This article is the first in a series that will discuss the global geopolitical and socio-economic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Commenting on the unexpected nature of both plague and war, Albert Camus put the historically repeated situation in this way:
There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise... When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It's too stupid; it can't last long.’ But although a war may well be ‘too stupid,’ that doesn't prevent it from lasting a long time. Stupidity has a knack of getting its own way as should be evident if we were not always so wrapped up in our personal affairs.
(Albert Camus, The Plague)
Camus is right that both wars and plagues take people by surprise. Yet state leaderships rarely act in time to prevent either wars or plagues—even if these horrors are clearly forewarned by those who have studied the dynamics of geo-economic conflicts and the outbreak of pandemics. Even after the outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), H5N1 “bird flu”, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), scientific warnings against the outbreak of future pandemics were not fully heeded by state authorities. And despite the fact that scientists did predict the likelihood of a new pandemic from human exposure to the viruses spread by horseshoe bats in China1, the Trump administration opted to eliminate a major US AID program called PREDICT that had been designed to forewarn of a potential pandemic about two months before the outbreak of COVID-19. PREDICT—which was initiated in 2009 and worked in Wuhan, China among other locations—was belatedly restored in April 2020—too late to be of any help.
And despite worldwide protest, forewarnings of the dangerous consequences of global warming—which could provoke new pandemics and even wars over water and resources—are also not fully being heeded by state leaderships. And given the fact that demands for the implementation of concerted peace-oriented diplomacy NOW in order to prevent a major power war are definitely not being heeded, there is a real chance that a forthcoming series of not-entirely-unexpected geopolitical and socio-economic crises after the COVID-19 pandemic could “accidentally” or “accidentally on purpose” spark wider regional conflicts—if not a global war among the major powers.
UN Secretary General António Guterres has urged states and anti-state opposition movements to put down their weapons and work together to put an end to the Corona pandemic: “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war... That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”
Yet very few groups that are fighting in a number of regional conflicts have taken heed of these words. In effect, despite UN demands for an immediate global ceasefire, and despite the glowing promises of full cooperation in dealing with the crisis made at the Saudi-led G-20 summit in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has generally deflected American, European and international diplomatic and media attention away from the devastating internationalized civil wars and/or refugee crises that continue to rage throughout the world in Yemen, Syria (Idlib), Palestine, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, north Pakistan, Kashmir, South Sudan, eastern Ukraine, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar (Rohingya refugee camps), Venezuela, among others.
The threat of “terrorist” resurgence is also real. As the COVID-19 pandemic impacts much of the world, anti-state militant groups such as Daesh (ISIS)—which has not yet been totally eradicated as President Trump has claimed—hope to take advantage of perceived “crusader” weaknesses. In threatening new terrorist attacks, Daesh has argued that COVID-19 is paralyzing the US and Europeans as they shield their armed forces against exposure to COVID-19, and as they must contend with burgeoning domestic health and economic crises. Furthermore, the fact that the US and Europeans appear to be focusing their strategic attention on Russia, China and Iran (who are ironically all enemies of Daesh)—while in the process withdrawing a significant number of troops from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and the Sahel—could permit Daesh and other militant groups to rebound.
Despite UN calls for a cease fire, Houthi rebels purportedly launched a missile at Riyadh that was struck down by the US-supplied Patriot anti-missile system before the rocket hit the city. While Washington supplies Saudi Arabia with armaments to fight Iran, Riyadh uses many of those weapons in a brutal effort to defeat the Houthi. In response to UN, the Saudi coalition did call for a two-week cease fire. Yet as long as diplomacy fails to establish a power-sharing agreement between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Yemen, Syria, Iraq and other regions will continue. The missile attack on Riyadh illustrates another dimension of the insecurity-security dilemma as discussed in my previous WSI posts.
The Yemen war has killed more than 100,000 people, many of whom died after Saudi-led airstrikes—in the process of creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from shortages in food, medical supplies and lack of sanitation. Yemenis have already been exposed to diseases such as cholera, dengue, and malaria and possibly to COVID-19 as well.
If not granted international assistance, forced migration and refugee camps and destruction of medical facilities that have accompanied the war in Yemen and many of other conflicts will help spread COVID-19 throughout the world—as will overcrowded regions like the Gaza Strip, urban ghettos, old folk homes, poorly equipped hospitals, factories—in addition to overcrowded and polluted areas of both rich and poor megacities.
It is time for a world-wide ceasefire!
In March, pro-Iranian Iraqi militias were accused by Washington of killing three coalition members at Camp Taji in Iraq by a rocket attack in mid-March 2020—in an apparent effort to press the US and its allies out of Iraq by periodic attacks. The Trump administration then launched a counter-attack on pro-Iranian Iraqi militias near the Iraq-Syrian border.
The fact that the attack on Camp Taji took place on the date of the Iranian Quds commander General Soleimani’s 63rd birthday in January 2020 in a New Year’s strike has been interpreted as a sign that Iran is still plotting revenge for that assassination through the manipulation of pro-Iranian surrogate militias in Iraq. In a word, even without Soleimani, Iran is still capable of striking US interests in the region2.
Yet the Camp Taji attack was also the date of the March 11, 2004 Madrid bombings that had been claimed by a group inspired by Al Qaeda... The issue is raised: Was the attack truly ordered by Tehran? Or could the attack represent a means by a third party to draw the US and Iran into direct conflict?
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic is severely hurting the civilian populations of both the US and Iran, and has begun to impact their military preparedness as well, both states appear to be preparing for war. The Trump administration has opted to impose new sanctions on Iran, while Iran has strongly denounced US offers to assist Iran to fight the pandemic, but without also eliminating sanctions3. A tough US sanctions policy along with the collapse of oil prices due to Saudi-Russian energy disputes and efforts to undercut highly leveraged US shale oil, has definitely hurt the Iranian economy.
At the same time, it is clear that Iranian society is increasingly polarizing after anti-American hardliners not only “won” the legislature by eliminating reformist candidates and thus rigging the elections—so that hardliners are poised to win the Iranian presidency in 2021. Toughening US shipping sanctions also risks magnifying disputes, if not conflict, with those states still trading with Iran which include Turkey, India and China. Despite Trump administration efforts to fine tune sanctions policy, Trump’s policies toward Iran risk war in the wider Middle East—as Iran is still “actively seeking ways to achieve destabilization that would allow them to escape the strictures of (the Trump administration’s) maximum pressure campaign”—according to General Frank McKenzie, U.S. Central Command.
The Trump administration initially deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the region — in signaling the possibility of a coming war—yet the COVID-19 infection of a third aircraft carrier has forced one of those aircraft carriers to re-deploy to the Pacific. If Iran continues to strike out against coalition forces through its regional proxies in an effort to press coalition forces to leave the region while concurrently threatening to develop a nuclear weapons capability, it risks Israeli and/or US military strikes against its presumed nuclear enrichment capabilities.
Yet even if the US and/or Israel do not opt to eliminate Iran’s presumed nuclear facilities through so-called “surgical strikes” (which will prove to be not so surgical), the potential collapse of the Iranian regime will open up new conflicts throughout the region much as the collapse of the Libyan regime did. Such regional instability that could then drag the US, Russia, Europeans and other states into additional quagmires.
Only a concerted approach involving US, EU, Russian and Chinese diplomacy, working along with states such as Switzerland, Qatar, Oman, and involving the negotiation of a modified JCPOA accord, coupled with negotiations to end the Saudi-Iranian proxy wars and missile build-up in the region, will prevent further carnage and disaster.
Rather than spending funds on ways to achieve concerted international cooperation in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the major powers continue to confront each other with a very expensive nuclear and conventional arms build-up while engaging in military interventions, proxy wars, and cyber-attacks.
In March, the Pentagon successfully tested new hypersonic missiles to counter those of Russia and China. The US Navy launched two new aircraft carriers in a costly effort to expand the 293-ship Navy to 355 ships. While President Trump believes such a defense build-up will pressure both Russia and Chine to capitulate to US demands and cut a “deal,” both Beijing and Moscow hope to counter US military superiority by essentially asymmetrical means.
The fact that the US is deploying low yield nuclear warheads on its long-range and tactical missiles—and has now developed a land-based intermediate range ballistic missile after breaking out of the 1987 INF accord in response to alleged Russian violations of that accord— indicates that the Pentagon is developing an actual war-fighting capacity4.
In addition to the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, more states are threatening to develop nuclear weaponry. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea all possess a nuclear weapons capability. North Korean leader Kim Jung Un has vowed to bolster his nuclear weapons capabilities in 2020 and has appeared to have tested ballistic missiles and short-range artillery in March. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have additionally threatened to develop such weaponry.
In fear that Washington might not defend its allies from attack, critics in South Korea and Japan, have been gaining public attention by demanding that their respective countries develop nuclear weapons—much as France did in the 1960s. For its part, Berlin (under pressure from sovereigntists who seek an independent nuclear weapons capability) has begun to urge Paris and London to provide a nuclear umbrella for all of Europe through a joint European military budget along with joint European medical, transportation and reconnaissance commands. Yet after Brexit, England’s interests in defending the European continent may rapidly decline.
US efforts to engage in “regime change” in Venezuela have impelled Caracas to look toward China and Russia for economic and military assistance—a factor that could lead the Trump administration to intervene militarily—along with accusations that the regime of Nicolás Maduro is engaging in drug trafficking, “narco-terrorism”, corruption and money laundering—in accord with the US Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt “corollary”. As the “war on drugs” merges with the “global war on terrorism,” the Trump administration has threatened to send naval ships, aircraft and security forces to the Caribbean and the US border.If a new transitional government is not forged soon, US intervention and a civil war that will impact the entire region may be the outcome.
Concurrently, in an effort to counter US global hegemony and impel Washington to over-stretch its resources, both Moscow and Beijing hope to establish their own regional versions of the US Monroe Doctrine.
With respect to Russia, Vladimir Putin‘s annexation of Crimea in February 2014, and preclusive expansion to Syria, was designed, in part, to check NATO expansion into the Black Sea and to counter NATO’s position in the eastern Mediterranean—in addition to sustaining Russian influence in the region against pan-Sunni movements. The complex tensions that are presently evolving in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey, Greece, Russia, Iran, Syria, Israel, Libya, and the US among other states, could easily spark a wider regional—if not major power—war.
With respect to China, President-for-life Xi Jinping asserted in January 2019 that China would “definitely“ unify with Taiwan by force if necessary—and possibly during his lifetime. If China, Taiwan, and the US cannot forge a new arrangement that builds upon the Taiwan Relations Act through the establishment of joint US, China and international security guarantees for Taiwan5, the seizure of Taiwan by Beijing by force—coupled with tacit Chinese support for North Korea— would mostly likely spark a war between the US and China (backed by Russia).
Since coming to office, President Trump has done nothing but encourage sovereigntist anti-European Union sentiment. Recently, Trump even accused the Europeans (but initially not the UK) of permitting the COVID-19 virus to spread to the US.
The European Union is now divided over ways to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. In general, the wealthier northern states (Holland, Germany) are not willing to finance (without conditions) the less wealthy southern states (Italy, Spain) with proposed “Corona bonds”—with the French caught in the middle. Most European countries have closed their borders and are not fully cooperating with each other over questions of finance and debt, defense and security coordination, immigration issues or COVID-19. By April 10, in addition to national financing, EU finance ministers finally agreed on a €500 billion emergency fund. Yet this approach did not consider the possibility of shared "Corona bonds" for assisting the countries most in need. Here, shared or mutual debt could actually be of long-term interest to Holland and Germany— if it results in international investments for Eurobonds and strengthens the EU financially relative to the US and China.
While Moscow has sought to play its energy card to attract eastern European states and Germany, it is clear that Beijing has also sought to capitalize on Trump’s anti-European Union protectionism. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Beijing has hoped to gain influence by providing medical assistance to Germany, France, Italy and Serbia to help these countries fight the virus. In fact, China, Russia, and even Cuba—are all sending emergency medical aid to Italy which is now truly the “Sick Man of Europe”. And unable to produce medical face masks in Europe, European states have looked to Chinese corporations.
A further splintering of the European Union after Brexit—as supported by Trump and his minions in Europe, such as Steve Bannon—would open the Europeans to US, German, Russian and Chinese geo-economic rivalries while also undermining NATO. A break-up of the European Union would also set the stage for conflicts somewhat similar to that now taking place in eastern Ukraine—as Europe disintegrates into inter-state squabbles and irredentist claims.
In sum, a global war accompanied by socio-political revolutions (non-violent, violent and criminal) becomes increasing plausible as Homo Geopoliticus continues to polarize into rival alliances.
All this is to argue for US-European-Russian-Chinese strategic arms reductions talks6. These new talks should take place after extending the New START nuclear arms treaty before it expires February 2021—so as to safeguard US-Russia oversight over their respective nuclear weapons programs. New arms control and reduction treaties— plus a renewed efforts to negotiate with North Korea—should look for ways to significantly reduce intercontinental and intermediate range missiles, tactical nuclear weapons, hypersonic weapons, and missile defenses, among other systems, while seeking to eliminate a number of defense systems altogether and creating zones without weapons of mass destruction— with an emphasis on signing international treaties in which states agree not to use cyber capabilities for purposes of sabotage or warfare, while likewise agreeing to the no-first-use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
It is absolutely imperative for the US—as the still predominant global power—to move away from its self-righteous sovereigntist doctrine of “America First” and engage in truly concerted diplomacy with the major and regional powers in order to help resolve as many regional disputes as soon as possible. Most importantly, it is crucial to engage in international cooperation to help put an end to this pandemic and to look for ways to prevent future ones—while concurrently preventing an uncontrollable arms race which could easily degenerate into a nuclear war.
If nothing is done NOW, the next major power war—which could be accompanied by a new pandemic as was the case at the end of World War I which brought with it the horrors of both poison gas and the so-called “Spanish Flu” or “Blue Death” 7—should not take the world by “surprise”!!! More next month...
1 SARS-like WIV1-CoV poised for human emergence, Bat cave solves mystery of deadly SARS virus — and suggests new outbreak could occur.
2 The American Cowboy - Iranian Mullah Showdown, Butter Battle Arms Race, The Insecurity-Security Dialectic and the Indo-Pacific.
3 The Ayatollah Khamenei called the US leadership “liars, manipulators, impudent and greedy ... and charlatans.”
4 Butter Battle” Arms Race, The Insecurity-Security Dialectic and the Indo-Pacific.
5 See Hall Gardner, World War Trump.
6 See proposals.
7 Hall Gardner, The Failure to Prevent World War I: The Unexpected Armageddon (Ashgate, 2015).