““There was a great and mighty plague in the whole world in the days of the Emperor Justinian,”
• Over corpses which split open and rotted in the streets with nobody to bury [them];
• Over houses large and small, beautiful and desirable which suddenly became tombs….;
• Over ships in the midst of the sea whose sailors were suddenly attacked…and became tombs…and they continued adrift in the waves;
• Over bridal chambers where the brides were adorned but all of a sudden there were just lifeless and fearsome corpses…;
• Over highways which became deserted”
Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Marhe: Chronicle, Known Also as the Chronicle of Zuqnin,
Part 3, translated Witold Witakowski (1996), pp74-75
“Then came Justinian’s plague, a world-historical event that killed a large part of the population, necessarily wrecking every imperial institution including the army and navy.”
The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Edward N Luttwak,
The Belknap Press of Harvard University press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 2009, Kindle loc 4092.
We live in interesting times. In many ways it feels like the Spring of 1939 and not Spring 2020. It is unlikely to presage the end of the world, but it does remind me of being in Iraq in the summer of 2008, watching the global financial crisis unfold, and thinking to myself that I was witnessing the end of an era.
My two takeaways from what we have seen so far are neither new nor earth shattering. We are going to see much more attention focused on security as a whole, encompassing resilience and by necessity (in the future) societal cohesion, and less attention to defence in the singular; and that the pandemic will accelerate already extant fissures, faultiness and by extension conflicts and instability.
Security versus Defence.
One thing that the pandemic has highlighted above all else except our inherent human frailty, is the importance of resilience. I suspect many have been unpleasantly surprised by the lack of resilience capacity. A perceived lack of Intensive Care Unit capacity, panic buying of toilet paper and a comprehensive shortage of medical PPE came as an unpleasant surprise to many. It should not have.
I attended a number of resilience conferences and workshops over the course of 2018 and 2019 and the themes of which were clear.
- Our globalised system could deal with a regionalised issue, but no-one could envisage a globalised shock.
- The complexity of the modern globalised system meant that resilience was assumed in and vulnerability assumed out because no-one could map the vulnerabilities effectively (the system was too complex).
- National supply chain integrity could not be assured.
- Most countries had outsourced critical components of the manufacturing base (or entire sectors) overseas. In some areas manufacturing had become highly centralised both geographically and corporately.
- There was no spare (Role 3 or national civilian) medical capacity within Europe.
- In some cases resilience capacity had been designed out – how many modern houses and flats have a pantry where you can store one to two weeks’ worth of food?
- A less robust resilience capacity. Resilience costs, there are reasons why we have outsourced manufacturing overseas (it is cheaper) and stockpiles have largely been minimised or reduced all together (they cost to build up, maintain, and depreciate over time (hands up who can remember the impact of resource Account Budgeting on MOD stocks…).
I suspect therefore that resilience on its broadest sense will come to the fore. RUSI has been ahead of the curve here (full disclosure – I am a RUSI member) and in particular Elisabeth Braw (@elisabethbraw ) and RUSI’s Modern Deterrence programme.
The first function of government is not the defence of its people but, I would suggest, the security of its people, encompassing the ability to provide for their basic food, clothing and shelter requirements, maintaining public order and then defending from external hostile threats. As resilience costs, I suspect we may see a knock on to defence budgets.
The COVID-19 Accelerant.
The pandemic has stressed both national and international systems. At the national level governments are walking the tight-rope of preventing health systems from being over-whelmed through a strategy of containment, versus the economic and social impacts of a massive contraction in the economy caused by containment. Societal cohesion is being threatened. This is not new, but COVID-19 is exacerbating the extant fissures and inequalities. In the UK, as in the USA and India many families live pay cheque to pay cheque. India has put in place a lockdown, but does not have a robust system to provide food to its poor. In the USA the demand for foodbanks is growing exponentially. In San Antonio (Texas) – not a place normally noted for urban squalor and deprivation the San Antonio food bank fed 10,000 families last Thursday.
Governments are struggling to meet the immediate demands, recognising that meeting the immediate demands now will place stresses downstream.
One striking aspect of the pandemic is also the immediate reliance placed on those frontline workers who are (financially) often rewarded minimally: supermarket shop assistants, delivery drivers, care home staff and health care professionals. It would be foolish to think that this will not drive social and political appetite to address the wealth inequality the increasingly underpins modern societies and which has already been recognised as a growing issue of concern. If it is not an issue, the fact that this pandemic is also the world’s first infodemic where public health messaging has been delivered into a contested and sometime hostile information environment should also give us cause for concern about the impacts of this pandemic on cohesion and security.
Lastly the pandemic is likely to act as an accelerant on already extant international fissures. All international politics subordinate themselves to domestic considerations, and the pandemic has seen a perceived increase in unilateralism at the expense of multilateralism. The USA has arguably abdicated its role as world leader, the EU has confirmed its north south split, and the idea that the pandemic will hasten the roll back of globalization is not far-fetched.
We live in interesting times; I wish that we didn’t, but we do. Times of stress and crisis are also however, times of challenge and opportunity. Professionally we would do well to think on how to maintain an edge when means are limited. Certainly strategic and institutional agility will be a highly desirable commodity in the future. The role that information and disinformation has played in this first infodemic of the 21st century should also give us pause for strategic and institutional consideration, not just on information, but the blurring lines between defence, security and the role of the military today. On a broader basis the pandemic should also challenge us to think of the why and wherefore of what we do as a society, I for one have never subscribed to the opinion that the worth of a person is rested in their economic output.
So, interesting times, may we rise to them.