World War III isn't what the strategists thought it would be

World War III isn't what the strategists thought it would be
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During the middle of the last century, U.S. strategists developed military plans for fighting what was often characterized as the Third World War — a major confrontation that would engulf large numbers of nations in a cataclysmic, and perhaps nuclear, confrontation. It always was groups of countries — the U.S. and its key allies — versus other groups of countries, perhaps led by the Soviet Union.  

The world is now engaged in what legitimately can be labeled the Third World War — dramatically different from any war imagined decades ago, but massively lethal and destructive, nonetheless. This is not a confrontation of countries with nuclear and other advanced weapons, but it does involve massive numbers of countries throughout the world in a very different way. They are not fighting one another but, instead, this Third World War is against a small, unseen virus that threatens all nations — regardless of the nature of their governments or their political philosophies — and millions of their people. 

This is not how military planners had envisaged World War III, but that is how it is working out. 

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There were numerous, highly respected scientists and medical experts who wrote about a looming catastrophe of this nature, issuing thoughtful reports on the risk of a pandemic. The trouble is that much of the world was defining “security” as protecting ourselves from a military threat — not a dire, dangerous health threat. Most of these warnings went ignored or were downplayed as “science fiction” or “highly implausible.” Trapped in a mindset of the past, future security threats of this sort were given little attention. 

We are now paying the price. And we need to rethink what “security” in the 21st century actually entails. Preoccupied as we were with cross-border military challenges, we failed to address common global non-military ones. And international institutions failed to focus sufficiently on common human threats as well as military ones.

The immediate issue, of course, is to stop and reverse the spread of today’s coronavirus and to save as many lives as possible. Scientists around the world are collaborating to do this, sharing information and trying to identify current drugs that might achieve some success in killing or curbing the virus, while searching for new ones and for new immunization medicines. The process has been in high gear since January. 

The other encouraging facet to this effort is that the medical and scientific communities — which, for some time, have been given insufficient weight in the policy process in many countries and relatively little visibility, while in several instances facing large budget cuts — are now playing a leading role both in the fight against the disease and in shaping the kinds of policies that governments need to pursue to curb and eliminate the virus. Many in this community are working across borders far more effectively than their governments. 

After World War II, scientists were seen as national heroes in developing the technologies needed to protect our country in the event of a new war. They are heroes again in a very different area of expertise — along with the frontline doctors, nurses and caregivers who are tirelessly (and often at risk to their own lives) working to confront the virus. Recently, while walking on one of the nearly deserted streets of New York City at precisely 7 p.m., my wife and I were deeply moved as hundreds of people opened their windows and banged on drums, pans and other objects, cheering for these brave, skilled men and women — not a ticker-tape parade, as occurred after WWII, but an honest, exuberant demonstration of deep respect and thanks that now happens every evening at that time in this city.

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The indispensable role of scientists and medical professionals in this fight should underscore their central role in addressing other 21st century threats as well, especially those that are medical and environmental in nature. And it is not only their role within their individual nations, as essential as that is. While governments restrict the movement of people across their borders now — an understandable precaution, to control the spread of the virus in some circumstances — scientists are sending information, research findings, data and suggestions across borders on a regular basis, hoping that these exchanges can hasten the quest for cures or immunization therapies, and helping one another to better understand the “common enemy.”

After the rush to impose barriers at borders is over and the crisis recedes, the emphasis needs to be more on what the scientists now understand so well. Their efforts to succeed, and humanity as a whole, will be best served by close international collaboration to address these sorts of profound global challenges.

The long-term answers to much of what threatens humanity in the future, and the means to develop policies and measures that will make human life better, depend on a far greater degree of global cooperation: Sharing information on threats and possible solutions across borders as early as possible. Engaging in full transparency. Strengthening institutions that can work more closely with governments to establish rules and norms in advance for averting and responding to similar global crises. 

And let’s not allow this crisis to revert afterwards to a prolonged debate over whether strong authoritarian governments or liberal democratic governments did better in addressing this pandemic. The focus should be on what techniques were used and which worked best. One interesting facet of the response is that several East Asian countries that had gone through the SARS crisis of 2002-2003 responded to this one very quickly and effectively; they had learned a lot of lessons that they put into effect almost immediately after this virus began to spread. A lot of lives would have been saved, and a lot of economic pain averted, if other countries could have worked more closely with these countries, and studied and learned from their experience during that period. Again, cross-border sharing of information and experience could have been enormously beneficial.

So, now, we still have an urgent crisis to address. That must be the top priority for all governments, guided by the essential role of scientists and doctors here and around the world — and wisely informed by the experience of countries that have been most successful in dealing with this virus. Yet, as things improve, we will need to think long and hard about what else we have learned from this crisis, and then develop a new architecture for international cooperation and collaboration. Science, cross-border interaction to identify common threats, and a long-term vision of what all countries need to do to prevent and protect humanity from future catastrophes of this sort, constitute our most desperate security needs. 

The post-World War II era saw a rebuilding of the global order. This war must trigger a major effort to do likewise. 

Robert Hormats is managing director of Tiedemann Advisors, a New York-headquartered investment firm. He was undersecretary of State for economic growth, energy and the environment, 2009-13; assistant secretary of State, 1981-82, and a former ambassador and deputy U.S. trade representative, 1979-81. As senior economics adviser to three White House national security advisers from 1969 to 1977, he helped to oversee the U.S. opening to China. Follow him on Twitter @BobHormats.