to Content
Header Image

Security Policy Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The strategic answer to the COVID-Crisis is cooperation. Only well connected-societies, people and states are resilient.

By Leyla Daskin and Johann Frank

Pandemics are not wars. The coronavirus itself is not an act of violence and has no political intentions. But the pandemic does imply effects for international security and therefore needs to be regarded not only as a health crisis but as a strategic challenge too, as it threatens to exacerbate security risks and causes new risks.

There lies great danger of a one-sided, strictly public health focused assessment in the current situation. Past crises and pandemics demonstrated that they have never reduced military risks. In fact, we can expect that already existing security policy trends will be further intensified. New challenges might arise, and any new crisis would now hit states that have been severely weakened economically.

The possible risks can be broken down into global, transnational and regional challenges. Globally, a new Cold War between China and the United States is continuously precipitated in the conflict over economy, technology, strategic goals and political and social values. This trend has already been in the making before the pandemic, but was now accelerated by the virus. Transnationally, terrorists can use the crisis to become stronger and learn from it. Biotechnology could become a more attractive weapon, and there is an increasing risk of cyber threats. Regionally, an increase in migration should also be expected again as soon as the borders are reopened.

In the periphery of Europe, especially in the belt from West Africa and Central Africa to the Middle East and Afghanistan, the pandemic shows no sign of a stabilizing effect. Rather, even states that were somewhat stable so far could now get under pressure because of the pandemic. The security risks posed by the crisis belt, the ‘ring of fire’, will tend to increase for Europe.

In Africa, the economic collateral damage caused by the coronavirus is expected to be more serious than the health crisis itself. Some states are already weakened by the locust plague and other crises and diseases such as Malaria and Ebola. Terrorist organizations like Boko Haram in Nigeria or Al Shabaab in Somalia are in the process of reorganizing and gaining ability to act. The security authorities in these countries are busy reducing the spread of the virus and enforcing exit restrictions in metropolitan areas. This means that large parts of the states, especially the rural areas, are left without security forces.

The pandemic has also not eased the situation in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. It has even worsened in Libya. The dispute between Iran and the United States is still ongoing. In all of these states more deaths result from civil war than from the coronavirus. There is no noticeable reduced military engagement from actors like Iran or Russia, even though these countries have been particularly affected by the virus.

Terrorist networks like ISIS and Al Qaeda are using the current phase of the pandemic to reorganize themselves and recruit with the help of propaganda and conspiracy theories. The fact that many people have resorted to the online-world during lockdowns plays into their hands when it comes to online-recruiting.

These organizations are already observing closely the fear that the pandemic is creating in the western world. As a result, the attractiveness and the risk of bio-terrorism have increased. In his remarks to the UN Security Council on April 9, 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres listed Bioterrorism as one of the priority security risks that arise from COVID-19, because on one hand, terrorists generally could use the opportunity to attack while governments are overwhelmed by the crisis. On the other hand, the weaknesses and inadequate preparation exposed by this pandemic provide insights into what a bio-terrorist attack could look like and may increase the risk of it.

Migration from Africa will increase as soon as the border closures are being relaxed again. However, there could be a shift in the destination countries. In this way, countries that are less affected by the disease could become more of a desired final destination for refugees. The potential of numbers is enormous, there are 150,000 refugees on the Western Balkans route, including 120,000 in Greece. Turkey is currently home to four million refugees, 3.5 million are in Iran, 650,000 in Libya. Attempts by transit countries to politically exploit the refugees are possible at any time.

Furthermore, there are dangers in the online area. Not only increased cyber-crime due to increased economic activities on the Internet, but also information and disinformation campaigns. The internet becomes a contested area in propaganda war. Another trend is using the cyber area for espionage in medicine, research and development. Among other things, this is about the race for corona vaccine and medication.

The pressure on Europe stemming from both Washington D.C. and Beijing is great. Europe’s supply reliability and its economic system are vulnerable, for example if access to the Chinese market for medical goods and other products is restricted on the one hand, or to US technologies and the US economy on the other. China and the United States are trying to win partners or allies in the capital cities of the EU by offering support during the pandemic and providing aid, visible for the media, or by offering loans, infrastructure projects or promoting military cooperation. Europe must cope with the United States’ retreat as a world power and the pressure from China. This requires new qualities in its foreign policy such as determination, autonomy and self-confidence.

The more the transatlantic community erodes, the greater the opportunities for China and Russia to play off Europe and the United States against each other. This dynamic is based in particular on geo-economic developments, because the competition between these four players is essentially determined by competition for access to and control over strategic infrastructure, communication networks, new technologies, supply channels and supply chains. The companies that are crucial for security of supply in areas such as energy, health, nutrition, digitalization and other high-technology segments are at the core of this competition dynamic. Without protecting these strategic companies and the supply chains, there can be no strategic resilience or strategic autonomy in Europe.

Without strategic resilience, the economy and attractiveness as a location of a country are exposed to incalculable risks. This requires rethinking: the state should create incentives so that companies invest more in security, for example by jointly stocking critical components, promoting research and technology, or purchasing new security products as a first customer. For companies, strategic reserves ensuring that operational processes and supply chains are crisis-proof become a competitive differentiator because they ensure performance even in extraordinary situations. State and business need a new form of strategic dialogue in order to discuss these aspects together and to develop new security approaches.

Strategic crisis resilience requires that the state on the one hand mitigates risks for the economy and society through robust protective measures and emergency programs. On the other hand, the state must play an activating role that enables the economy, society and the individual citizen to be able to identify and manage risks better in the future. This form of strategic crisis resilience particularly relies on expanding the ability to anticipate in order to identify the origins of possible strategic shocks at an early stage. Risk analysis without concrete measures is useless. It is not enough to recognize risks; the risk assessment needs to be followed by concrete policies, backed with resources, not as a peripheral political area with its importance and scope being measured according to the priorities of other policy fields.

The post-pandemic desire for national resilience is growing and so is the temptation to use this for protectionist measures, renationalization and isolationism. However, that would be detrimental to the goal of a new strategic resilience. Protectionism undermines diversity but it is only the well-connected states, economical systems and societies that can be resilient. In fact, we need more and not less Europe, more and not less security cooperation, more and not less solidarity. Europe can only come out of this crisis together to tackle the enormous challenges it is facing.

This pandemic puts effective multilateralism to the test. Previous foundations of international security policy have been called into question and need active contributions from those states that adhere to a liberal international order.

The United Nations and World Health Organization have a problem when it comes to financing and acceptance. In this new Cold War, the ability of international organizations to act has come under pressure. Institutions such as the UN, the World Food Program or the World Health Organization have “serious funding gaps” and also an acceptance problem. Guterres’ call for a ceasefire in all conflicts in the face of Covid-19 has gone unheeded. In the year the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary, it will be therefore more important than ever to remember the collective commitment to multilateralism that was given exactly because of this need for international cooperation when handling global challenges.

The European Union has started to kick into crisis management after initial problems, with about 3.4 trillion euros in aid. This was an important step, since renationalization would certainly have been the wrong strategy in times of crisis.

Another important aspect to reconsider is the future relationship between science and security. This pandemic has underlined the value of science-based policy advice that needs to be further developed, even if it is not always easy to find the most relevant information for political decision-making from different scientific approaches and forecasts. But we have seen how vulnerable modern information societies are to disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories. This must be countered by active strategic communication and widely accessible and understandable factual information.

In future planning, all security scenarios, including strategic surprises and risks that are difficult to calculate, should be taken into account, even if not all risks will actually occur. It is nonetheless of vital importance to recognize dangers early and to be prepared. Europe must increase its resilience and strategic autonomy and it must also cooperate more in the field of security policy. Non-cooperation in the military sector, i.e. no division of labor and the use of various systems in the armed forces of EU-countries cost 30 billion euros. Europe will not be able to afford this in the future. Again, only well connected-societies, people and states are resilient. So the strategic answer to the COVID-Crisis must be more cooperation not less.

Therefore, this is also a re-defining moment for the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of the EU. Military assistance was required in all EU member states during the pandemic, while international engagement needed to continue. The question for the future will be what role the CSDP should and can play within the EU, like when it comes to protecting its external borders, its critical infrastructure, countering hybrid threats or terrorism. The process of creating a “Strategic Compass” under the German EU-Council Presidency should define the risks that will be relevant in the future and use this risk assessment to outline the necessary measures, capabilities and priorities for Europe’s future. The Strategic Compass should give the CSDP a new strategic orientation that takes lessons from COVID-19 into account. This strategic document comes at an important time to say the least. May it rise to its responsibility and may all member states make valuable contributions to this end.


Major General Johann Frank is the Director of the Institute for Peace Support and Conflict Management at the National Defense Academy of Austria.

Leyla Daskin is a political scientist at the Institute for Peace Support and Conflict Management at the National Defense Academy of Austria. Her scientific focus are transatlantic relationships and terrorism.