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It's time to consider an enhanced role for NATO to combat pandemics

It's time to consider an enhanced role for NATO to combat pandemics
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In 2019 when the U.S. remained the world’s largest defense spender, governments of the EU member states increased their defense spending to reach the 2 percent GDP NATO contribution target. The U.S. government built a wall across its southern border to improve American security; meanwhile, EU member states increased the number and budget of border patrols like FRONTEX to protect their borders from refugees and mass immigration flows, which seem a threat to their security. However, neither the U.S. nor the EU were well prepared to protect their citizens from one of the most dangerous and deadly security threats, one that does not recognize any border: pandemics. 

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 reminds us that a pandemic can kill as many people as a war. Moreover, COVID-19 also demonstrates that it can severely harm the economy and has the potential to change the current international economic system. Furthermore, COVID-19 indicates that there is an urgent need for solidarity among NATO allies to battle against the outbreak.

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic — but pandemics were not accepted as a security threat and were not included in security strategy documents until the early 2000s, only viewed as a national security issue following the H5N1 and H1N1 outbreaks in 2005 and 2009. The 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy stated that pandemics like HIV (AIDS), H5N1 (avian influenza) do not recognize borders and should be dealt with through new strategies and responses. Like the U.S., the EU included pandemics as public health threats under the section entitled “Security and Development Nexus” in the 2008 Report on the Implementation of the European Security Strategy, stating that “pandemics further undermine development.”

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Both the U.S. and the EU and its member states that define pandemics as a security threat aim to protect their citizens and try to take measures at national, federal and union levels. Contrary to these national security strategy documents, NATO’s 2010 strategic concept, an official policy document outlining purpose and fundamental NATO security tasks, does not mention pandemic.

NATO reconsidered its planning and operations to deal with new security threats. Accordingly, the head of states underlined “key environmental and resource constraints, including health risks, climate change, water scarcity and increasing energy needs will further shape the future security environment in areas of concern to NATO and have the potential to significantly affect NATO planning and operations” at the Wales Summit Declaration of NATO in 2014.

A couple of months ago at the NATO London Summit, leaders and heads of state stated that “we are stepping up NATO’s role in human security.” The concept of human security, which  was first introduced in the United Nations Development Program’s 1994 Human Development Report, emphasizes the necessity of focusing on the protection of individuals from economic, environmental, social, and other forms of harm, including pandemics. Pandemics, which transcend national frontiers and are described as a global challenge, cannot be handled by state-centered traditional security understanding. Like other global challenges, a pandemic necessitates a global response.

Among other NATO allies, Italy has been hit worst by the outbreak and pleaded for help. China, Russia and Cuba responded very quickly to Italy’s request. China sent ventilators, face masks, doctors and nurses to Italy to help its battle against COVID-19. Russia sent military doctors, specialists on epidemics and equipment. Cuban doctors and nurses also travelled to Italy in order to help. This not only shows the necessity of international cooperation and enhanced partnerships with other actors and organizations when needed (as stated at the Strategic Concept of NATO) but also the need for an enhanced role for NATO to help its allies combat pandemics.

NATO is not unfamiliar with relief operations and humanitarian assistance. It took an active role in relief operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005) and an earthquake in Pakistan (2005). NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC) providing medical, logistical and food supplies to the U.S. after Katrina. NATO also provided food, medical care, and deployed engineers, medical units to assist in relief operations after the earthquake in Pakistan.

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In the London Declaration of 2019, leaders and heads of states reiterated that NATO guarantees the security of its member states’ territory, citizens and common values, emphasizing the cornerstone of alliance: solidarity, unity and cohesion.

It is time to show this solidarity with NATO allies struggling with the COVID-19 outbreak. It is time to enhance NATO's role in the fight against pandemics.

Aylin Unver Noi is a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Leadership Network and an associate professor on international relations at Istinye University in Istanbul.