Amb. Tony Kevin: COVID 19 and possibilities for effective international security dialogue

Remarkably, since the COVID – 19 pandemic first began to impact seriously in recent weeks  (through Italy) on Europe and US, there has been almost no international dialogue among Western countries’ political leaders, or with Chinese and Russian leaders.

ABSTRACT: Remarkably, since the COVID – 19 pandemic first began to impact seriously in recent weeks  (through Italy) on Europe and US, there has been almost no international dialogue among Western countries’ political leaders, or with Chinese and Russian leaders. It is as if the US and its partners are retreating into frozen diplomatic quarantine from one another and from their ‘adversaries’ . Meanwhile, like an aircraft carrier unable easily to reverse course, Cold War Redux habits of Western abuse and disinformation against China and Russia continue unabated. This essay reviews why this is a bad thing, and what might be done.

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It is true that the COVID – 19 pandemic is not a threat to international security as defined by the UN Security Council. People are dying quietly in hospitals or at home. These miseries and deaths do not threaten national borders. There is no running away as refugees from COVID – 19.

Yet there would be benefits in terms both of morale and policy in world leaders constructively meeting together soon – virtually through IT of course, not physically – to try to agree on common principles of national conduct in opposing the virus. I am thinking of three suggested principles for discussion in particular:

1. Nations that have resources to do so commit to helping other nations where the need is greatest, and to the best of their ability, to fight the virus .

2. Nations agree to put an at least temporary, and hopefully permanent, end to economic sanctions as a weapon to apply pressure short of war on other nations.

3. Nations decisively reject the misplaced and morally evil notion of building  ‘herd immunity’ as a guide to public health policy against the pandemic.

Let’s discuss these in turn. On countries helping one another, we already see altruistic acts of generosity from China (towards Iran and Italy), from Russia (towards Italy), and from South Korea. I am not aware so far of any international offers of help to stricken countries from any Western government. At least so far, we seem in a world pretty much of sauve qui peut – save himself who can. Does this accord with the principles of international solidarity that all nations signed up for under the UN Charter? I think not.

Secondly, on economic sanctions, the picture is if anything worsening as the virus spreads.  This week Pompeo continued to threaten tighter sanctions against Venezuela and Iran, even as these countries reported intensifying citizens’ suffering from Western sanctions’ interference with vital medical supplies and equipment to their state-owned health sectors. The US Government and Congress entertained in Washington White Helmets leaders, in a bid to energise the failing anti-Syrian Government armed opposition in Idlib, Syria. Dominic Raab, UK Foreign Minister, fulminated abusively and untruthfully against Russian policy in Crimea and East Ukraine.

There is a mindless, Terminator –like quality about the way such Cold War Redux anti-China and anti-Russia narratives continue to be mechanically pumped out, even as the world begins belatedly to recognise its common enemy in the COVID – 19 pandemic.

Economic sanctions not approved by the UN Security Council against an aggressor nation are in themselves a criminal act – a crime against humanity, when people suffer and die as a result of them.   The US is trying to stop essential medicines and supplies reaching Venezuela and Iran, simply as unilateral US policy, which it tries to force on its weaker allies through threat of secondary sanctions.  Russia and China protest but to no avail: the US President and Congress appear oblivious to their own criminality. Certainly Trump and Pompeo appear indifferent, and their allied national leaders remain prudently silent.

In the cruelest of medieval wars, armies besieging an enemy city sometimes would catapult decaying corpses of plague victims over the walls, hoping to infect those inside.    What the US government is now doing to stricken Iran and Venezuela is the modern-day equivalent to this. It is simply wrong, as the President of Pakistan Imran Khan recently protested.

My third point on which world leaders might come to agree is that decent societies should reject pernicious notions of ‘herd immunity’ – of letting COVID – 19 run its course unabated in societies, in the hope that by ‘culling’ the older weaker elements in society, the society might emerge healthier and stronger. The Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal rejected Nazi eugenics, and it would be timely for world leaders to reaffirm this moral position. Decent societies respect and take care of their elders to the best of their ability. They do not abuse their elders.  China and Korea have shown the moral example to the world. The world should commit to follow as best it can.

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What would be the most effective vehicle for useful world leaders’  dialogue  on COVID – 19 at this point? I have considered the merits of virtual meetings in four possible fora:  G9, G20, the whole current UNSC, and the UNSC Permanent Five (P5) at national leader level.  For reasons that should on reflection be rather obvious, I favour the P5 option.  Basically, I envisage a ‘new Yalta Conference’ on the COVID – 19 pandemic.

The G7 is not representative. The G20 is better, but large, unwieldy and prone to special agendas that could distract and complicate its discussion. It is, numerically, heavily biased against key nations China and Russia.  Similarly for the present UN Security Council as a whole. A proposed  P5 forum of national leaders of US UK France China and Russia – namely Messrs Trump, Johnson, Macron, Xi and Putin – is the right size and clout  to have an efficient and effective free and frank dialogue, moderated and facilitated as necessary by the skilled and non-partisan UN Secretary-General Guterres.

A familiar plot device in science fiction is a world of warring governments coming together against a common enemy – usually alien invaders.  COVID – 19 is this common enemy, an enemy which does not respect borders. But I see no sign of old Cold War hostilities being put aside. After an early hopeful Trump-Xi conversation about the virus, US-China relations have reverted to a frozen hostility. I am heartened that Putin now offers real aid to stricken Italy, and that Italy accepted. Thereneeds now to be real international assistance to weakened Iran and Venezuela, and an end forthwith to sanctions.

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Finally, I comment on how US – China mutual accusations have lately become even more poisoned , over the vexed questions of where and how the virus originated or got away from control?

We know from the local Frederick News-Post  that the US Fort Detrick CBW facility there was forced to close down in August 2019 due to safety protocol failures,  and a new Commanding Officer appointed there. Clearly something had gone seriously wrong. The facility was only partially reopened in November. We know that international military athletics games were held in Wuhan in October 2019. The US sent a 300-person team. Chinese officials, and officials writing ‘in personal capacity’  on social media, have come close to accusing US saboteurs of disseminating the virus deliberately in Wuhan.

The US in turn has floated stories of virus transmission through bat soup, lack of hygiene in the Wuhan fish market, or lax biological security in the Wuhan CBW  laboratory. US leaders (Trump, Pompeo) persist provocatively in calling the virus the ‘Chinese’ or the ‘Wuhan” virus, ignoring Chinese Government protests.  Different strains of the virus have emerged independently in Iran and Italy from the dominant strain in China, which raises the question where those strains may have originated?

It may never be possible scientifically to resolve these inflammatory questions. Clearly, to harp on them could seriously threaten an effective and useful P5 dialogue on what the world should be doing now to fight to contain the pandemic. Time to set this poisonous argument aside and move on to constructive dialogue. 

Finally, should Australia try to play any diplomatic role as an icebreaker? As an ally of the US and UK and a friendly enough partner of France, there is nothing to prevent an Australian government advocating such ideas to its larger friends.  There is also no reason not to enter into constructive dialogue on these ideas at Foreign Minister level with the Chinese and Russian governments.

How about it, Marise Payne? Penny Wong? The Morrison expanded National Cabinet?

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Tony Kevin is a former Australian senior diplomat and the author of six published books on public policy and international relations. The views expressed above are solely those of the author.

www.tonykevin.com.au

The views expressed above are solely those of the author.

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