We all want to forget 2020 - but not so fast


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

As we head towards the Christmas and New Year holiday, most of us want to put maximum social distance between ourselves and 2020 as quickly as possible. Good riddance to what has been truly an annus horribilis due to the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the year ends, the virus shows no signs of subsiding, and countries that seemed to be coping well with it thus far, such as Germany and South Korea, have also experienced worrying spikes in infections and rising death tolls in recent weeks. Clearly, good governance and health systems can help to control the pandemic and reduce its severity but only up to a point. The arrival of several vaccines offers us hope of a way out in 2021 and something like a return to normal by this time next year.

Indeed, we certainly need to return to normal as fast as possible, not only to secure our health and economic livelihoods, but also because 2020 has been a landmark year in many other ways, and has presented a raft of challenges that could be as significant for our future as a pandemic like COVID-19. It has been the year when climate change reached an unprecedented level of intensity and impact, it was also the year when the Black Lives Matter movement re-surged in the United States and then around the world, and we had to come to terms with a still painful legacy of colonialism.

This was also, for many of us, a year of near despair when we saw that millions of Americans, believed that a proven free and fair election had somehow been ‘stolen’ from them. At a moment when for the first time since the turn of the century the majority of the world’s population are living in authoritarian states, the threat of democratic polities breaking down into ideological reality-denying bubbles does not bode well for the future of the open society.

However, there was hope too, as large numbers of people in Belarus protested against a genuinely fraudulent election, despite considerable police brutality. Women stood up for their reproductive rights in Poland and demonstrators took to the streets to protest against corruption in Bulgaria and Serbia. Yet, as China clamped down on Hong Kong and numerous African leaders changed constitutions to keep themselves in power indefinitely, it was not a good year for democracy promotion. Moreover, with conflicts breaking out, it was worrying to see military force once again being used to dictate political outcomes, and as usual at considerable cost to civilians.

The virus has shown that targeted cyber-attacks at the level of states are now worse than ever

All these developments do not suggest that 2021 will be any less challenging and stressful than 2020. However, it will hopefully be a year when the virus is under sufficient control to create space for our political leaders to address these other issues. This said, the vaccines, even if rolled out quickly and equitably, will not make COVID-19 suddenly disappear. No doubt restrictions in our lives will continue for several months and the return to normal will be gradual and haphazard, as the economic recovery and financial rebalancing will drag on for a generation. Therefore, 2021 will also be a COVID-19 year and virus crisis management will still be at the top of the political agenda in Europe and North America. This pandemic shed a cruel light on our vulnerabilities and has been the ultimate stress tester. To my mind this has been clearest of all in five key areas.

First, Europe’s supply chain vulnerability. The pandemic’s rapid spread soon exposed years of under-investment in domestic production of medicines, hospital equipment and test kits. As globalisation took hold in the 1990s much of this home production was off-shored to China and other low-cost countries. European Union countries were in competition with each other for dwindling supplies and at exorbitant prices. Borders closed and the EU was hamstrung by not having a formal role in health matters. Fortunately, the EU recovered quickly and was soon active in stockpiling supplies and co-financing vaccine research and development, reinforcing its key institutions, such as the European Medicines Agency and the EU Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

As we look ahead Europe has to improve the security and resilience of its supply chains. Five particular areas are crucial for strategic autonomy: communications technology, energy, basic materials like rare earths, chemical precursors or medicine components, food, and health services and equipment. Autonomy does not necessarily mean bringing all these supply chains back home. In some cases, regional diversification away from single-source suppliers will suffice. The EU is currently discussing a new Industrial Strategy to be approved next March. It also agreed, just a few days ago, its €750 billion European Recovery Programme. While focusing on the two core Commission objectives of the green and digital economies, it will be important to use these initiatives also to point the way forward on supply chain resilience and state aid to production as well. What are the ‘strategic industries’ that ensure resilience?  How much foreign investment or control can the EU allow in these sectors and how does it ensure transparency and oversight in keeping these key Industries up to standard or preventing them from simply fading away as happened in the last two decades?  

The second area concerns cyber-security. The EU has done a great deal to enhance privacy online and data protection and its new Digital Services Act will put more onus on the tech companies to comply with its high standards. However, the virus has shown that targeted cyber-attacks at the level of states are now worse than ever. The European Medicines Agency reports that cyber attackers have accessed its vaccine approval data, and the WHO as well as many pharmaceutical companies have also disclosed information about hacking attempts. Stealing intellectual property and research secrets is the main objective. Some attacks have put hospitals and clinics out of effective action by denying access to patient records and demanding ransoms. At a time when the virus has accelerated the shift to the digital economy and made us all even more dependent on information technology, the vulnerability of our software to penetration and data theft and manipulation is worrying. The clean-up operation to eliminate malware and the hacking tools can run into the millions and economic losses into the billions.

Populists who are good at campaigning have been exposed as poor crisis managers

It is helpful that this week, the European Commission unveiled its latest Cyber Security Strategy and also plans to establish a Cyber Security Competence Centre in Romania to help train Europe’s future cyber defence specialists. A reworking of the Network Information Security Directive is also in the works to improve and harmonise technical standards for products and company cyber-security obligations across the EU. The EU has also developed a diplomatic toolbox of options for responding to cyber-attacks. But the unrelenting pattern of hostile state behaviour in this area underscores that next year, Europe needs to upgrade its cyber defences whilst figuring out better ways to name and shame the perpetrators of attacks.

In third place is governance. The virus may have brought a rare silver lining here by making citizens more focused on the competence of governments rather than their ideological narratives. Populists who are good at campaigning have been exposed as poor crisis managers and lamentable communicators. Brazil and the United States have led the way here but they are not alone. On the other hand, countries where leaders have had the courage to take early, unpopular decisions on lockdowns, trust rather than denigrate their scientific advisors, empower COVID-19 response task forces and work with provinces and local authorities behind a clear and consistent set of policies and messages have fared better.

Of course, with such a pernicious and mutating virus, all is relative and provisional. At the same time, COVID-19 has obliged states to take on a greater role in the economy to prevent a business meltdown and preserve the jobs of millions of furloughed workers. As it becomes more responsible for our daily lives, we are bound to take a greater interest in how the government actually performs and delivers, rather than its ideological purity in our culture wars and identity politics. Getting the job done, rather than shouting the loudest, is what most of us will want and expect from our leaders. This focus on good governance could be healthy for our democracies in the long run.

Fourth, COVID-19 has not been a good crisis for multilateralism. Certainly, some institutions have performed well, and encouragingly for Europeans this short list includes key institutions on which they depend, such as the EU and NATO. Yet, the global scene has been less rosy. The UN Security Council took four months after the outbreak of the pandemic to hold its first meeting devoted to it. It took three months to respond to the appeal from UN Secretary-General Guterres for a humanitarian conflict ceasefire during the pandemic. The authority of the Security Council is increasingly being flouted as in the violation of the Libya arms embargo. Permanent members, especially China and Russia, have used the veto three times more often in the past decade than in the decade before. The number of approved resolutions and declarations on international conflicts has declined.

If we cannot always prevent catastrophic events we can at least identify and act on the key lessons

Of course, these problems were not caused by the pandemic and largely pre-date it. They have their origin in the growing geopolitical rivalry between the US and China and the US disengagement from multilateralism during the past four years. They are also rooted in the paralysed reform of the Security Council to make it more representative of today’s world and weaken the power of the veto. But COVID-19 has highlighted the dysfunctional nature and poisoned politics of the UN system at a time when we need it more than ever to deal with climate change and cope with the hunger, poverty and equitable vaccine distribution challenge in developing countries resulting from the pandemic.

Moreover, other bodies like the G7 and G20, that were so prominent in responding to the 2008 financial crisis, have also been rarely visible. Just last week the WTO failed to come up with a new agreement to preserve ocean fish stocks. The incoming Biden administration offers hope of a vital US re-engagement in multilateralism, with the US re-joining the Paris climate accord. This is a necessary but still insufficient prerequisite to rescue multilateralism in 2021. The EU, the US and other global democracies have to work together to rebuild their voice and influence in the UN and persuade other countries, gravitating between the West and China, to come on board behind sensible reform proposals. The current reform review of the WHO and the election of a new director-general of the WTO and new appellate judges for its arbitration panels would be a good place to begin.

Finally, and in fifth place, comes scientific research. The great and single most positive factor in the pandemic has been the genius of scientists in devising and testing novel vaccines to combat the virus. An effort that takes at least a decade has been completed in just ten months and only because the international cooperation and inter-dependencies so decried by the populist-nationalists have worked so effectively. COVID-19 has demonstrated that new challenges require new scientific breakthroughs. A new vaccine is our only exit strategy in order to limit the death toll and return our economy and lives to normal. Yet, innovation and new discoveries are becoming harder. COVID-19 has provided a massive rebuttal to the deniers and myth makers but also demonstrated that there is still so much that we need our scientists to do for us.

The EU is still far from spending its target of 3% of GDP on science and research. The EU needs a long-term science strategy at a time when China is leapfrogging ahead on AI funding and new technologies like quantum computing and bio and neural engineering. The EU, working with business and academia, needs to make a career in science attractive and promote a culture of risk-taking and experimentation. Europe has a good track record in basic R&D but taking it to the next level of innovation, product design and marketing has proved much more difficult. Yet given its basic strengths in science and technology there is no reason why Europe should fall behind in this field. It means setting the right priorities and better aligning academic research with commercial exploitation and risk-taking. The vaccine has shown the way here with companies being ready to ramp up production before formal approval in order to supply the market.

Catastrophes and disasters are exactly that. The harm that they inflict is massively disproportionate to the benefits and we can only ever wish that they had not occurred in the first place. COVID-19 is no different, but if we cannot always prevent catastrophic events we can at least identify and act on the key lessons. To be taken by surprise a second time would not be a misfortune but a gross act of negligence. So as political leaders and policymakers still grapple with the immediate impact of COVID-19 for a second year, their task will be to lead us out of the crisis whilst simultaneously putting in place a more robust architecture of resilience for the future. That is a legacy worth striving for.

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