27 April 2020

How military strategy can aid the response to COVID-19

Article by senior researcher and director of Centre for Military Studies Henrik Breitenbauch on World Politics Review, 27 April 2020.

“We are at war,” French President Emmanuel Macron stressed while announcing a nationwide lockdown last month. He was not alone in his choice of rhetoric, as leaders around the world have invoked battlefield metaphors to galvanize national responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

The drama of the analogy certainly makes it a convenient political instrument to justify radical state-led interventions. Yet it also blurs the differences between the current public health crisis and an actual war. During an armed conflict, militaries face human opponents with wills of their own, but there is no such enemy during this pandemic—only an unfeeling virus. As a result, governments have no need to keep their plans secret, as they would from an adversarial power. On the contrary, there is a good argument for investing energy in being more open about responses to the pandemic. Transparency is particularly desirable because it promotes the free flow of information and helps optimize the global learning environment and promote public debate.

Yet even if “this pandemic is not a war,” as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it bluntly, the global spread of COVID-19 does create extraordinary challenges to governance and democratic institutions. As such, there are still lessons from wartime strategy that can be applied to the current crisis.

First, governance during a public health crisis must be based on what the political scientist and military historian Eliot Cohen calls an “unequal dialogue” between politicians and experts. He argues in his book, “Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime,” that the relationship between political leaders and professional experts is naturally tense because each side sees issues from very different perspectives, and because of a fundamental power imbalance. Ultimately, political leaders make the final decisions, even as they should listen to, involve and challenge the career professionals they work with.

Experience shows that it is not straightforward to translate professional knowledge into strategic action. During both wars and pandemics, leaders must consider important elements that go beyond the purely technical. In war, it may be more important to have a political counterpart to make peace with than to achieve total military victory. Likewise, in a pandemic, what is optimal from a public health perspective may not be socially desirable. The need to maximize control of the infection through surveillance and strict quarantines must be weighed against concerns around privacy and civil liberties.

Cohen’s principle of unequal dialogue is also underpinned by the fact that expert knowledge - military as well as health-related - is rarely unambiguous. Often, it is based on insufficient or evolving data and opaque assumptions that offer only probabilities of success and risks of failure. The basis for decision-making is thus unclear and changing, especially in a rapidly developing crisis. Even if a pandemic is not a war, there is still the fog of war, especially at the early stages. The demand that politicians “listen to the experts” is not as simple as it sounds.

Strategy, it must also be emphasized, is a process. It is sometimes understood to imply a fixed roadmap that leads to success if followed, but in the real world, strategy is an overarching intention, a navigational beacon. There are no spreadsheets or equations that tell leaders how many soldiers and tanks are needed to win a battle, or how many days of lockdown will be needed to contain an outbreak. Rather, strategies must be constantly refined, corrected and reassessed, and developed in interaction between top and bottom in the organization.

In an immediate crisis, a wise strategy can be about winning time more than anything else. An army outnumbered on the battlefield will often try to stall the enemy’s advance until reinforcements arrive. Similarly, during the coronavirus pandemic, the time dimension has been a crucial indicator of success. Countries that gain time through containment measures and use it to resolve preexisting issues like bottlenecks in the health care system and a lack of medical equipment, for example, have generally fared well. The need in many countries to build up medical capacity and mass produce testing kits, as well as the hope for a viable vaccine or a treatment, also speak to the need to play for time.

Many governments and international organizations are also formulating more tangible and comprehensive strategic agendas. But even then, the public political debate over the aptness of a particular strategy can be misguided if it is based on a static idea of what strategy is and how it works. The process of formulating strategies should also involve public debate. Robust public engagement is often difficult during military crises, where the need for operational secrecy is paramount. But under the current circumstances, public debate can contribute to strategic learning.

A significant part of strategic thinking is to establish, criticize and refine causal ideas and final goals, in order to eventually decide on an optimal course of action. But when an organization is under pressure, like many governments are now, they must develop strategy and implement decisions at the same time. These two tasks can pull in different directions. Bureaucratic hierarchies and the intense stress of the political environment risk creating internal blinders in the form of groupthink. Military planners often address this issue through a process known as “red teaming,” to rigorously challenge an existing approach’s weaknesses and examine alternatives. During a pandemic, political leaders can encourage a form of public red teaming by making themselves open to input from journalists, academics and civil society groups.

Finally, the key players in response to a crisis need not only be officials in executive branches of government. The public can get involved, as can elected representatives in legislatures. Fostering a broad political co-ownership of a crisis is essential to maintaining normal political discourse and preventing overconcentration of power. No matter their role in the response to the pandemic, all stakeholders in societies can learn from the strategy of war and adapt its lessons to guide their actions.