Australian Outlook

In this section

Searching Effects: Coronavirus Challenges Traditional Security Perceptions

31 Mar 2020
By Diego Bolchini
Vladimir Putin toured a hospital for coronavirus patients located in the town of Kommunarka outside Moscow. Source: Kremlin

Trying to overcome the current global crisis, countries are studying all the possible courses of actions to mitigate or arrest the Coronavirus. As this pandemic progresses, it calls into question traditional conceptions of security.

Traditional or conventional response options may appear to be quite limited in this emergency as we are shifting from a political-military conception of a conventional security threat to a very slippery socio-economic and health estimate of a pandemic. More specifically, considering the ways in which the pandemic has become and represents an unconventional security threat, it must be considered that the virus has an objective ability to harm but no conscious willingness to do so. Governments cannot negotiate with it or persuade it to adopt international humanitarian law, treaties, or conventions.

Furthermore, the Coronavirus emergency has emphasised – if not modified and compressed – the value of time in International Relations and the so-called “speed of relevance” altering actors’ perceptions. Perceptions may change rapidly in this crisis, in a much more dynamic way than Robert Jervis could have imagined in his famous book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, written in the 1976 old bipolar scenario made of nuclear deterrence.

More specifically, international social perceptions are changing and acting at a micro-foundational level, as the often ungoverned flow of misinformation, misjudgements, and fake news appears. Furthermore, individual actions, and interactions between individuals, are now more and more relevant and critical, affecting and reframing international affairs with a substantial bottom-up approach.

Coronavirus also seems to generate – on a geopolitical “macro-level” – a more “realistic” attitude towards international relations. In some cases, it stimulates the rhetoric of the state as autonomous unit, managing its borders as a “frightened monad” with respect to the liberal design of interdependence. In this perspective, as recalled by Professor Vittorio Emanuele Parsi, States seem to act like “rock climbers,” interconnected, but with individual ropes, separated from each other in the process of their ascent, descent, or fall in the international order. A global vulnerability appears to be the sign of an ungoverned interdependence.

By definition, an effect describes a tangible change in the state of a system at a given time. Effects may result from one or more actions. Today, the entire world is looking for several qualitative and quantitative effects in order to mitigate or better to arrest coronavirus damages and loss of lives.

The number one challenge is to develop an adequate level of knowledge and awareness about the virus. This should enable us to perform proper assessments when it comes to geographical areas and locations at major risk, adequate means of protection, and means of effective reaction and suppression of the threat. In this context, and in psychological terms, the search for a vaccine is now a sort of global search for the “Holy Grail.” Following this narrative, doctors, biologists, virologists, and researchers must act as the new “Knights of the Realm.”

In conclusion, it is true that the “war” against this new virus is a huge enterprise, also in economic terms, as recently recalled by Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank.  In addition, we should have a far-sighted regard for the state of the world that will follow this emergency. For today, we have to sustain our shared effort with strong resilience, diligence, and social discipline. Echoing US General Petraeus’ words, we could conclude that nowadays, the decisive terrain is the human terrain. The people are a critical centre of gravity.

Diego Bolchini is a cultural analyst based in Rome, Italy. Diego reads security studies at Florence University and has been an instructor in security seminars jointly organised by the University of Buckingham (UK) and the GeoLab Laboratory for Geocultural Analyses, Ionian University (Greece)