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30 years of Nazarbayev’s foreign policy: What Kazakhstan can teach the world in the new era

Photo Credits: AkOrda.kz
Yerzhan Saltybayev

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The COVID-19 pandemic has completely shaken the very foundations of the world order that we were all accustomed to. The world is entering a qualitatively new stage of development, which is characterized by increased conflicts and intense competition in international relations.

Over the past months, we have seen how the relations between the two largest powers in the world, the United States and China, have dramatically escalated.

The aftershocks of the coronavirus crisis are felt in almost all regions of the world, especially in the so-called “transit zones”, where the interests of key players intersect. The South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait – this is the incomplete list of tension points, which can violate global stability at any moment.

Against this backdrop, Kazakhstan looks like a kind of “positive anomaly” – a post-Soviet state with rich natural resources, the world’s ninth largest country by area, and located in the very geographical center of Eurasia. Despite the extremely unfavorable geopolitical context and its own position at the junction of the interests of global players, Kazakhstan, to this day, confidently maintains both domestic political stability and constructive relations with all the main actors of the global game.

The case of Kazakhstan is of particular interest since historically the region of Central Asia, located at the intersection of Europe and Asia, has been a hostage to the Great Game between world powers. The strategically important geographical location, rich natural resources practically doom the region to the inevitable fate of being “geopolitically torn” between the interests of world powers.

However, Kazakhstan, which shares one of the longest land borders with two world powers, Russia and China, manages to masterfully manoeuvre in the dark waters of world politics.

In the current geopolitical situation, Kazakhstan’s external positioning is of particular interest to many countries that have faced the problem of worsening geopolitical conditions amid growing new global bipolarity.

The Kazakh “success story” is based on the foreign policy strategy of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the First President of the country, which gained independence in 1991. Nazarbayev, like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, is the de facto architect of modern Kazakhstan. He ruled the country for almost 30 years, and voluntarily resigned in 2019. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s successor and the former Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, won the national elections in 2019, and continued the line of his predecessor.

I would like to briefly outline several key components of this strategy.

The first one is a system of “hedging” foreign policy risks through the balanced development of external relations in all strategic areas. This strategy is based on the “multi-vector” principle, which has doctrinal significance for Kazakhstani diplomacy.

Obviously, Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy is not a unique case, because a number of other post-Soviet governments de facto apply this principle too. However, what distinguishes Kazakhstan is a combination of consistency and flexibility in the implementation of this principle.

The basis of this approach is not “unscrupulousness” but reasonable pragmatism and the desire “not to put all eggs in one basket”. For Kazakhstan, the “multi-vector” principle has a cross-cutting nature, penetrating almost all spheres of its international cooperation.

One example is the sphere of security, the area of crucial interest for the Central Asian region.

Of course, many observers, who monitor the processes in the region, may note that Kazakhstan remains under Moscow’s ‘umbrella’ in the security sphere.

However, to understand the full picture, it is necessary to take into account the whole system of partnerships that Kazakhstan has built over the past years. It is impossible not to mention the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO). Today, it is represented not only by China, but also by another Asian nuclear giant – India, which joined the organization in 2017 along with Pakistan.

Kazakhstan is also an active participant in the NATO Partnership for Peace program, and maintains close cooperation with the United States, which, despite irritation in Moscow and Beijing, plays an important stabilizing role in the region from the point of view of Kazakhstan’s interests

On top of this, Nazarbayev sought to expand the orbit of his interests, intentionally associating himself with a broader international agenda. So, in the Asian direction, Kazakhstan initiated the creation of the CICA (Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building measures in Asia)- the only international platform providing a stable dialogue on security issues in Asia as a whole. Through chairmanship in the OSCE in 2010, Kazakhstan was able to identify its presence in the European security architecture too.

The second aspect of the Kazakhstani path is the principle of economic pragmatism, which was the main criteria for all strategic decisions made by Nursultan Nazarbayev.“Economy first, then politics”, the catchy phrase coined by Nazarbayev, is the quintessence of this approach.

This message has been intended not only to block political radicalism within the country, but also in the external arena, in relations with strategic partners.

A typical example is the position of Kazakhstan in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), where Kazakhstan invariably emphasizes the purely economic nature of this organization. Of course, Russia aims to create a deeper form of political integration, but it was Nazarbayev’s principled position in favor of economic pragmatism that blocked all attempts to politicize the union.

Another case is Turkic integration, which is often regarded by external observers exclusively from the perspective of issues of pan-Turkic identity and “big politics” in the region.

The “Astana process” on Syria, as well Nazarbayev’s successful mission to reconcile Putin with Erdogan in 2016became possible in particular because of special relations with Turkey. In the latter case, Nazarbayev’s personal trusting relationship with both leaders played a special role: as a result, the tensions between Moscow and Ankara were resolved in the spirit of classical old diplomacy, transmitting the letter from hand to hand.

The third point that deserves attention is related to Nazarbayev’s anti-crisis diplomacy, thanks to which Kazakhstan was able to avoid the risk of being drawn into contradictions between world powers.

The Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008 became a certain test for the multi-vector policy of the country. Refusing to openly accuse the Kremlin at the start of the conflict, Nazarbayev, at the same time, was able to withstand the pressure from Moscow to recognize South Ossetia’s independence. Then, the Kazakh side actively supported the resolution calling “for preserving the territorial integrity of states.” at the SCO summit.

However, a more significant “balancing” step was the decision of Kazakhstan to begin exporting oil to the West through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in the fall of the same year, which was aimed at partially reducing the dependence on the transport and communication systems of Russia.

The Kazakhstani experience shows the importance of proactive actions in moments of international crisis, when the country does not try to “sit out and wait” for the end of the conflict, but seeks to independently create favorable external conditions.

For example, against the backdrop of aggravation in relations between the West and Russia, as well as deepening contradictions between the US and China, Kazakhstan has created the Astana International Financial Center (AIFC), operating under the norms and principles of English common law.

Kazakhstan’s strategic calculation, not to a small degree, boils down to the fact that Western capital, which has become a hostage to geopolitical friction, can receive a strategic springboard for entering the Russian and Chinese markets through the AIFC.

This approach perfectly demonstrates Kazakhstan’s ability to skillfully integrate itself into the dynamics of relations between different poles of power, effectively capitalizing its competitive advantages as a transit zone.

Finally, the fourth component of the “Kazakhstani recipe” is bonded with Nazarbayev’s systematic efforts to integrate Kazakhstan’s foreign policy initiatives into the very center of international politics. In addition to the image dividends, this policy pursues a number of specific tasks, such as preventing a peripheralization of Kazakhstan, as well as the Central Asian region in the international arena.

One of the most important steps in this direction was the unilateral rejection of nuclear weapons arsenal by Kazakhstan at the very dawn of its independence. It should be mentioned that back then Kazakhstan possessed the 4th largest nuclear capability in the world, which was more than what China, the UK, and France had combined.

Voluntary rejection of WMD initiated by Nazarbayev himself, first of all, was the strongest political move. This immediately served to increase the country’s credibility in the West and among the international community in general.

Besides, the abandonment of nuclear potential has also brought quite tangible dividends. Since 1991, Kazakhstan has attracted more than $300 billion of foreign direct investment, accounting for 75% of all investments in Central Asia as a whole.

Another classic example is Nazarbayev’s initiative to create “Greater Eurasia”, based on the unification of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the European Union into a single mega-project (announced at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in 2015).

The idea of Greater Eurasia is exactly where the emerging contours of a fundamentally new, non-bloc policy for the future world can be spotted. The stability of the new architecture will be reliably ensured, first of all, by the deep and objective interdependence of the interests for all players.

In such a world, along with the great powers, a significant role will be played by the active position of small and medium-sized countries, which constitute the absolute majority of the modern world. Its architecture will be based on the principle of “indivisibility of security”, first voiced in the framework of the CICA.

In a word, for small or medium-sized countries, proactive politics is now the best way to stay “afloat”, which makes it possible not to become a passive hostage of a steadily escalating rivalry between major powers.

In a wider context, we have every reason to believe that Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping potential is far from being exhausted. This potential is based on the already accumulated political baggage of trusting relationships with various centers of power.

It should be remembered that the capital of Kazakhstan has already played the role of a mediating platform, thanks to which an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program was reached.

Furthermore, a new format for meetings of political and business elites in the capital of Kazakhstan – Astana club – was launched on the initiative of Nazarbayev. This is a unique forum where the most influential representatives of the USA, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and 30 other, mainly Eurasian, countries gather at the same table.

In the near future, the “Asian Vienna” might be of considerable interest, first of all, for resolving contradictions along the USA-Russia, USA-China, USA-Iran lines. It should be emphasized that in all three cases we are talking not only about a conflict of interests, but also about the deep-rooted distrust between the parties. And this is the main aspect, in which Nazarbayev himself and Kazakhstan’s diplomatic and mediating experience may turn out to be very valuable assets, worthy of being examined more closely.

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Central Asia

Tajik opposition movement

Malgosia Krakowska

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Once fractured Tajik opposition has joined forces in Warsaw to challenge the regime in Dushanbe. Early September 2018, an opposition coalition of four Tajik dissident parties and organisations (the Forum of Tajik Freethinkers, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the Association of Central Asian Migrants, and the People’s Movement “Reforms and Development in Tajikistan) formed an alliance to fight the regime from the outside.

But is the political mobilization strong enough to resonate in their native Tajikistan?

Outside of this geographically challenging and historically conflict-ridden state (ed. from 1992 to 1997, Tajikistan was shattered by a deadly civil war), the stories of dissidents rarely receive international attention. The regime, already shaken by the 2012 Uprising in Khorog and the Islamic State threat, is determined to silence dissenting voices outside the country, and to overthrow foes as fast as they show up.

Photo: the Tajik Opposition Alliance (photo by author).

In Russia, several members of the dissident movement Group 24 had been detained, kidnapped or extradited to Tajikistan. In Turkey, a founder of the group was killed and his family poisoned.

Steve Swerdlow from Human Rights Watch  said that the level of surveillance and activity of security services in post-Soviet republics is very high.

This case dramatizes the issue of human rights abuse in Tajikistan.

The disappearance of a young political activist Ehson Odinayev, 24, has become a symbol of a long harrowing nightmare. For several months, the Tajik KGB was on a Kafkaesque hunt after Odinayev for his  ‘extremist’ social media posts. He was charged with ‘cyberterrorism’. Odinayev vanished without a trace on May 19, 2015.  

The regime visited vengeance on the dissidents also outside of Russia.

In March 2015 in Istanbul, the leader of Group 24 Umarali Quvvatov was gunned down, and his family members poisoned. Shabnam Khudaidodova suffered brutal torture after she was detained in Belarus. Only enormous pressure from human rights organizations- including appeals from Human Rights Watch- saved her from extradition. Or from disappearance.

International organizations, admittedly, have few appealing options for stopping the repressions. Denunciations from Human Rights, Freedom House or Amnesty International have failed to affect the government’s position on dissidents. And placing economic sanctions would only aggravate an already charged situation, and drive the authoritarian ruler further in the arms of Russia and/ or China.

So far there is not much sign of the fresh dawn for any major change for the downfall of the out-of-touch autocrats.

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Kazakhstan: How to Invent a Successful Foreign Policy

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Credits AkOrda

When country after country became an independent state in the five decades after the end of the Second World War, its leaders discovered that in addition to all the other urgent needs pressing on them, economic, social, organizational, they were also supposed to have a foreign policy. Any government could purchase some buildings in the capitals of the foreign countries that seemed most important and install ambassadors in them, but a foreign policy cannot be made by ambassadors each going his own way. There have to be non-contradictory guidelines that all can follow derived from the government’s definition of a foreign policy, which should itself reflect the national interest: very hard to do in any way case but more so in those states that comprised different nations.

For quite a few independent states that was just too much effort amidst their many internal difficulties.

The result was the emergence of “blocs” that shared  common foreign policies with bloc-voting at the United Nations:  one included most sub-Saharan African states, another the members of the Arab league, a third formed by the countries converging in the European Union, and for a while there was also a much bigger Afro-Asian bloc that gathered in Bandung. The Soviet Union of course had its own bloc which even included China for a while.

Membership in a bloc allowed governments to concentrate on more pressing internal problems while putting their foreign policy on the bloc’s autopilot, and that worked well enough until it did not: over the years, country after country found itself with unwanted enemies and  uncomfortable allies, and so the blocs started dissolving. That cast many states in the cold water of world politics, in which it is easy to make costly mistakes, and hard to make choices that are advantageous.

Kazakhstan’s fate was different.

In the first place, unlike many other newly independent states, it was not suddenly cut loose on the world scene with no defined national identity, no institutional preparations, and untrained leaders.

Instead its emergence was gradual and organic. The Kazakh nation itself reached self-awareness from narrower loyalties over some four centuries, which included a calamitous struggle for survival in the eighteenth century that did much to sharpen its identity.

As for the state structure, it too emerged gradually from the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic formed at  Moscow’s ordersin December 1936 , whose slow acquisition of the administrative elements of a state was not accompanied by any advance towards any form of autonomy until very much later, with the turning point only coming in December 1986 in the widespread demonstrations over the principle that the Kazakh Soviet Republic should be lead by a local Kazakh party leader. In spite of their violent repression, the principle was affirmed by the elevation of Nursultan Nazarbayev as Party leader in June 1989 and de facto head of state (Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Council)  in February 1990.

By then Nazarbayev had served in administrative roles of increasing scope for many years up to the highest level as de facto prime minister (Chairman of the Council of Ministers, so that he had both the political authority and a thorough knowledge of the state apparatus by the time he asserted that Kazakhstan until then formally the Kazakh SSR was a sovereign state on October 25, 1990.

Again this was very different from the fate of other newly independent states, whose leaders went straight from the political or even violent struggle for independence to the control of the state, with little or no administrative experience—and it was the population at large that paid the price of the resulting mismanagement or worse.

Subsequent events show that Nazarbayev was able to dedicate serious thought to the country’s  foreign policy, in spite of the dramatic urgency of the economic situation, and all the other pressing problems .

Paradoxically this is most clearly proven by the most important component of his  domestic policy: the language question. Under the Soviet system, Russian was the language of “Soviet man” and all other languages were essentially folkloric, even if widely spoken, written and read.

Obviously that had to change but instead of simply imposing Kazakh on a multi-lingual population which would have caused enormous inconvenience, and before that acute anxieties which might in turn have destabilized society even in violent ways, Nazarbayev lead a careful progression to a language law that –crucially- was enacted in September 1989, more than a year before independence.

In retrospect, it can be seen that it was a very clever law, which, in effect, outmaneuvered the problem: it affirmed that  Kazakh was the national language whose use for all purposes would be vigorously promoted, but at the same time, Russian was defined as a second official language, immediately relieving the anxieties of the substantial minority of Russian-speaking Kazakhs as well as Russians and many other Russian speakers.

That was a good compromise but it was the next component of the language law that presaged the country’s foreign policy: Nazarbayev promised that the other languages spoken in Kazakhstan would also be promoted and supported educationally,  including German, Korean, Polish and several others , ranging from Lithuanian to Greek.

This message of inclusion was reinforced by an equally early opening to the country’s religions, previously repressed and then tolerated at best, but which the new Kazakhstan would not only recognize but support. 

Again, Nazarbayev acted very early: on September 25 ,1989 while still nominally a Soviet leader, and concurrently with the law that guaranteed linguistic inclusion , he met with the most prominent Muslim, Orthodox, Baptist, and other religions to affirm religious inclusion as well.

The message was heard near and far: independent Kazakhstan was joining inherently  pluralist  international society not as a monolithic national state whether natural or made so by repression,  but rather as a consciously pluralist state inherently open to the world.

This are all fine words easily proclaimed to make a good impression but in Kazakhstan’s case it was all real:  the promises of inclusion were kept, and the result was that Kazakhstan was spared the inter-ethnic tensions and even violence of many if not most newly independent states. 

For this the good character of the Kazakhs could claim some of the credit –it emerged in generosity in the worst of times– but Nazarbayev himself provided the leadership.

For this he could draw from his own personal experience: this author has spoken to a person who was in high school with Nazarbayev in Karaganda, in a class whose composition reflected the city’s population of Kazakhs, Germans, Poles, Jews and Russians. Nazarbayev, he says, was already a leader, not because he asserted himself, but because others wanted to follow his example.

Because Kazakhstan’s independence was preceded by its convincing message of inclusion, it evoked some goodwill from attentive foreign countries as well Russia itself emerging as a new state.

But independence must also be actively protected by a balance of power, and that is not easily achieved in any case but was an especially difficult requirement for Kazakhstan given its geographic positioning, far from the open ocean and extending between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.

It was a heroic undertaking to overcome those truly difficult circumstances, but again Nazarbayev rose to the challenge in a manner that reflects very accurately the always paradoxical logic of strategy: Kazakhstan inherited some of the most powerful nuclear weapon systems of the USSR, and could have started off as a major nuclear power from the day of its birth. That might even have been useful to pressure other countries, initiating a cycle of conflict.

But instead  Kazakhstan gained much more because  Nazarbayev chose to eliminate all nuclear weapons : he wanted to build Kazakhstan as a successful state for its inhabitants, not as an aggressive nuclear power.

By unilaterally and freely giving up its nuclear weapons, Kazakhstan  attracted the immediate diplomatic support of its neighbors large and small , and equally of the United States, Japan, India, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Canada and other states large and small attentive to world affairs.

That was of crucial importance: it meant that from the start Kazakhstan’s foreign policy was  not captive to its geography, and could instead develop as a multi-vector effort to reach out to the world—an effort that was duly reciprocated.

With that, Kazakhstan became an axiom of world politics, with  many other countries large and small invested in its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

All that remained to complete the invention of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy was the  administrative part: the selection of the most competent people available to serve as ministers, high officials and ambassadors.

That was a task which was accomplished with the particular aptitude  that Nazarbayev had demonstrated even in Soviet times –when it was risky to do so– to resist nepotism, cronyism, and mediocrity , to instead choose the best.

Whatever else Nazarbayev may have accomplished, it is Kazakhstan’s successful foreign policy that reveals the quality of his leadership most clearly, as governments around the world have duly recognized, not just verbally but also substantively by eagerly participating in his peacemaking and other international initiatives. Nazarbayev’s authority, his impartiality and substantive goodwill gave birth to the “Astana format” whereby rival powers can meet in Kazakhstan with its Founding President in the chair to moderate and mitigate not only tensions but also active conflicts underway.  That too enhances Kazakhstan’s role in world affairs to the benefit of its entire population.

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Central Asia

SARS –an Unusual National Security Foe: Success of Central Asia Countries in Stemming COVID-19

Sayfiddin Juraev

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Authors: Sayfiddin Juraev and Gregory Gleason*

As the features of the virus which causes the corona pandemic are emerging with greater clarity, we are beginning to understand the dangers more fully. One of the things we are beginning to appreciate is that the SARS virus is a very unusual foe.  The virus is directly endangering the lives of people directly through the severe acute respiratory effects that it produces, but it also has endangered the way societies function around the world.   The disruption of international trade and traffic has an immediate effect which we all have observed.  Only now are we beginning to see the emergence of the long-term effects on how countries interact with one another and how they protect their own national interests.  The SARS virus is a danger to human security and national security alike.

The form of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome known as SARS-CoV-2 operates according to its own rules. This SARS is universal and non-discriminatory.  It affects everyone. It does not discriminate between good and bad, rich and poor, north and south or east and west.  This dangerous and highly contagious SARS virus, spreading the disease known as COVID-19,isa common threat to all.

It is important that we find ways to prevent this form of the SARS corona virus from magnifying the effects of economic disruption and social upheaval and from further dividing people and setting us against one another.  One step in overcoming this challenge is to recognize that this virus is an unusual enemy.  Successfully combating this unusual enemy requires that we understand the ways it functions and the ways it can be stopped.

Drawing upon the experience of countries that have done well in the first stages of this pandemic is valuable.  The experience of the states of Central Asia offers useful insights into strategies to combat this pandemic. 

The damage caused by the spread of COVID-19 in the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—is currently at the low end of the scale in comparison with more economically advanced countries.  For example, UK, Italy, Spain, and France currently record the numbers of fatalities attributed to COVID-19 in the tens of thousands.  In contrast, the reported fatality figures in the Central Asian countries are much lower.  As of June 1, 2020, the World Health Organization reported deaths attributed to COVID-19 as: Kazakhstan—38; Kyrgyzstan—16; Tajikistan—47; Uzbekistan—14.  Turkmenistan reported no deaths. 

These figures represent the “reported” data.  No international organization has the authority to independently collect primary health data in all the world’s countries, nor could it without violating basic principles of national sovereignty.  But if these reported WHO data are even approximately accurate, the governments of all the Central Asian states deserve high marks for their ability to stem the “brushfire” spread of the SARS virus and gain time to more effectively address the fundamental questions raised by the pandemic both home and abroad. 

What Accounts for Successful Containment in Central Asia? 

As the initial cases of COVID-19 appeared in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and later in Tajikistan, the governments swiftly responded, instituting emergency measures, empowering law enforcement and medical authorities to implement a broad range of counter-infection mitigation measures to protect public health. Cross-border travel restrictions were imposed. Lockdowns and sheltering-in-place restrictions were imposed in most major cities and curfews were enforced.  Routine commercial air flights were cancelled or significantly reduced in international airports and many domestic airports. New levels of visa restrictions were implemented in all the Central Asian countries. The initial infection containment measures were highly successful in curtailing the early spread of Covid-19duet to the will and capacity of the governments of these states in implementing and enforcing the containment measures urged by medical authorities. 

The problems faced by the Central Asian states were much the same as those faced by countries around the world.  As in all cases, the success of the governments in responding to the pandemic depends upon addressing five key stages: 1) identification and assessment; 2) containment; 3) mitigation; 4) management of immediate consequences; 5) long-term economic and social consequences. The first stage of response to the pandemic—the immediate medical response stage—involves recognizing and acknowledging the scope of the hazard to public health and empowering medical authorities and law enforcement and public security services to take the steps necessary to get infected individuals under medical care as quickly as possible.  Containment means identifying and then isolating those people or those processes which can potentially transmit the infection.

Full information about the transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 was not available at the beginning of the pandemic. Consequently, many decisions were made solely based on assumptions using the experience from other cases of virus-based influenza. A full picture of transmissibility of the SARS-CoV-2 has not emerged even at this point, but the evidence suggests two primary routes of transmission. One route involves airborne transmission in minor droplets of water transferred in expiration of breath of infected persons. The second route appears to involve fomite transmission on surfaces of objects where the virus has been deposited.

A government policy of containment involves identifying those people who have come into contact with those transmitting COVID-19 and isolating them to ensure that they do not transmit the virus to others.  Identification and isolation involve “contact tracing”, a form of investigation conducted with local authorities to propose, or even impose isolation measures on those who have been affected. Contact tracing and the imposition of isolation is a highly labor-intensive and highly intrusive government process that must be conducted on objective bases but can only be successful if it is conducted quickly and effectively.  Government authorities in the Central Asian states were quick to undertake these steps and, accordingly, were successful in containing the spread of COVID-19 in the initial stages of the pandemic. 

Despite initial success, the nature of COVID-19 disease also suggests significant challenges ahead for the Central Asian states as well as for others.  If the transmission of the disease is basically enabled by proximity, then distancing and containment will work in individual cases. But the ideas of containment and mitigation which underlie the professional guidance of medical authorities are based on the experience of highly localized cases of successful treatment procedures.  Physicians know that to stem the spread of an infectious disease they need to isolate an infected patient.  If individual isolation fails, then it is assumed the perimeter should be extended and the room should be isolated.  If that fails, then the entire ward should be isolated.  If that fails, then the wing of the building, or the building itself or the entire region of the city should be isolated.  The idea of a “widening perimeter” is the principle that has now been applied to entire countries. Can such a principle work effectively on a global basis? 

The principle of infection isolation is not something that was devised to apply at once to the entire globe.  In any collective effort the weak link always endangers the protection of the whole.Ifspecific, geographically defined territorial areas can be isolated the infection can be contained within that area.  But as the perimeter grows larger and larger, the task of containment grows increasingly more challenging.  As the perimeter widens to a certain quantitative point, the challenge becomes qualitatively different.

SARS—A Different Kind of Foe

The scope of the “widening perimeter” challenge encourages us to look more closely at the dynamics of the disease and the way the disease interacts in international affairs.  We do not currently have a complete picture of how the virus operates and therefore we do not have exhaustive knowledge about how to stop it. Medical specialists acknowledge that the urgency of the pandemic forced them in the early part of 2020 to make judgments in circumstances where they had only insufficient data. Based on the advice of medical authorities at that time, policy-makers wanted to know how the virus could be defeated and when it would be expected to retreat.  These were obviously the policy-makers’ primary concerns at the outbreak of the pandemic.  But asking the questions in this way may have sent many policy-makers in a direction that led them to standard combat tactics.  This may have complicated or even interfered with the achievement of their goals.

Combat tactics are designed to overcome a foe who is a purposive enemy.  SARS is a different kind of foe. Some microbiologists argue that the corona virus is not alive, at least in the traditional sense of that term.  The corona virus does not reproduce itself; it simply replicates itself by relying upon other living cells from which it derives an advantage.  From the perspective of some microbiologists, the virus is not a “living thing” but only an “acting thing” which by its nature is not attempting to achieve a purpose but is merely programmed to exploit an advantage.  If this view is accurate, the corona virus is not “plotting” against human beings. It is not a “devious” opponent; it is indeed deadly, but not devious. If the corona virus is driven by the pre-programmed goal of continuation through replication, then the strategy to defeat it should be focused specifically on the behavior of the opponent, not on presumptions. Deprive the virus of the conditions for its opportunities for replication, and it has been defeated. The rule is simple: focus not on the virus but on the conditions which enable it.

If the corona virus statistically takes advantage of circumstances which allow it to replicate and multiply, then it is merely existing in a niche of opportunity.  As long as that opportunity exists, the deleterious effects of the virus will remain.  The tactics to “combat” this virus, therefore, are not those usually used in combat situations.  If it is not alive, the idea of “killing” the virus is a metaphor at best, because this virus does not exhibit the conventional attributes of living organisms.  If that is true, the goal should not be to combat the virus through killing it but rather to disrupt or “destabilize” and thereby neutralize the virus to defeat it.  Tactics should be focused specifically on a narrow goal—deprive this preprogrammed protein of the conditions of which it takes advantage. 

Tactics used by the governments of the Central Asian countries in the initial stages of this pandemic were effective because they focused on physical distancing. This was crucial for flattening the epidemic curve.  Central Asian governments responded to the challenge by imposing strict lockdowns and even surveillance measures on citizens. For democracies, the implementation of such strict measures, even if only temporarily, places pressures on democratic institutions which, in turn, risk undermining public trust. Some analysts view the corona pandemic as a global crisis that presents particularly unique challenges for democracies. In contrast, the outcome of the response of the Central Asian government deserves high marks.  A “brushfire” spread of panic and disorder was prevented.   

SARS, the “Widening Perimeter” and International Cooperation

The current form of the SARS virus may attenuate entirely or may in the future end up in returning in waves and only gradually recede in importance.  The unprecedented costs SARS has already exacted in terms of those who have suffered and those who have died are compounded by the costs of those whose lives have been severely disrupted socially or economically.  In the time ahead these human, economic and social costs are likely to be multiplied by the national security costs in terms of the increased international tensions and the diminished capacity to conduct international affairs in traditional ways. 

The corona virus pandemic requires us to think of solutions that may be outside of the more traditional ways of thinking.  To begin with, defeating this unusual foe will require two things which on the surface may seem to be opposed to one another—first, only capable and effective national governments will be able to succeed in addressing the immediate challenges of counter-pandemic containment and, second, only international cooperation will succeed in addressing the global aspects of the spread of disease. 

Globalization itself bears much of the responsibility for this infectious disease.  If it were not for the high-tech linkages of air, rail, and shipping connections linking the entire globe, there could not be such rapid transmission of this new and dangerous virus.  But if globalization is the cause, global cooperation may also be the only viable solution to the problems it has created.  Many of the problems produced by this corona virus pandemic will be achieved through the close connections of science, information, communication, and international cooperation.  Only a new form ofglobalization—what we might call “improved globalization”—can make this possible.     

* Gregory Gleason is professor of security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.  The Marshall Center is a partnership between the German Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense.  This article does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense. 

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China Replacing Russia as the Boogeyman in the U.S. Presidential Campaign

During the 2016 U.S. Presidential bid, Russia was picked as a scapegoat to justify the loss endured by the Democratic...

Africa7 hours ago

Armed Bandits: The Novel Security Threat in Nigeria

The shrinking of Lake Chad which has led to competition between farmers and herders over scarce resources coupled with Boko...

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AfDB presents findings of the Angola Green Mini-Grid Market Assessment

The African Development Bank hosted a webinar to present the findings and recommendations of the Angola Green Mini-Grid Market Assessment...

Newsdesk9 hours ago

Ten Years to Midnight: Four urgent global crises and their strategic solutions

The world has 10 years to solve its urgent challenges or it will be too late. In his new book, TEN...

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