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The Miner’s Canary: COVID-19 and the Rise of Non-Traditional Security Threats

To face them, we need new definitions of security and a global approach.

COVID-19 is not a black swan. For years, foresight experts have been warning about the potential emergence of a pandemic, while public health experts have been calling the attention of the international community to the dangerous security impact of global outbreaks.

The novel coronavirus is, however, a canary in the coal mine. The pandemic is the harbinger of a security landscape marked by the rise of non-traditional security threats. These challenges will act as threat multipliers, further exacerbating existing security dilemmas and the complexity of the 2020s. COVID-19 is the template for what lies ahead, that is, unless we take action. The sooner we understand the fundamental transformation ahead of us, the sooner we can adapt our concepts and institutions to guarantee the safety of people, states, and the international community.

In many ways, COVID-19 is a threat foretold. As early as the 1970s, policy experts have been calling for attention towards a new category of threats. Their realization, as intuitive as it was conceptually novel, was that insecurity stems from much more than outright conflict, and threats to people’s wellbeing can have security implications for communities and states alike. The awareness that there is an indelible, yet complex link between development, peace and security caught on unequally in the policy world, getting the most traction in capacity-building and stabilization missions.

The basic idea, then and now, is that orthodox security frameworks failed to capture a particular, novel type of threats. They are called non-traditional security threats and espouse three characteristics. First, they are stateless, born out of a symbiosis of systemic factors. They are transnational, whereby their effects spill over borders, even if their causes may be localized. Finally and crucially, they have non-military origin. Traditionally, security threats were considered to emerge as a result of the accumulation of military capability and states’ intentions to change the balance of power by using force. Today, however, threats to international security have primarily economic and social causes, though they directly lead to loss of life and violence, and indirectly to state instability.

What are some forms of non-traditional security threats? Climate change, irregular migration, transnational crime and human trafficking, resource scarcity, and even corruption fit the bill. And of course, pandemics. These threats are not one-off crises. They are all part of a broader category of risks which are and will continue reshaping the international system. In this light, COVID-19 becomes the bellwether of change. 

When COVID-19 hit, it presented a stark reminder that insecurity is a global affair. As of May 4th, in just over 6 months, the pandemic affected 215 countries and territories, while also showing that non-military security challenges can permeate the artificial dividing line between developed and developing countries. While historically developing countries were considered to be a fertile breeding ground for such issues due to state weakness and inability to provide public services, COVID-19 has turned that logic on its head, making the impact visible everywhere from Sofia to Seoul.

COVID-19 can be a bleak template of how non-traditional security threats ravage the international system. Without action, we may see in the future a worrying pattern of extensive loss of life, compounded subsequent shocks and even outright conflict. In 2015, regional events like the migration flow to Europe during 2015-2016 from the Middle East and North Africa was arguably a key factor in social polarization and the renaissance of the extreme right in places like Germany, France, Poland and Hungary. Today, the pandemic is leaving in its wake one of the worst economic crises since the Great Depression. Continued levels of low growth combined with high levels of unemployment can be a recipe for rising populism and further political fallout in the new decade. In the future, the consequences of unmitigated climate change could similarly lead to economic decline, resource scarcity and political instability. While each of these issues is unique and context-specific, they will all undoubtedly change the security landscape.

Indeed, with non-traditional security challenges, the danger is twofold. The immediate ecosystem is the first line of impact, causing violence and loss of life. For instance, the lives of countless civilians are engulfed in the crossfire in countries with an outbreak of criminality. However, counterintuitively, the secondary set of shocks is much more pernicious. Non-traditional threats have wicked downstream consequences, leading to economic crises, social fragmentation, political instability and at the extreme, conflict. In a word, they are multipliers of existing vulnerabilities, both in peaceful and conflict settings.

As globalization continues and humans’ relationship with the environment remains strained, non-traditional threats are only poised to increase, in troubling fashion. Take climate change. On our current trajectory, the global temperature is expected to rise about 3.2 degrees Celsius, far above the target of 1.5 degrees. One article found that the “risk of climate-induced violence is fivefold under a business-as-usual scenario (4-degree C increase), up from the 5 percent average effect over the past century.” Similarly, resource scarcity and other diseases transmitted from animals to humans will likely persist as we encroach upon Nature’s systems through extended, unsustainable exploitation.

The rise of non-traditional threats coincides with continued social and economic interconnectedness, dwindling investments in social security and expanding geopolitical fragmentation. This mix is hollowing out the international system, exacerbating existing security dilemmas, and leading at best to intractable situations and at worst to disaster. To create an alternative future, we need to expand our security concepts, adapt our institutions and support international state and sub-state cooperation.

First, we should develop and implement more holistic concepts and benchmarks for security. The coronavirus pandemic has proven yet again that simply defining security as the absence of conflict is not enough. Researchers should integrate human wellbeing factors into their analytical frameworks; at the policy level, more collaboration among the development and security communities is fundamental. Our metrics and indicators should also follow suit, capturing nuanced, cross-field data to assess security or the lack thereof.

Second, from an institutional perspective, the military need not be primarily responsible for managing the rise of non-traditional threats, even if they pose security concerns. If policymakers focus on addressing these types of threats upstream, at their root, they can be tackled before escalating into outright conflict. With this approach, the solution lies in enhancing civil-military cooperation and increasing domestic and foreign investments in human capacity-building (social security, healthcare, etc.).

Finally, the nationalist lens through which COVID-19 was managed need not be the approach we should espouse moving forward. Global cooperation is essential in managing and preventing non-traditional threats, since their effects concern broad coalitions of countries. Actors like the European Union are on the right side of history in making this very case. However, the absence of the United States from the table should not preclude action. There is immense potential for sub-state level cooperation, building on local expertise and community know-how. Putting people first is the strategic and moral way ahead, and the only way to ensure sustainable security.

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