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“We are at war.” So declared Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, three months into the fight against the novel coronavirus. If nothing else, it’s a sentiment President Donald Trump and the head of the WHO wholeheartedly agree on. And so do many other world leaders.
Especially when it comes to the mobilization of resources, war may be an appropriate analogy for fighting a pandemic such as COVID-19. But its ultimate defeat will be nothing like a military victory and will require the kind of extensive global cooperation that is more associated with keeping peace than fighting wars.
From Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and Richard Nixon’s “War on Cancer” to Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” there’s a long history of American presidents resorting to the language of war to mobilize action against major challenges and threats.
Trump was late to use the language of war, but once the extent of COVID-19’s destruction became too hard to ignore, he fully embraced it. “The world is at war with a hidden enemy,” Trump tweeted in mid-March. “WE WILL WIN,” he reassured Americans. He depicted the “foreign virus” as an “Invisible Enemy,” and saw America as being on a “wartime footing” and himself as the “wartime president.” He called Americans “warriors” and urged them to defend against an attack that was “worse than Pearl Harbor … worse than the World Trade Center” attack on 9/11.
Among other world leaders who’ve cast the fight against the virus as a war, President Xi Jinping called on the Chinese people to mobilize for a “people’s war.” Beijing’s propaganda machine touted Xi as the “People’s Leader commanding the decisive battle.” And those citizens who had fallen to the disease were described as the war’s “martyrs.”
In Europe, too, leaders have resorted to martial language. President Emmanuel Macron declared France was “at war” against an enemy that is “invisible, elusive.” In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself temporarily felled by the disease, has invoked Winston Churchill and the spirit of the Blitz, urging Britons to “directly enlist” in the fight while reassuring them they would “come through it stronger than ever.”
The language of war can be used to bring a nation together in common cause, to mobilize resources for the fight, to underscore the need for sacrifice and to force early and effective action. When it comes to dealing with a pandemic, all these efforts are necessary.
But they are not enough. A virus, though deadly, is not like an enemy in war. While it attacks through physical interaction, the “attacker” is as likely to be a spouse, a child or a parent, as someone unknown to us. It can be countered through physical separation, but it will only be defeated through outside medical intervention.
Finding a treatment or vaccine is nothing like fighting a war. It requires widespread, global cooperation among scientists to research, discover and test possible drugs — and then to manufacture, distribute and deliver them all across the globe. And victory comes not from a single battle or even from the virus’s defeat in one nation or region. It only comes from its defeat everywhere. When it comes to a pandemic, no one is safe until everyone is safe.
Many understand this need for cooperation. Earlier this week, leaders from around the world connected virtually to pledge their support and more than $8 billion to fund vaccine development and research on diagnosing and treating the disease. The United States was notably absent from the effort, while China, which was represented by its ambassador to the European Union, pledged no funding.
Asked why President Trump did not join his world colleagues and pledge U.S. support for this global effort, a senior State Department official said Washington was doing its part. “The United States is riding to the sounds of the gun, boldly heading into the fight to stop this pandemic,” Jim Richardson, director of foreign assistance, said in a news briefing. “Retreat is simply not an option.”
Here lies the deeper danger of seeing the fight against this pandemic as a war. Wars rarely end by vanquishing the enemy. Most often, they end in stalemate, because of exhaustion, or through negotiation. But viruses don’t negotiate, and in this pandemic, a “stalemate” means thousands will continue to die, every single day.
We are in this together, former President George W. Bush said so eloquently last weekend. “We are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together. And we are determined to rise.”
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.