Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Effect of COVID-19 on the NATO Alliance
The Effect of COVID-19 on the NATO Alliance

The Effect of COVID-19 on the NATO Alliance

It is too early to ascertain the long-term impact of the coronavirus crisis on the health of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but the COVID-19 pandemic is adding strains to pre-existing fracture points within the alliance. The news that former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana has contracted the virus serves as a potent reminder that, like people, an alliance can sicken. 

Faced with a massive health care catastrophe—along with all of the economic damage that quarantines and lockdowns create—it is going to become increasingly difficult for any political figure in Europe, and increasingly inside the United States itself, to argue that resources, tax dollars, and euros should be earmarked for increased defense spending. Even before the coronavirus burst onto the scene, there were long-standing disputes—exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s willingness to escalate the pressure—over spending and burden-sharing among NATO members. Even a perceived threat from Russia—which diminishes the further west and south one goes in Europe—may not be enough to sustain the spending increases that we have seen European states undertake since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine. Economic recovery will take priority over military spending—and this could very easily reignite the acrimonious exchanges across the Atlantic that while some states bear the sacrifices to ensure the common defense of the Euro-Atlantic area, others are prepared to free-ride in order to achieve a more optimal economic outcome.

How Can NATO Handle This New Threat?

The coronavirus pandemic is further changing the nature of threat perception within the alliance. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union some three decades ago, NATO has struggled to find an overarching threat that can hold the nations of the alliance together in common cause. The problem has been that these efforts have either been cast too vaguely (opposing global disorder or “the rise of China”), are too episodic in nature (as in the fight against terrorism), or are geographically bounded (such as the threat posed by a resurgent Russia). Even before the virus spread outward from Wuhan, NATO was attempting to balance the increasingly disparate geographic perspectives of its members in order to preserve some degree of solidarity and cohesion. This dynamic may become further aggravated, especially between eastern members who still see Russia as a conventional threat and southern members who deal with instability in the Middle East and North Africa and the waves of migration that are created—and who may be inclined to see Moscow as part of the solution.

At the beginning of 2020, after concerns about French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments about NATO being “braindead” and his calls for a new dialogue with Moscow, both Macron (especially after his February 2020 visit to Warsaw) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have worked hard in creating their own version of an Eastern European reassurance initiative, making it clear that any new efforts at promoting a reset of relations with Russia will be accompanied by credible security assistance for NATO’s eastern tier. The pandemic, now, threatens the personal security and economic prosperity of millions of citizens in NATO states in a way that much more limited terrorist strikes or the even more theoretical discussions of a Russian incursion do not. NATO is now faced with a coronavirus test: the ability of the alliance to respond to something that directly impacts the voters who have been asked, over the past several years, to support increases in defense spending. It is not accidental that some leading commentators in the Euro-Atlantic community are calling for the virus to be designated, in essence, as an “armed attack” against NATO members, necessitating joint and effective action on the part of all the allies to craft a collective response.

Of course, pivoting the alliance to deal with the coronavirus (and future pandemic outbreaks) requires a different mix of military capabilities. If we posit that one of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is that military spending in many alliance nations will be reduced, then what remains of those military budgets is likely to be dedicated towards bolstering humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions, as well as improving internal security and land and maritime border protection. The British decision to withdraw remaining forces from the Iraqi training mission in order to redeploy them for domestic service may become a defining trend in the future. Moving forward, every alliance member will have to strike a clear balance between expeditionary operations and domestic missions.

The spread of the virus has also recast the migration issue. No longer is the threat of refugee flows depicted as a problem that could exacerbate terrorism and economic pressure—migrants are now seen as potential carriers of coronavirus and other diseases. If, in the past, arguments about stopping migrant flows revolved around defending national distinctiveness and the general features of the European welfare state—arguments that didn’t always gain traction—it becomes harder to ignore if uncontrolled refugee movements pose a risk to public health. Faced with a choice of deploying resources to block any Russian incursion in the east or bolstering capabilities to block migrant flows, more NATO members might choose the latter. The specter of the infected refugee may now create more fear and unease than the notion of “little green men” showing up unexpectedly to seize territory. While it is too early to tell, the pandemic could further contribute to a shift in NATO’s strategic geography from an east-west axis to a north-south one—and shift the emphasis on military spending and defense preparedness away from the eastern frontier towards the Mediterranean zone.

Effects on Alliance Cohesion

Another trend that the coronavirus may accelerate is the loss of intra-alliance cohesion and solidarity. Just prior to the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic in the West, the Pew Research Trust released its latest findings (February 2020) on how NATO is viewed by the publics of the alliance members. Their research concluded:

There is widespread reluctance to fulfill the collective defense commitment outlined in Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty. When asked if their country should defend a fellow NATO ally against a potential attack from Russia, a median of 50% across 16 NATO member states say their country should not defend an ally, compared with 38% who say their country should defend an ally against a Russian attack.

Intra-alliance cohesion was further shaken by the Idlib crisis—when it appeared that Turkey’s NATO allies were not fully on board with giving Ankara the blank check it requested to confront Russia in Syria—and by Turkey’s subsequent decision to again permit migrants and refugees to transit Turkish territory in order to be able to reach the European Union. Turkey’s perspective, of course, is that since it is not an EU member, it should not have to necessarily carry water for European states. From a security perspective, one member of NATO was choosing not to prevent, but even to encourage, a trend that threatened the security of its ostensible allies. 

To be sure, the coronavirus did not create this situation, but it further erodes confidence in the proclamations of solidarity that ritually end every NATO summit. In the past month, as the virus spreads throughout the world, NATO (and EU) allies have seen their partners hoarding equipment and medical supplies. Moreover, intra-alliance borders have been closed down, not only between NATO and EU members within Europe, but also bans forbidding travel across the Atlantic have been enacted. The perception that the United States is prepared to go it alone and look out for its well-being without concern for its closest allies reinforces pre-existing trends; Europeans, in turn, believe that their side of the Atlantic must be prepared to de-couple from Washington for its own security—and the messages they are receiving from the United States over coronavirus adds further grist to that mill.

Meanwhile, Beijing has reaped a public relations bonanza from its moves to send assistance to virus-ravaged Italy and Spain, which has highlighted the initial lack of concrete support from Rome’s and Madrid’s Western partners. While the European Union has taken the brunt of the criticism, the United States has not used NATO as a way to develop a coalition to combat the virus. NATO ally Turkey had used indecision over Syria to justify its willingness to buck NATO solidarity to forge a closer relationship with Russia; now, Italy feels justified in closer collaboration with Beijing, including on the Belt and Road Initiative, because of the perception that Western solidarity has failed Rome in its time of need.

Beyond the political perception that NATO has failed the solidarity test, the practical realities of the pandemic call into question the operational basis of NATO’s deterrent mission: the ability to field forces in sufficient strength to deter or repel any possible incursion. If one result of the pandemic has been a push for countries to withdraw their national contingents from overseas missions to concentrate on the home front, then a second is a growing reluctance for countries to send—or receive—forces for fear that they will spread the disease. Norway canceled the regional “Cold Defender” exercise that should have been held in March 2020 over concerns for troops coming into Norway, and other countries, such as Finland, were reluctant to dispatch their forces. The major Europe-wide NATO exercise for 2020, “European Defender,” which was designed, in part, to demonstrate to outside adversaries (read: Russia) that the United States could quickly reinforce the continent, is being scaled back, amidst a new Department of Defense directive that has halted the movement of U.S. forces and equipment.

The Russia Factor

Signs of discord in NATO are always carefully monitored by Russia. The 2015 Russian national security strategy categorizes the alliance as a threat to Russian strategic interests, even if some of its member (like Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, and Hungary) are, at a bilateral level, important strategic partners. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Kremlin, even if it has not explicitly commissioned a disinformation campaign, sees value in having its news and information outlets push narratives that seek to accelerate discord and disunity among NATO members. Depending on the course of the pandemic, we could very easily see a new Russian information campaign. Such a campaign would target publics in southern and western Europe and would question the value of an alliance which was ineffective in its response to the virus but which demands that they be prepared to risk conflict with Russia—while also sowing more doubts in both NATO and non-NATO neighbors about how much faith they are willing to place in alliance guarantees. The Russian decision to dispatch military medical specialists and equipment to Italy is also being contrasted with the initially lackluster EU/NATO response.

Better messaging, however, is not going to be a sufficient response. Nor should NATO assume that once this crisis has passed, it will be a return to business as usual. For one thing, there could be recurrent flare-ups of COVID-19, leading to the re-imposition of travel bans, border closures, and movement of personnel. The economic fallout from the pandemic is going to impact budgets and policies for years to come.

A New, “Resilient” NATO?

Coronavirus may achieve what earlier summits, the Russian incursion into Crimea, and think tank reports have not: a forcing function for NATO evolution. If we accept that the immediate outcomes from the coronavirus crisis are renewed skepticism about the value of the alliance, less money for defense spending, and the possibility of interrupted supply and transport links, then the principal focus of the alliance moving forward needs to be the resilience agenda. Dan Hamilton, writing in December 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic had hit the West, has made this point clear: “When conflict changes, so must defense. NATO must extend its traditional investments in territorial protection and deterrence to encompass modern approaches to resilience: building the capacity of free societies to anticipate, preempt and resolve disruptive challenges to their critical functions, and to prevail against direct attack if necessary.” Judy Dempsey, from her perch in Berlin as the crisis swells, reiterates that conclusion: “Resilience is about having a long-term approach to protecting vital infrastructures essential for security, stability, and for reassuring the citizens.”

This would shift the focus of NATO—and indeed of “European Defender”—from waiting for the United States to arrive in force to an alliance where states possess sufficient “porcupine” capabilities to fend off attacks, assaults, and challenges. This would also include a situation in which U.S. leadership is less manifested in providing forces in favor of leveraging the remarkable technological ingenuity and skill that still defines the Euro-Atlantic zone to provide capabilities for each alliance member. If reduced budgets and no guarantees of human movement are two new conditions that NATO must adapt to, then the laundry list presented by Harlan Ullman provides a new set of tools: “large numbers of unmanned and swarming drones; copious anti-air, anti-surface and anti-vehicle missiles; electromagnetic systems to obliterate . . . command and control in its operational maneuver groups; and low cost sensors including low earth orbiting satellites that could be quickly deployed to ensure command, control, communications and reconnaissance.” To this could be added extended new capabilities in terms of manufacturing these types of articles via 3-D printing and the “internet of things.”

The next NATO summit is scheduled to be held this October in Beverly Hills, California. When alliance leaders left London after their annual conclave in 2019, they weren’t planning on a pandemic upending NATO. But coronavirus makes the London agenda obsolete. NATO will be challenged to pivot to the new realities that will be the result of the pandemic both in Europe and the United States—or else it risks being stuck in the past.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.