Covid-19 has redefined security | Opinion

ByC Uday Bhaskar
Mar 17, 2020 06:49 PM IST

It places human security at the centre, and shows that either everyone is equally secure or no one is

The rising death toll and related societal dislocation due to Covid-19, the coronavirus, has had a significant impact on the global polity in a manner that was unanticipated. At the time of writing, over 7,000 deaths have been reported globally and more than 180,000 cases of infections recorded. Many public health experts aver that the worst is yet to come and that the next few months will be crucial. A tsunami-like community transmission of the virus across the world can have catastrophic effects. This is why it is imperative to enforce draconian quarantine measures and effective testing protocols.

The idea of national security revolved around WMDs and terrorism. But it must include, at its core, human lives(AP)
The idea of national security revolved around WMDs and terrorism. But it must include, at its core, human lives(AP)

While the economic consequences are gutting stock markets with gloomy forecasts of global recession, the security domain and its correlation with politics are also undergoing major structural changes. This will reorder global politics and have an impact on India.

It may be recalled that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in his seminal book Perestroika (1987), cautioned, at the height of the Cold War, that “the new political outlook calls for recognition of one simple axiom: Security is indivisible. It is either equal security for all or none at all.” While the primary focus at that time was nuclear weapons, and to an extent terrorism, the Gorbachev axiom rings true today in a loud and clear manner with respect to the current global health crisis.

The concept of security, which was defined during the Cold War decades largely along the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) vector, soon morphed into a WMD-terrorism combine after the enormity of 9/11. Yet, the dominant discourse still prioritised hard security with its concomitant military emphasis. The epidemic/pandemic threat and its impact on human security was cloistered in the basket of non-traditional security issues and seen as a relative lower policy priority by way of funding and capacity-building.

What the Covid-19 experience has done is to expand and rearrange the concept of national security, make it more inclusive, and foreground human security in a more holistic manner. Human security is a multilayered and graded concept and shaped by a host of factors, including individual genetic pedigree, socioeconomic indicators, nutrition levels and the local ecosystem. The empirical pattern and the clear rich-poor divide reveals that even in the 21st century, despite radical political progress, all human beings are not equally secure.

Global security in the 20th century was dominated by military considerations and territoriality as pursued by the major powers of the time. The two world wars, separated by a mere 20 years, offer a tragic testimony to the price paid by the citizen. More than 90 million lives were lost in both these wars, and while estimates vary, the end of World War II and the birth of the atomic age, against the backdrop of the Hiroshima cloud, altered the political dynamic among the principal interlocutors.

Traditional enemies became wary partners (Germany-France- the United Kingdom) and evolved into military allies under the leadership of the United States (US), while wartime allies (the US and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR) transmuted into strategic competitors. Paradoxically, while techno-strategic insecurity was ostensibly assuaged by the acquisition of more lethal nuclear weapons, planners blithely calculated collateral damage to human security in the millions. In 1965, the then US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara forged a strategy of assured destruction of the adversary (USSR) and asserted that deterrence would depend on “the capability to destroy the aggressor as a viable society” by causing more than 100 million fatalities.

Mercifully, the catastrophic nuclear exchange did not take place, but the techno-strategic profile of the nuclear weapon transformed geopolitics in an irrevocable manner. Gorbachev alluded to this underlying tenet when he embarked on his perestroika and both he and the USSR paid a price for what followed. Washington and Moscow remain wary adversaries but the existential nature of the nuclear weapon continues to both constrain and challenge contemporary political and security policymaking.

Specific to the current coronavirus challenge, the regional political dynamic has been impacted by the commendable Indian initiative to initiate a summit-level South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) consultative process. Predictably, the Pakistan response has been Pavlovian and a crude attempt made to inject a bilateral issue (Kashmir) when a larger collective human security matter is on the anvil — but this is reflective of the tenacity of the political compulsion in the prioritisation of security considerations.

Epidemics have an existential quality, and the long cycle of history has many tragic punctuations where numbers ranging from thousands to millions have died. The immediate challenge for the Saarc and the extended southern Asian region, which includes Iran, would be to comprehend national security in an inclusive manner and transcend both the military dimension and ideological fetters. Contested territoriality ought to acknowledge the centrality of human security and internalise the Gorbachev template that now, more than ever, security is indivisible.

The nascent Indian initiative to encourage a collective approach to what could turn into an intractable global security challenge must be sustained.

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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