Stop Declaring War on a Virus

6159028 (1)

Brett Crozier, the recently fired captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, broke the chain of command when he wrote a letter proposing a quarantine of more than 100 coronavirus-infected sailors during a stop in Guam. He acknowledged that immobilizing a “deployed U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier … may seem like an extraordinary measure,” but reasoned, “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.”

When then-Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly later addressed the ship’s crew (in what turned out to be a remarkable act of self-immolation), he said that last line bothered him: “We’re not technically at war, but … the only reason we are dealing with this right now is because a big authoritarian regime called China was not forthcoming about what was happening with the virus.”



Meanwhile, the president quietly deployed ships and aircraft to the Caribbean to confront drug cartels that could “exploit the pandemic to threaten American lives.” According to Gen. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military obtained intelligence suggesting Mexican cartels think it’s an opportune moment to shuttle their drugs northward. He concluded, “We’re at war with COVID-19, we’re at war with terrorists, and we’re at war with drug cartels as well.”

A Time for Wartime Leaders?

Donald Trump is styling himself as a wartime president. He rallies Americans to a “war with an invisible enemy” and promises to “vanquish the virus.” His surgeon general recently conjured the air raid on Pearl Harbor as well as the 9/11 attacks to describe the devastation Americans can expect to see. Presidents are drawn to declaring “war,” be it on poverty, drugs, or a pandemic. Doing so allows them to simplify threats, concentrate power, and deploy forces, even if they are ill-equipped to defeat poverty, narcotics, or a virus.

Military might is feeble in the face of a virus, which is indifferent to the interests of its hosts. So what? You might insist this president is prone to exaggeration, and this is simply another instance.

Not so fast.

Declaring war, however casually, is one of those verbal acts—like taking a marriage vow, placing a bet with a friend, or telling your boss you resign—that goes beyond describing or interpreting or contesting reality; it brings about a new reality. In his book, How To Do Things With Words, British philosopher John Austin describes it as a “performative utterance.” Some people can imitate a performative utterance when they’re speaking metaphorically (such as a high school principal declaring war on hallway graffiti) or facetiously (such as an ordinary person betting friend “a billion” dollars the next batter will strike out). It comes down to authority and ability. When someone has the authority and means to follow through on their “speech act,” they are not describing so much as creating a new reality.

What new realities are all this war talk bringing into existence? I detect at least three, discussed here in turn: a self-injuring pivot from international cooperation toward belligerent nationalism; short-term economic interventions that are not necessarily likely to transform into lasting reforms; and an inflation of the concept of war which potentially undermines the rule of law. But, first a question.

What is War?

Casting the containment of the novel coronavirus as war obscures the nature of the threat. Christopher Mewett drew on Carl Von Clausewitz in these pages to remind readers that war’s nature is “violent, interactive and fundamentally political. Absent any of these elements, what you’re talking about is not war but something else.” Virulence is not violence, and the virus has no political intentions (though it is having political effects). I don’t know a doctor or nurse or epidemiologist or pharmaceutical researcher who wants to be considered a warrior. They have an altogether different sort of calling, and their work is honorable enough as it is.

In a speech last Saturday, the German president insisted, “No, this is not a war.” Pointedly arguing that the virus does not pit nations and soldiers against each other, he said that Germany “cannot come out of this crisis strong and healthy if our neighbors do not also come out strong and healthy.” He characterized the moment as “a test of our humanity.”  When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently sabotaged a joint statement from a recent G-7 conference and fuels the “shambolic disunity” of the U.N. Security Council by insisting on the inclusion of the phrase “Wuhan virus” before formal multilateral action can begin, he alienated those whose cooperation could help save American lives and impedes the only body which offers some hope for a coordinated global response.

Belligerent Nationalism

Washington frames this pandemic in classic national security terms at its peril. Assigning the virus a nationality confuses its essential attributes and misdirects public frustration. This conjures a public health crisis into a threat from China just as U.S.-China tensions rise to dangerous levels. One senator promoted a debunked conspiracy theory that the coronavirus is a Chinese biological weapon. Another blamed Chinese culture using misinformed and ethnocentric, if not downright Sinophobic, language. Disturbingly, a new website registered more than 1,000 incidents of hate crimes against Asian-Americans in less than two weeks.

America’s coronavirus response has fallen victim to some of the worst side effects of war paranoia. A zero-sum mentality blinds leaders to the interconnectedness of supply chains and the importance of working with allies. It intensifies rather than interrupts rivalries with traditional competitors. Moreover, mischaracterizing issues as external threats leads to ineffective policy measures like tardy travel bans and diverting presidential attention to drug cartels.

The coronavirus pandemic demonstrates that the most serious global challenges cannot be conquered by force. Yet even as the Trump administration has added hundreds of billions of dollars to America’s defense budget, it has tried to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. America’s single-minded focus on military primacy has led to a botched pandemic response which in turn threatens American influence as other nations look to China for leadership. There is also a growing trend of established democracies tightening surveillance, invoking emergency powers, and declaring martial law. The U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights warned, “We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic.”

America’s international leadership suddenly seems fragile. My organization, the Eurasia Group Foundation, recently published a report from ten countries to better understand how ordinary people view the United States and its democratic ideals. In the days before the virus spread globally, roughly three-quarters thought America’s world leadership was better for their country than China’s. But the most cited rationale was transactional—that the United States is a trustworthy economic partner. Those who preferred Chinese leadership cited most frequently Chinese values—economic and political stability over individual freedoms. America’s tilt toward belligerent nationalism jeopardizes its status as an economic partner, and China continues to showcase stability in the wake of the pandemic. For champions of democracy, there is much work yet to be done.

America’s militarism hurts its reputation and interests in a more general way. According to our study, America’s belligerent foreign policy is among the largest contributors to anti-Americanism. Therefore, summoning war rhetoric—let alone war rhetoric that targets a country many seek to emulate—will not inspire the cooperation the United States seeks.

And it is not just war rhetoric that is counterproductive. As the Iranian people suffer in one of the deadliest sites of the global pandemic, the Trump administration has persisted with its “maximum pressure” campaign by ratcheting up—rather than temporarily relieving—devastating economic sanctions. This is likely to compound negative attitudes toward the United States among those who already resent its aggressive foreign policy.

Stopgap Economic Interventions

When political leaders place a pandemic in the category of war, they give themselves license to draw on wartime’s economic tools, including surges in public spending, intrusive and ad hoc trade policies, and ratcheting up defense budgets. This will likely accelerate the Trump administration’s existing predilection for these economic varieties of populism, protectionism, and militarism.

The broad bipartisan U.S. support for $2.2 trillion in coronavirus relief is one example. Whatever its economic wisdom, this emergency economic intervention won support as lawmakers put themselves on a war footing. As Nicholas Mulder writes, “the inescapable need for state involvement helps explain why the war economy is a favorite metaphor of the technocratic imagination.” The government gains new latitude once it persuades the public the country is at war. It uses this latitude not only to bail out hard-hit industries and individuals, but also to obstruct certain types of international trade.

But the U.S. government invites a dangerous backlash when, for example, it bans companies like 3M from exporting respirator masks. Aside from the humanitarian implications of depriving under-equipped countries from such products, other nations are likely to cut off shipments to the United States in retaliation. American authorities reportedly confiscated 200,000 masks meant for Germany and redirected them to the United States, prompting that major NATO ally to denounce America for an “act of modern piracy.”

There are, however, stark differences between a war economy and this coronavirus economy. War economies are characterized by expanded workforce mobilization and accelerated production. The coronavirus economy is the inverse with workforce demobilization and arrested production. War economies are about supply shortages (think “guns or butter”). The coronavirus economy is the inverse with a shortage of demand (at least for anything other than hand sanitizer, masks, ventilators, and apparently baking supplies).

Nevertheless, some progressives turn away from these distinctions, bullish on the policies and perspectives the war economy furnishes. The social safety net is widening as unemployment insurance benefits improve and the crushing burdens of high rents and excessive student loan payments are suddenly appreciated and alleviated. In a war economy, profiteers become suspect whether the price gouger works in the corner store or a corner office. The coronavirus economy, like a war economy, reminds the public which workers are truly essential—such as doctors and nurses, sanitation and agriculture workers, grocers, and delivery people. However, it’s unclear whether these new programs and perspectives will outlast the present wreckage.

Moreover, U.S. government spending hasn’t all been directed to helping those most economically vulnerable to the outbreak. At a time when another one of our reports finds that roughly 80 percent of Americans want to reduce or maintain defense spending, the Pentagon has requested an additional $8.3 billion to fight the pandemic.

To be sure, there are opportunities to use legislation drafted in and for wartime which provide for economic interventions that would better equip the United States to contain a pandemic. The Defense Production Act authorizes the president to “use loans, purchases, loan guarantees, subsidies, and even government-furnished equipment to keep alive a domestic supply of what could prove to be critical assets, even when they are not commercially viable.” The market is beginning to respond to the demand for medical and protective equipment, but the Defense Production Act is one way of catalyzing this response and meeting this demand.

Not Every Struggle is a War

Potentially most troubling, agents of the state accrete new power in wartime. Words matter. Legal scholar Rosa Brooks observes that words used to define war are inescapably “fighting words,” and when “adopted by the state itself, those words can be transformed—via state institutional arrangements and via the law—into violence.” Whether war is invoked literally or metaphorically matters less than the material consequences of its repeated invocation. As Americans muddle through stay-at-home orders, they might be spared martial law, but there are bound to be consolidations, if not abuses, of newfound wartime power along the way.

In this light, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Trump moved to depose the head of the watchdog panel responsible for supervising how the trillions of dollars of pandemic relief is spent. The logic appears to be that if the war economy warranted an enormous relief package, the politics of wartime should excuse the firing of bureaucrats deemed disloyal by the president.

In her insightful book on the topic, Brooks points to the many ways in which the distinction between wartime and peacetime is nontrivial. Different cultures have used various rituals to distinguish between the two. But in an era of endless wars, these distinctions get muddled. “If we can’t tell whether a particular situation counts as ‘war,’ we can’t figure out which rules apply. … Ultimately, we lose our collective ability to place meaningful restraints on power and violence.” Or, as Cicero put it, “in time of war, the law is silent.” American democracy, which is predicated upon restraints on power and the law being audible, hardly seems compatible with a state of perpetual war.

Let’s Move Rhetoric Beyond War

The language of war fundamentally distorts the nature of the coronavirus threat, diverts policymakers from the most realistic solutions, and squanders international goodwill. It cultivates belligerent nationalism, spurs temporary economic reforms that elide structural change, and makes political abuse of power more likely.

Washington’s tendency to view complicated global challenges militaristically has allowed political leaders to abandon civil matters like public health—laid bare by the federal government’s failure to keep its citizens safe from nearly any threat unconquerable with missiles and machine guns. There are many ways to help arrest the spread of this virus. Declaring war on it is not among them.



Mark Hannah is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and the host of its “None Of The Above” podcast. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of a military analyst that has previously published in War on the Rocks. He is Christopher Mewett, not Mewitt.

Image: U.S. Coast Guard (Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jetta Disco)