Novel Threats is a series of brief conversations with fellows and affiliates of the Reiss Center on Law and Security exploring the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and key national security challenges.
Stephen Pomper on Coronavirus, Conflict Prevention and Multilateral Institutions
August 5, 2020
Stephen Pomper is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law. He is the Senior Director for Policy of International Crisis Group. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council under President Obama. He also served as the Senior Director for African Affairs. Prior to joining the staff of the National Security Council, he served from 2002 to 2011 in a variety of roles with the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State. Full bio
Nations around the world, perhaps especially the United States, are understandably preoccupied with fighting COVID within their own borders. What are we forgetting to watch in the meantime? What are the major looming conflicts or geopolitical clashes where we may have taken our eyes off the ball? Has COVID exacerbated the potential for conflict in specific places?
COVID-19 has certainly created new and greater conflict risks in many places, but that potential has not, at least yet, been fully realized. The greatest risks may well lie ahead.
To take a step back: four months ago, when the pandemic was first taking hold as a global threat, there were a dispiriting number of scenarios for how the virus might lead different parts of the world to catch fire. My colleagues at International Crisis Group and I worried that the burdens of dealing with the disease could push fragile states toward collapse, create social disorder, impede the work of governments and organizations that normally try to ward off conflict, give strongmen a pretext to repress political dissent, exacerbate great power tensions and tempt adversaries to try to score military points against each other amid the chaos. Each one of these pandemic-related trends was a potential source of conflict risk, and collectively they presented the prospect that the world might be on its way to becoming a much more dangerous place.
Fast forward to the present and we can see that many of these things have in fact happened. Certainly, many governments have curtailed civil and political freedoms beyond the kinds of measures that public health and safety require. President Trump’s repeated efforts to blame China for the outbreak—seemingly to distract from the U.S. government’s mismanagement of the crisis—have not helped great power relations. Armed groups in violence-scarred regions of Colombia and Mexico have taken advantage of the crisis to arrogate power to themselves at the state’s expense—brutally enforcing quarantine restrictions or handing out assistance while asking for “contributions” in return. Lebanon’s economic collapse has accelerated with some analysts talking about the possibility of famine, and the situation even more dire following the tragic blast on August 4 in Beirut. UN peacekeeping missions have struggled (reasonably successfully) with the logistics of troop rotations.
But while this is a grim picture, it does not at this point match the bleakest vision of the future we might have sketched out in March. This is partly because the disease appears to have attacked the developing world with uneven ferocity. While it has ravaged some countries in the Global South—for example, Iran in the first days of the crisis, and now Brazil, other parts of Latin America, and some South Asian countries—its progress has not been uniform. Even allowing for the lack of reliable testing data, many sub-Saharan African countries appear to have been spared the worst of the disease, at least in the first wave. (Some public health experts cite a well-orchestrated response by a number of national governments as one possible reason.) There is still more than enough to worry about: the WHO notes surging cases in some places and is receiving multiple reports of overwhelmed health systems and under-resourced medical facilities. Nevertheless, the African Centres for Disease Control report fewer than one million cases and 25,000 deaths for the entire continent as of the first week in August. Fragile political transitions, such as in Sudan and Ethiopia, may have been rendered even more fragile, but the virus has not at this point derailed them.
Moreover, if you look at the world’s major fault lines, conflict dynamics have often seemed somewhat impervious to the virus. The trajectories of many major conflicts and crises—U.S./Iran, Libya, Afghanistan, the Korean Peninsula—do not appear to have changed dramatically because of the pandemic. In North Korea, which has been pinched by the combination of economic sanctions and virus-related restrictions on economically vital trade with China, leader Kim Jong Un engaged in some calibrated provocations. The most theatrical of these was the demolition of a vacant office building constructed by South Korea in Kaesong. But while Kim may have been putting on a show for a domestic audience, there was little evidence that he was interested in starting a war.
Still, even if the world hasn’t caught fire in all the ways that it might have, there is hardly reason to be sanguine. The disease could take off in places it hasn’t. Burdens that governments and populations have managed thus far to bear could become unbearable. And would-be provocateurs could begin to test the limits of what they can get away with. Moreover, places that do not combust now could still be doing a slow burn. That’s one of the things I see my colleagues worrying about in places like Thailand and Algeria—countries with major economic challenges and governance deficits. The concern is that the long-term effects of COVID-19—which could be felt for years to come—will exacerbate economic inequality, feeding a legitimate sense of grievance and catalyzing demands for reform. If governments do not offer that reform, and let’s hope they do, then tensions will rise. That dynamic, however, is something we might not see really manifest itself until a bit further down the road. For example, some experts see links between the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the unrest that later took off in the Arab world, but there was a gap between the two.
The UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a worldwide cease-fire on March 23 due to the coronavirus pandemic. How did the initiative turn out? What has been or should be the role of the UN Security Council?
The Secretary-General’s initiative was a worthy but quixotic effort that has unfortunately fizzled.
The Secretary-General’s appeal proposed an immediate cessation of hostilities in “every corner of the world” so that governments could train their energies on meeting the public health crisis created by COVID-19. While it is possible that the UN had a less-than-clear idea of how to operationalize it, the idea of using the pandemic to create new opportunities for peacemaking was not entirely far-fetched. Common threats can sometimes build bridges between adversaries. Early on in the present crisis, for example, you saw instances of long-time rivals offering each other humanitarian support, as the United Arab Emirates did in sending 30 tons of assistance to Iran, or the U.S. did in sending its first shipment of humanitarian aid in over a decade to Abkhazia—a Moscow-aligned de facto republic that has claimed independence from the Republic of Georgia.
Against this backdrop, Secretary-General Guterres’ proposal initially received a bit of traction. UN envoys sought to connect their diplomacy to it. Some non-governmental organizations (Crisis Group included) threw their support behind it. Conflict parties in nearly a dozen countries acknowledged the call, although some did so and then continued to fight. But the bottom line is that the initiative never really took off or led to any kind of sustainable reduction in violence.
There are a number of possible reasons for this—this piece by my colleague, Richard Gowan, lists some of them—but one thing that did not help was a lack of timely support from the UN Security Council. At first it looked like a Council resolution backing the cease-fire might move fairly rapidly toward adoption, but it fell victim to political sniping between the United States and China. For three months it was bogged down in absurd debates over Washington’s insistence on referring to the Wuhan origins of the virus and its refusal to endorse any text that referred to the World Health Organization (which the United States was in the process of exiting). It took until early July to work out wording that both powers could live with, and by the time the Council finally came out in favor of the cease-fire, the initiative had little, if any, life left in it.
Now, even if the Council had backed the cease-fire, there’s no saying it would have been all that much more successful. As Crisis Group recognized back in early April, “the motivations and interests that lie at the source of these conflicts are singular and often highly local. No universal appeal, however powerful, can erase them.” The question is whether a well-timed push from the Council and its most powerful members might have created openings that mediators could have used to develop context-specific solutions. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.
In one of your previous roles in the U.S. government, you served as the President’s Special Assistant advising him and the National Security Advisor on multilateral affairs and human rights issues. What would be your major area of focus right now if you were still serving in that role in government?
Drafting my letter of resignation.
Honestly, for the United States to have a meaningful human rights policy, its leaders need to earn a modicum of credibility through their actions at home. Yet just look at what the government’s top officials have done over the past two months to erode that credibility. It’s a record straight out of an autocrat’s playbook. June saw security forces use chemical agents to disperse peaceful crowds assembled in Lafayette Park to protest racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. That was followed in July by the apparently politically motivated deployment of often unidentified federal agents to Portland, Seattle and other cities, where they clashed with protestors, escalated tensions and pulled individuals off the street into unmarked vehicles. July also brought Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s rollout of an illegitimate effort to rewire U.S. policy to exalt religious freedom and property rights above all of the other human rights that the government is legally committed to uphold. But perhaps most rattling was to watch President Trump openly entertain the idea of delaying the November 3 election based on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, which he cannot legally do, and which reflects such an utter disdain for the rule of law and democratic governance that it literally defies historical parallel in the U.S.
Now imagine that you are a U.S. diplomat with the unenviable task of going in and urging a foreign government to act responsibly and proportionately in the face of the pandemic—not to postpone elections unless circumstances have made it an absolute necessity; not to crack down on political dissent or muzzle free speech; not to otherwise use this public health crisis to aggrandize your own powers. How can you plausibly deliver that message when back at home you have a president and other senior officials who are in word and deed advertising nothing but contempt for these principles?
You can’t, is the answer. And it’s an absolute disgrace.