How COVID-19 Could Increase the Risk of War
It is too soon to tell how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect international security. Whether it will provide opportunities for prolonged peace or create conditions for new rivalries and disputes depends on how long the pandemic lasts, how the world moves forward from bungled initial responses and how quickly countries recover from the virus’s societal and economic fallout. But already, the pandemic is exposing and accelerating trends that have made the world more vulnerable to international conflict.
That may be surprising, since before the outbreak, most statistics indicated that, on the whole, the world had never been better. People were wealthier, healthier and safer than ever, and the chance of a major war between two countries was arguably lower than it had been in centuries.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden.]
But that overlooked the ways in which the risk of interstate war was already rising before COVID-19 began to spread. Civil wars were becoming more numerous, lasting longer and attracting more outside involvement, with dangerous consequences for stability in many regions of the world. And the global dynamics most commonly cited to explain the falling incidence of interstate war—democracy, economic prosperity, international cooperation and others—were being upended.
If the spread of democracy kept the peace, then its global decline is unnerving. If globalization and economic interdependence kept the peace, then a looming global depression and the rise of nationalism and protectionism are disconcerting. If regional and global institutions kept the peace, then their degradation is unsettling. If the balance of nuclear weapons kept the peace, then growing risks of proliferation are disquieting. And if America’s preeminent power kept the peace, then its relative decline is troubling.
With the usual deterrents to conflict declining around the world, major wars could soon return.
Now, the pandemic, or more specifically the world’s reaction to it, is revealing the extent to which the factors holding major wars in check are withering. The idea that war between nations is a relic of the past no longer seems so convincing.
The Pessimists Strike Back
More than any other individual, it was cognitive scientist Steven Pinker who popularized the idea that we are living in the most peaceful moment in human history. Starting with his 2011 bestseller, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” Pinker argued that the frequency, duration and lethality of wars between great powers have all decreased. In his 2019 book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” he wrote that war “between the uniformed armies of two nation-states appears to be obsolescent. There have been no more than three in any year since 1945, none in most years since 1989, and none since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
Optimists like Pinker held that, rather than the world falling apart, as a quick glance at headline news might suggest, the opposite was true: Humanity was flourishing. More regions are characterized by peace; fewer mass killings are occurring; governance and the rule of law are improving; and people are richer, healthier, better educated and happier than ever before.
In their book, “Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans,” Michael A. Cohen and Micah Zenko argued that the evidence is so overwhelming that it is difficult to argue against the idea that wars between great powers, and all other interstate wars, are becoming vanishingly rare. Even when wars do break out, they tend to be shorter and less deadly than they were in the past. John Mueller, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, also reasoned that the idea of war, like slavery and dueling before it, was in terminal decline, while Joshua Goldstein, an international relations researcher at American University, credited the United Nations and the rise of peacekeeping operations for helping win the “war on war.”
But in recent years, a range of critics have begun to poke holes in these arguments. Tanisha M. Fazal, an international relations professor at the University of Minnesota, contends that the decline in war is overstated. Major advances in medicine, speedier evacuations of wounded soldiers from the field of battle and better armor have made war less fatal—but not necessarily less frequent. Fazal and Paul Poast, who is at the University of Chicago, further assert that the notion of war between great powers as a thing of the past is based on the assumption that all such conflicts resemble World War I and II—both are historical anomalies—and overlooks the actual wars fought between great powers since 1945, from the Korean War and the Vietnam War to proxy wars from Afghanistan to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Bear F. Braumoeller, an Ohio State political science professor, analyzed the same historical data on conflicts used by Pinker, Mueller and Goldstein, and found no general downward trend in either the initiation or deadliness of warfare over the past two centuries. What’s more, Braumoeller contends that the so-called “long peace”—the 75 years that have passed without systemic war since World War II—is far from invulnerable, and that wars are just as likely to escalate now as they used to be. Just because a major interstate war hasn’t happened for a long time, doesn’t mean it never will again. In all probability, it will.
And by focusing solely on interstate wars, the optimists miss half the story, at least. Wars between states have declined, but civil wars never disappeared—and these internal conflicts could easily escalate into regional or global wars.
The number of conflicts in the world reached its highest point since World War II in 2016, with 53 state-based armed conflicts in 37 countries. All but two of these conflicts were considered civil wars. To make matters worse, new studies have shown that civil wars are becoming longer, deadlier and harder to conclusively end, and that these internal conflicts are not really internal. Civil wars harm the economies and stability of neighboring countries, since armed groups, refugees, illicit goods and diseases all spill over borders. Some 10 million refugees have fled to other countries since 2012. The countries that now host them are more likely to experience war, which means states with huge refugee populations like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey face legitimate security challenges. Even after the threat of violence has diminished in refugees’ countries of origin, return migration can reignite conflicts, repeating the brutal cycle.
Perhaps most importantly, recent research indicates that civil wars increase the risk of interstate war, in large part because they are attracting more and more outside involvement. In a 2008 paper, researchers Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, Idean Salehyan and Kenneth Schultz explained that, in addition to the spillover effects, two other factors in civil wars increase international tensions and could possibly provoke wider interstate wars: external interventions in support of rebel groups and regime attacks on insurgents across international borders.
Immediately after the Cold War, none of the ongoing civil wars around the world were internationalized. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, there were 12 full-fledged civil wars in 1991—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and elsewhere—and foreign militaries were not active on the ground in any of them. Last year, by contrast, every single full-fledged civil war involved external military participants. This is due, in part, to the huge growth in U.S. military interventions abroad into civil conflicts, but it’s not only the Americans. All of today’s major wars are in essence proxy wars, pitting external rivals against one another. Conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya are best understood not as civil wars, but as international warzones, attracting meddlers including the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, France and many others, which often intervene not to build peace, but to resolve conflicts in a way that is favorable to their own interests. These internationalized wars are more lethal, harder to resolve and possibly more likely to recur than civil wars that remain localized. It is not that difficult to imagine how these conflicts could spark wider international conflagrations. Wars, after all, can quickly spiral out of control.
As Risks Increase, Deterrents Decline
To make matters worse, most of the global trends that explained why interstate war had decreased in recent decades are now reversing. The theories that democracy, prosperity, cooperation and other factors kept the peace have been much debated—but if there was any truth to them, their reversals are likely to increase the chance of war, irrespective of how long the coronavirus pandemic lasts.
Democracy is often considered a prophylactic for war. Fully democratic countries are less likely to experience civil war and rarely, if ever, go to war with other democracies—though, of course, they do still go to war against non-democracies. While this would be great news if democracy and pluralism were spreading, there have now been 14 consecutive years of global democratic decline, and there have been signs of additional authoritarian power grabs in countries like Hungary and Serbia during the pandemic. If democracy backslides far enough, internal conflicts and foreign aggression will become more likely.
Wars between states have declined, but civil wars never disappeared—and these internal conflicts could easily escalate into regional or global wars.
Other theories posit that economic bonds between countries have limited wars in recent decades. Dale Copeland, a professor of international relations at the University of Virginia, has argued that countries work to preserve ties when there are high expectations for future trade, but war becomes increasingly possible when trade is predicted to fall. If globalization brought peace, the recent wave of far-right nationalism and populism around the world may increase the chances of war, as tariffs and other trade barriers go up—mostly from the United States under President Donald Trump, who has launched trade wars with allies and adversaries alike.
The coronavirus pandemic immediately elicited further calls to reduce dependence on other countries, with Trump using the opportunity to pressure U.S. companies to reconfigure their supply chains away from China. For its part, China made sure that it had the homemade supplies it needed to fight the virus before exporting extras, while countries like France and Germany barred the export of face masks, even to friendly nations. And widening economic inequalities, a consequence of the pandemic, are not likely to enhance support for free trade.
This assault on open trade and globalization is just one aspect of a decaying liberal international order, which, its proponents argue, has largely helped to preserve peace between nations since World War II. But that old order is almost gone, and in all likelihood isn’t coming back. The U.N. Security Council appears increasingly fragmented and dysfunctional. Even before Trump, the world’s most powerful country ratified fewer treaties per year under the Obama administration than at any time since 1945.
Trump’s presidency only harms multilateral cooperation further. He has backed out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, reneged on the Iran nuclear deal, picked fights with allies, questioned the value of NATO and defunded the World Health Organization in the middle of a global health crisis. Hyper-nationalism, rather than international collaboration, was the default response to the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. and many other countries around the world.
It’s hard to see the U.S. reluctance to lead as anything other than a sign of its inevitable, if slow, decline. The country’s institutionalized inequalities and systemic racism have been laid bare in recent months, and it no longer looks like a beacon for others to follow. The global balance of power is changing. China is both keen to assert a greater leadership role within traditionally Western-led institutions and to challenge the existing regional order in Asia. Between a rising China, revanchist Russia and new global actors, including non-state groups, we may be heading toward an increasingly multipolar or nonpolar world, which could prove destabilizing in its own right.
Finally, the pacifying effect of nuclear weapons could be waning. While vast nuclear arsenals once compelled the United States and the Soviet Union to reach arms control agreements, old treaties are expiring and new talks are breaking down. Mistrust is growing, and the chance of an unwanted U.S.-Russia nuclear confrontation is arguably as high as it has been since the Cuban missile crisis.
The theory of nuclear peace may no longer hold if more countries are tempted to obtain their own nuclear deterrent. Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, for one thing, has only increased the chance that Tehran will acquire nuclear weapons. It’s almost easy to forget that, just a few short months ago, the United States and Iran were one miscalculation or dumb mistake away from waging all-out war. And despite Trump’s efforts to negotiate nuclear disarmament with Kim Jong Un’s regime in Pyongyang, it is wishful thinking to believe North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons. At this point, negotiators can only realistically try to ensure that North Korea’s nuclear menace doesn’t get even more potent.
In other words, by turning inward, the United States is choosing to leave other countries to fend for themselves. The end result may be a less stable world with more nuclear actors.
If leaders are smart, they will take seriously the warning signs exposed by this global emergency and work to reverse the drift toward war.
If only one of these theories for peace were worsening, concerns would be easier to dismiss. But together, they are unsettling. While the world is not yet on the brink of World War III and no two countries are destined for war, the odds of avoiding future conflicts don’t look good.
The pandemic is already degrading democracies, harming economies and curtailing international cooperation, and it also seems to be fostering internal instability within states. Rachel Brown, Heather Hurlburt and Alexandra Stark argue that the coronavirus could in fact sow more civil conflict. If this proves accurate, the increase in civil wars is likely to lead to more external meddling, and these next proxy wars could soon precipitate all-out international conflicts if outsiders aren’t careful. With the usual deterrents to conflict declining around the world, major wars could soon return.
Preventing the Next Major War
Regardless of what happens whenever the pandemic is resolved, it will be tempting to point to the coronavirus as the cause. But the shape of the post-pandemic world was forming long before the virus began to spread. The risk of war was already rising.
If leaders are smart, they will take seriously the warning signs exposed by this global emergency and work to reverse the drift toward war. Countries, particularly the United States, need to fight the urge to turn inward and increase defense spending at any sign of trouble. Further militarizing foreign engagements will only enflame tensions and make matters worse. No country can shoot its way out of worsening circumstances.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden.]
Instead, the United States should take the lead, reducing its military commitments and avoiding any ill-advised military interventions. Foreign relations should be characterized by diplomacy and development, not defense. The United States will need to make up with its friends and reengage in multilateral efforts to tackle global problems and resolve ongoing civil wars. International institutions should be consolidated and modernized to better respond to an unstable world with gathering threats like infectious diseases, climate change, growing inequality and demographic shifts. With the international order slowly crumbling and the United States retreating to focus on its own internal problems, the tendency for other countries will be to enhance their own border protections. But even in the absence of U.S. leadership, other countries are better served by increasing their international diplomacy and engagement, rather than buttressing their own defenses.
The coronavirus has exposed the preexisting conditions for major war. How countries respond will help determine whether or not the pandemic will hasten the drift toward more conflict, or if that trend can be reversed.
David Kampf is a senior PhD fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School.
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