By Richard E. Rubenstein*
The use of war metaphors to describe the response of threatened societies to the coronavirus and the disease it causes (COVID-19) is certainly understandable and not entirely inaccurate. But it is also misleading in crucial respects.
Like a wartime enemy, the virus is portrayed as a maleficent external threat, an alien force that endangers one’s homeland and personal security. Associating the biological threat with a political adversary, the American president labeled it a “Chinese virus,” while Chinese leaders have insisted that, despite its apparent origin in Wuhan Province, the virus was originally manufactured at the Pentagon’s recently closed biological warfare facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
This game of blame-the-adversary is absurd, of course, but the wartime analogy nevertheless has some validity. As in total war – the sort of no-holds barred struggle represented by the 20th century’s two world wars – the entire population is mobilized and required to make sacrifices, while government powers are expanded, and industry is retooled to supply the needs of front line forces. Again, as in a major war, people feeling themselves besieged look to political leaders for protection, organization, and inspiration, and the struggle is considered a supreme test of their leadership.
This is why U.S. president Donald Trump has declared himself a “wartime President.” But the label immediately draws attention to the analogy’s deficiencies.
A war against a human enemy ends either with the defeat of one side or a stalemate. In either case, the outcome redefines between the parties, and peacebuilding, while by no means inevitable, becomes at least a possibility.
But a virus – the latest manifestation of what used to be called plague – is an environmental threat. Its cause is not to be found in the aggressive or defensive policies of any state, or even in the social problems that produce such policies. Environmental threats are the result of collective activities that, consciously or unconsciously, redefine the relationship between human beings and the natural world.
As a consequence, the “defeat” of one threat does not produce even a cold peace. So long as human activities continue to unleash natural disasters, whether they take the form of viral plagues, atmospheric pollution, coastal flooding, extreme weather, nuclear accidents, oil spills, or disasters as yet unseen, this “war” is endless – and unwinnable.
What caused the coronavirus crisis? One can try to lay blame on the practices of sellers in the Wuhan food markets or the bioweapons experiments of researchers at Fort Detrick, but the underlying reality producing a global plague is uncontrolled globalization. With breathtaking increases in numbers of transactions and participants, diverse populations around the globe are now trading with each other; investing in each other’s industries and businesses; traveling to each other’s lands as workers, students, and tourists; dating and marrying each other’s children; absorbing elements of each other’s cultures . . . and contracting each other’s diseases.
The great “Spanish Flu” plague of 1918-19 correlated with the vast increase in foreign travel connected with World War I. A series of more recent outbreaks, including the recent H1Ni, SARS, and MERS infestations, correlates with the vast increase in foreign trade and travel since the end of the Cold War.
If this is so – if environmental threats, whether biological, meteorological, or industrial, are multiplying out of control – what is the cure? What end to this sort of “total war” can be foreseen? And what can be learned from the relative success of the Chinese, Koreans, and others in dealing with the coronavirus? Although it is too early to offer definitive answers, a few principles are becoming clear:
First, social and political systems around the world are facing a series of critical threats emanating from natural disasters caused or exacerbated by the normal operations of these systems. Rather than blame particular individuals or groups for these disasters, we need to focus on their systemic causes – the collective activities that have redefined people’s relationships with each other and the natural world – and the best ways of preventing or mitigating their disastrous effects.
This means multiplying current research into biological illnesses, climate change, industrial practices, migration, and other relevant topics by a geometric factor. The sort of research that has been devoted to developing high-tech weapons systems must now be redirected towards understanding the causes and nature of environmental threats and the best ways of preventing and mitigating them. However, since the causes of disaster are socio-political as well as natural, this research must be much more than techno-scientific. It must also explore new ways of combining collective social control over our economic and technological development with mass political participation and individual freedom.
Second, a collective threat necessitates a collective response. Responding to an environmental crisis requires strong government action supported by popular approval. Leaders of the United States, which has now become the epicenter of the virus, were at first highly critical of the Chinese response, which locked down the entire province of Wuhan and imposed strict controls on travel and other activities in China. These policies were portrayed as authoritarian and elitist, at least until new cases of the virus in China virtually disappeared. Meanwhile, democratic South Korea managed to test virtually its entire population for infection, and. by combining efficient control measures with efforts to raise popular morale, brought a frighteningly large infestation under control. By contrast, the U.S. proved grossly unprepared to deal with either the medical crisis or its economic effects and is just now adopting strong measures to counter both threats.
Third, social systems unable to cope with the rising tide of environmental threats must now be recognized as obsolete. Since the threats will continue after the current crisis recedes, the measures taken by governments to deal with its effects, as well as changes in the popular consciousness generated by the experience, are unlikely to be revoked or disappear. Post-coronavirus, we will be living a different sort of collective life: experiencing new feelings of deprivation, making new demands for satisfaction, and rethinking assumptions that may have seemed sacred, pre-corona.
Will people in the United States, for example, ever again think that they can thrive without government “interference” in their communal lives and in the labor market? Will they ever again believe that “national security” can be guaranteed by high-tech weaponry and troops stationed in foreign countries? Will they ever again consider public health, gainful employment, and access to accurate information less than fundamental human rights? The global environmental crisis is changing the world in dramatic ways, many of them unpredictable, but – potentially at least – not all of them for the worse.
Fourth, the continuing environmental crisis is likely to transform international relations by creating new forms of global governance, popular participation, and individual rights. If uncontrolled globalization is the source of many of out most serious environmental problems, controlled globalization seems the most obvious solution. Nations and would-be empires will continue to jockey for power; old habits are hard to break. But there is massive social learning taking place in the shadow of the coronavirus.
Closing borders and building walls will not protect us from death-dealing viruses, rising levels of seawater, uncontrollable fires, industrial disasters, or any of the other consequences of feckless development. (Edgar Allen Poe dramatized this brilliantly in “The Masque of the Red Death.”) Only collective action at the global level can do this. Perhaps the great irony of the coronavirus plague will be that, by dramatizing the existence of a common threat, it has at last provided the earth’s inhabitants with a motive to recognize and institutionalize their common humanity.
*Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University in Virginia. His recent book, Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed was published by Routledge in 2017.