NATO is not a humanitarian relief agency. COVID-19 is, however, the worst national security crisis to hit any of its member states since the alliance was founded. The EU bungled its initial response when Italy succumbed to the vicious virus and seems unable to recover in the court of public opinion. This is instead the moment for NATO to act, and to show the world that it will protect its member states. This is, in fact, NATO’s moment.
When Italian authorities realized their country was heading towards a massive COVID-19 outbreak, they quickly appealed to fellow EU member states for medical supplies. None materialized. Despite entreaties by the European Commission, many weeks later the Italians were still waiting. That allowed China and Russia to step in and send a combination of some supplies, a few Chinese medics, and around 100 Russian military doctors. Now EU member states have belatedly woken up to the fact that their lack of solidarity with a fellow member state that has lost nearly 12,000 citizens to coronavirus and is fighting to save the lives of more than 100,000 others presents a golden opportunity for the West’s rivals. Germany’s Bundeswehr has airlifted Italian and French patients to German hospitals. Germany, France, and Austria have sent facemasks to Italy and Spain, and the Czech Republic has sent 10,000 protective suits. Poland has sent 15 doctors.
These are nice gestures, but wholly insufficient for a values-alliance-cum-economic-union with a combined population of more than 500 million. The problem is that the European Commission – the EU’s executive arm – can’t tell member states what to do, and most evidently have limited empathy with badly stricken fellow member states. Poland has a population of some 40 million, some 2,000 coronavirus cases, and 31 deaths. Hungary, an EU net beneficiary like Poland, has a population of some 10 million, fewer than 500 coronavirus cases, and 16 fatalities. So far, it has sent Italy nothing, as have most EU member states.
And Italy is, of course, not COVID-19’s only victim. Spain has some 95,000 infections and more than 8,000 deaths. Germany has some 67,000 infections (though only 650 deaths); France, more than 45,000 infections and more than 3,000 deaths; and the United States, rapidly rising above 160,000 infections, with more than 3,000 lives lost. There’s one multinational organization that has a command-and-control system for contingencies, the staff to execute the contingency operation, and that is set up to defend its member states from severe danger.
That organization is NATO. Sure, COVID-19 is not an attack of the kind foreseen in the North Atlantic Treaty, whose Article 5 states that “the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.” Coronavirus is, however, the most destructive force to hit any of NATO’s member states since the end of World War II. It has already killed more Americans than the 9/11 attacks did. By authorizing SACEUR – Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Air Force General Tod Wolters — to take action, NATO could set its formidable machinery in motion. In this case it wouldn’t be the usual infantry but instead military doctors, nurses, and logisticians, along with medical equipment. And unlike the European Commission, SACEUR has the power to command. A mission authorized by the North Atlantic Council and led by SACEUR wouldn’t depend on countries assigning small gifts to needy allies.
NATO is also an alliance struggling to find acceptance. In 2009, for example, 71 percent of French citizens had a positive view of NATO; ten years later the figure had dropped to 49 percent, according to a Pew Research poll. During the same period, NATO support among Germans dropped from 73 to 57 percent; among Spaniards, from 56 to 49 percent; and among Italians, from 64 to 60 percent. (Despite Donald Trump’s constant criticism of the alliance, support among Americans has remained steady, with only a small drop from 53 to 52 percent.) With the prospect of an invasion of NATO territory remote, young people in particular find it hard to see the purpose of the alliance.
And now: a severe, alliance-wide (indeed, worldwide) crisis that’s affecting every resident of every NATO member state. In a recent article for Foreign Policy, I proposed that such a mission be named Mission Good Samaritan. What better opportunity for NATO to prove its worth as a mutual defense alliance? Today’s generation and future generations alike would remember when, in the face of global COVID-19 chaos, NATO stepped in to execute an alliance-wide response, delivering medical assistance to the member states worst hit by the virus.
No, NATO shouldn’t shift its focus to humanitarian missions. But right now, there’s government and no international organization that has the clout and command-and-control to take on this mission. The World Health Organization certainly doesn’t. People all over the world would thank NATO for delivering medics and ventilators, and for airlifting patients to NATO-operated temporary military hospitals. What’s more, it would shorten the pandemic. Even Donald Trump would gratefully remember Mission Good Samaritan.