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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems.
War zone

3rd April 2020

Starting the conversation…

Suzanne RaineAffiliated Lecturer, Centre for Geopolitics

In the Middle Ages, plagues altered the course of war.  Towns became citadels with their city gates closed as if in a siege. Sometimes, the plague stopped conflict: the Black Death in 1348 caused a seven year pause (but not end) to the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453).  Plagues weakened armies, both in manpower and economic terms, and affected ruling houses’ decision-making capabilities. 

How will the pandemic alter conflicts today?  Will it end wars or start them?  Most of the current world conflicts are not between states but within them; intractable civil wars in Syria and Yemen have left huge numbers of internally displaced persons.  Is it possible that the Coronavirus pandemic might prompt a pause in these conflicts where all else has failed?  Or, will the pandemic hand one side an advantage?  Will it affect capabilities of state and non-state actors equally?

Is it possible that the Coronavirus pandemic might prompt a pause in these conflicts where all else has failed? 

Plagues typically devastated economies, leaving states with little to pay for costly armies and weaponry and no men to fight. It is probable the economic measures taken to relieve the immediate impact of this pandemic will have serious knock-on consequences for future defence spending. This will be different in different countries depending on prioritisation.

Not all modern conflict is between armies. What effect will global lockdown have on hybrid warfare? It has highlighted our complete dependency on the internet – cyber – for every possible service and connectivity. Our health services, our transport and travel, our supermarket orders, our social connections, our entertainment, our news and narrative about what is going on. It is fortunate that no current conflict is so great that an adversary has yet sought to take advantage of this dependency. But it is not inconceivable that should the situation in the Middle East worsen, one of the many warring sides might do.


John Raine, Senior Advisor for Geopolitical Due Diligence at the International Institute for Strategic Studies

It is a convention, which Thucydides noted in describing the plague in Athens in 430BC, that the effects of plague are felt equally by all regardless of physique or wealth or privilege. Of course, the better resourced have a better chance of surviving but that’s not guaranteed (the Athenian leader Pericles and his family died). In general plague and pestilence are levellers.

But whereas that’s true for individuals it is less so for collective entities, political or corporate. The entities which suffer most are those who, cruelly, have most responsibility. That happens in two ways: either they mismanage the crisis or the plague denies them the financial or human resources they need to survive. That can end badly. The Mamluk Empire was fatally weakened by the sustained ravages of plague in the fifteenth century which deprived it of the military manpower.

The impact of the current pandemic on international conflicts may reflect a similar pattern. States may well suffer more than non-state adversaries. The Iranian regime is struggling to manage the crisis and, given the extent of sanctions, obtain the resources it needs. Governments in Iraq and Lebanon, already under pressure from popular protests against their incompetence are unlikely to have the capacity to manage the massive public health challenge of COVID19. Ironically, in Lebanon the Minister of Health is one of the two Ministers from Hezbollah, the region’s biggest non-state actor. Hezbollah now carry a serious, state-level responsibility for which they will be judged.

Other non-state actors may fare better. There are strong narrative opportunities. ISIS have advised operatives not to travel to Europe (“the land of the plague”) but in so doing have found another way of demonising the West. Since losing their territory they have no public health responsibilities and fewer liabilities. As their host countries are paralysed they can take advantage both in narratives and in a renewed physical freedom to manoeuvre. Above all, in the tragically vulnerable refugee camps of the region they can exploit what inevitably will be a failure of the international community or local governments to deliver health care. That puts even more pressure on states to retain control of both the pandemic and the narrative.

Patrick Milton, Research Associate, Centre for Geopolitics

The Black Death may have put the Hundred Years War on hold, but pandemics did not always do so in history. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) continued unimpeded despite a major concurrent pandemic in the conflict zones. This plague did not have a decisive geopolitical impact nor did it heavily affect grand strategy during the war – it hurt all sides and only had short term tactical implications (such as diversions around certain towns or areas known to be affected by plague).

But plague and disease had a huge human impact and was the main cause of mortality, both among soldiers and civilians. Peter Wilson’s excellent book Europe’s Tragedy has some interesting information and statistics. On average about 1 in 10 soldiers were sick throughout war; 3 soldiers died from disease (typhus, bubonic plague) for every 1 killed in action. Epidemics caused many more civilian deaths than military violence. Between 1.5m and 2m of France total population of 17-20m were killed by plague in 1620s for example. Germany’s 1618 population was not reached again until the 1710s.

Disease spread along with moving armies, but also by refugees. Plague infection was generally fatal – children were disproportionately affected in contrast to COVID-19. The impact of epidemics was magnified by adverse economic and climate conditions in a vicious cycle (poor climate → bad harvest → malnutrition → greater susceptibility to infection → generalized infection also hindered harvest).

Although devastating, plague could bring an element of relief to villages from sustained pillaging if it was known that it was hit by plague. Some of the measures adopted to contain infections included the burning houses inhabited by victims; as well as measure that are more familiar to people today including the banning religious gatherings and processions, and funerals. Some towns that became overrun with diseased refugees imposed entry restrictions and residence requirements e.g. Leipzig in 1631.

Your view…

Russell Burgos, National Defense University (USA)

The use of force by democratic societies is subject to a “legitimacy veto” by the citizenry — an affirmative endorsement of state policy by the people in the form of support for war production, higher taxes, military enlistment/conscription, and the like. The less unified a democratic society (all else equal), the lower the probability it can act decisively in the face of impending conflict.

Yet the OECD reports that trust in government is dropping among member countries, and there is growing evidence that malign (and non-democratic actors) are engaging in systematic misinformation campaigns (“fake news,” “deepfakes,” etc.) intended to further decouple citizens from their governments, undermining democratic legitimacy and decreasing the probability that a government could rally its citizens in the face of looming conflict — especially so-called “hybrid” or “grey zone” conflicts, where there is no one event that signals the onset of conflict.

Pandemic could exacerbate these trends, further weakening the links between the governed and the governors, making it more difficult for democratic states to take action to deter or defeat the malign actors’ strategies. Here I think of the painting, “The Triumph of Death” (c. 1562) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which I read as a referendum on the inability of clergy and monarchy — then the primary institutions of social and political governance — to protect ordinary people. In the battle for narrative, the more open a society and the less able a government is to handle pandemic in the face of such openness, the greater the opportunities to exploit such failures and call into question the legitimacy of the government.

However, though a botched pandemic response could further exacerbate people’s growing loss of trust in government, it’s not clear that a successful response would reverse it, as in one sense succeeding at pandemic control would simply be an instance of government doing its job properly.