Serbian soldiers stand guard at Serbia's Batrovci border crossing with Croatia, March, 2020
Marko Djurica / Reuters

As the novel coronavirus infects the globe, states compete for scientific and medical supplies and blame one another for the pandemic’s spread. Policy analysts have started asking whether such tensions could eventually erupt into military conflict. Has the pandemic increased or decreased the motive and opportunity of states to wage war?

War is a risky business, with potentially very high costs. The historian Geoffrey Blainey argued in The Causes of War that most wars share a common characteristic at their outset: optimism. The belligerents usually start out sanguine about their odds of military success. When elites on both or all sides are confident, they are more willing to take the plunge—and less likely to negotiate, because they think they will come out better by fighting. Peace, by contrast, is served by pessimism. Even one party’s pessimism can be helpful: that party will be more inclined to negotiate and even accept an unfavorable bargain in order to avoid war.

When one side gains a sudden and pronounced advantage, however, this de-escalatory logic can break down: the optimistic side will increase its demands faster than the pessimistic side can appease. Some analysts worry that something like this could happen in U.S.-Chinese relations as a result of the new coronavirus. The United States is experiencing a moment of domestic crisis. China, some fear, might see the pandemic as playing to its advantage and be tempted to throw its military weight around in the western Pacific.

What these analysts miss is that COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is weakening all of the great and middle powers more or less equally. None is likely to gain a meaningful advantage over the others. All will have ample reason to be pessimistic about their military capabilities and their overall readiness for war. For the duration of the pandemic, at least, and probably for years afterward, the odds of a war between major powers will go down, not up. 

PAX EPIDEMICA?

A cursory survey of the scholarly literature on war and disease appears to confirm Blainey’s observation that pessimism is conducive to peace. Scholars have documented again and again how war creates permissive conditions for disease—in armies as well as civilians in the fought-over territories. But one seldom finds any discussion of epidemics causing wars or of wars deliberately started in the middle of widespread outbreaks of infectious disease. (The diseases that European colonists carried to the New World did weaken indigenous populations to the point that they were more vulnerable to conquest; in addition, some localized conflicts were fought during the influenza pandemic of 1919–21, but these were occasioned by major shifts in regional balances of power following the destruction of four empires in World War I.)

That sickness slows the march to war is partly due to the fact that war depends on people. When people fall ill, they can’t be counted on to perform well in combat. Military medicine made enormous strides in the years leading up to World War I, prior to which armies suffered higher numbers of casualties from disease than from combat. But pandemics still threaten military units, as those onboard U.S. and French aircraft carriers, hundreds of whom tested positive for COVID-19, know well. Sailors and soldiers in the field are among the most vulnerable because they are packed together. But even airmen are at risk, since they must take refuge from air attacks in bunkers, where the virus could also spread rapidly.

Ground campaigns in urban areas pose still greater dangers in pandemic times. Much recent ground combat has been in cities in poor countries with few or no public health resources, environments highly favorable to illness. Ground combat also usually produces prisoners, any of whom can be infected. A vaccine may eventually solve these problems, but an abundance of caution is likely to persist for some time after it comes into use. 

Major outbreaks damage national economies, which are the source of military power.


The most important reason disease inhibits war is economic. Major outbreaks damage national economies, which are the source of military power. COVID-19 is a pandemic—by definition a worldwide phenomenon. All great and middle powers appear to be adversely affected, and all have reason to be pessimistic about their military prospects. Their economies are shrinking fast, and there is great uncertainty about when and how quickly they will start growing again.

Even China, which has slowed the spread of the disease and begun to reopen its economy, will be hurting for years to come. It took an enormous hit to GDP in the first quarter of 2020, ending 40 years of steady growth. And its trading partners, burned by their dependence on China for much of the equipment needed to fight COVID-19, will surely scale back their imports. An export-dependent China will have to rely more on its domestic market, something it has been attempting for years with only limited success. It is little wonder, then, that the International Monetary Fund forecasts slower growth in China this year than at any time since the 1970s.

Even after a vaccine is developed and made widely available, economic troubles may linger for years. States will emerge from this crisis with enormous debts. They will spend years paying for the bailout and stimulus packages they used to protect citizens and businesses from the economic consequences of social distancing. Drained treasuries will give them one more reason to be pessimistic about their military might.

LESS TRADE, LESS FRICTION

How long is the pacifying effect of pessimism likely to last? If a vaccine is developed quickly, enabling a relatively swift economic recovery, the mood may prove short-lived. But it is equally likely that the coronavirus crisis will last long enough to change the world in important ways, some of which will likely dampen the appetite for conflict for some time—perhaps up to five or ten years. After all, the world is experiencing both the biggest pandemic and the biggest economic downturn in a century.

Most governments have not covered themselves with glory managing the pandemic, and even the most autocratic worry about popular support. Over the next few years, people will want evidence that their governments are working to protect them from disease and economic dislocation. Citizens will see themselves as dependent on the state, and they will be less inclined to support adventures abroad. 

At the same time, governments and businesses will likely try to reduce their reliance on imports of critical materials, having watched global supply chains break down during the pandemic. The result will probably be diminished trade, something liberal internationalists see as a bad thing. But for the last five years or so, trade has not helped improve relations between states but rather fueled resentment. Less trade could mean less friction between major powers, thereby reducing the intensity of their rivalries. 

In the Chinese context, less international trade could have positive knock-on effects. Focused on growing the domestic economy, and burdened by hefty bills from fighting the virus, Beijing could be forced to table the Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious trade and investment project that has unnerved the foreign policy establishments of great and middle powers. The suspension of the BRI would soothe the fears of those who see it as an instrument of Chinese world domination. 

Interstate wars have become relatively rare since the end of World War II. The United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a four-decade Cold War, which included an intense nuclear and conventional arms race, but they never fought each other directly, even with conventional weapons. Theorists debate the reasons behind the continued rarity of great-power conflict. I am inclined to believe that the risk of escalation to a nuclear confrontation is simply too great. COVID-19 does nothing to mitigate such risks for world leaders—and a great deal to feed their reasonable pessimism about the likely outcome of even a conventional war.

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  • BARRY R. POSEN is Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and Director Emeritus of the MIT Security Studies Program.
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