can be said of the way we talk about nuclear weapons.

Securitization Constructs Threats That Demand Extraordinary Countermeasures

Securitization Theory, from the Copenhagen School of International Relations, examines how the act of framing a public issue as a matter of security generates an abnormal state of emergency. This gives governments, and militaries in particular, greater license to enact extraordinary measures, such as the ability to impose a lockdown or monitor mobile phone data.

To successfully ‘securitize’ something, a government needs to do three things. First, they claim that an issue constitutes an existential threat. Second, they demand the right to take extraordinary countermeasures to deal with that threat. Third, they convince citizens that exceptional measures are justified to counter the threat.

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Securitization can sometimes be vital during an emergency. It can allow for the rapid organization and delivery of essential services. But, governments must use this tool sparingly. Political and economic effects of such policies can extend far beyond the pandemic. And, other issues fall off the public radar during these so-called ‘extraordinary’ times. As a result, the public applies less scrutiny to decision-makers. In turn, politicians can make wide-ranging and potentially authoritarian policy changes. All of which has the potential to undermine democratic processes.

There are several examples of this since the pandemic started. The Hungarian Parliament has passed a bill giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree, with no end date. It is being called a ‘Coronavirus Coup’. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed forward with the annexation of all areas supposedly earmarked for Israel by Donald Trump. And, governments in China, Russia, and other authoritarian states are employing widespread use of facial recognition and social media monitoring.

hungarian parliament

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban votes with other representatives about the government's bill on the protection against the new coronavirus COVID-19 at the plenary session of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary on March 30, 2020.


Securitizing Nuclear Deterrence

Nuclear disarmament advocates are well-acquainted with the pitfalls of securitization. It acts as a barrier to much-needed discussion about alternatives to nuclear deterrence – or even to minor alterations to the status quo that could help reduce nuclear risks.

The securitization of nuclear weapons goes like this. Current and unknown future security threats in the world require extraordinary measures. These measures usually go against societal norms and rules. In other words, they result in enormous investments in weaponry over other public goods like healthcare. And, they result in persistent threats of mass violence against civilians. Nuclear weapons are so closely associated with national security that nuclear deterrence proponents are easily able to frame themselves as being on the side of security and opponents as security threats.

Nuclear disarmament advocates have sought to break the securitization narrative. This includes efforts led by non-nuclear weapon states within the Nonproliferation Treaty to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons. And, more recently, the stigmatizing approach of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Nuclear weapons possessors, on the other hand, point to the global security environment in order to justify the continued relevance of nuclear weapons. This effect has deepened in recent years, with rhetoric about the precariousness of the security environment becoming increasingly common. This often includes language around an ‘unprecedented’ range and mix of threats, as in the U.S. 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

officials stand at podium

Nikki R. Haley (center), Permanent Representative of the United States, speaks to journalists on behalf of Member States opposed to the United Nations conference to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, ahead of the opening of the conference. She is flanked by Alexis Lamek (left), Deputy Permanent Representative of France; and Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom.

UN Photo/Mark Garten

Crucially, the practice of nuclear deterrence (i.e. the use of nuclear weapons to prevent action) has become not only a military doctrine, but the very grounds on which governments have sought to justify nuclear weapons themselves. For instance, the United Kingdom refers to its nuclear weapons program as, simply, ‘the nuclear deterrent’. Securitizing the issue means that there is little to no space for alternative dialog. Nuclear weapons occupy an untouchable position in the perceived global order.

Desecuritizing COVID-19

Fewer and fewer people today remember a world without nuclear weapons. The ‘extraordinary’ nature of nuclear weapons has largely been forgotten. The current situation has become normalized. The baseline has shifted. This story should be a cautionary tale when it comes to applying the language of war to COVID-19. If extraordinary measures like widespread surveillance don’t end with the state of emergency, then these measures start to constitute the new normal. If COVID-19 is indeed war, then we need to plan now for its desecuritization. We must plan to move the issue out of the sphere of security and back into the realm of appropriate democratic debate.

This content produced in collaboration with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). BASIC connects governments, policy influencers, and experts to design credible proposals in order to build international trust, reduce the risks of nuclear use, and advance nuclear disarmament.

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