Print Читать на русском
Rate this article
(votes: 2, rating: 5)
 (2 votes)
Share this article
Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

In the four months that have passed since the coronavirus outbreak began, it seems that just about everyone has had something to say about the situation—experts, regular folk, politicians, businesspeople, footballers, ice hockey players, the G7, the G20, the European Union and the African Union. So why, then, has the UN Security Council, the very body that supposedly bears the prime responsibility for maintaining peace and security in the world, remained stubbornly silent?

The official explanations—that the Security Council supposedly deals with security issues, while pandemics fall within the purview of the World Health Organization (WHO) — are rather unconvincing. Only a dedicated cynic (or a fool, perhaps) would ignore the obvious connection between the spread of the coronavirus and growing security threats around the world. As for the WHO, in the words of one of O. Henry's characters, "Sand is an unimportant substitute for oats!” With all due respect to the WHO, it is very much secondary to the Security Council in terms of its status, effectiveness and clout.

Anyone with a penchant for common law will note that there is precedent of the UN Security Council doing its part to counter the spread of dangerous diseases. Take Resolution 1308, for example, which was adopted 20 years ago to help fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. Or Resolution 2177 adopted in 2014 to fight the Ebola epidemic. In both cases, the consensus reached by the Security Council made it possible to mobilize previously inaccessible financial, administrative and political resources, set up targeted funds and public-private partnerships, incentivize global and regional banks, and provide the WHO and other relevant UN agencies with additional opportunities.

One gets the impression that the main reason behind the Security Council’s silence is the fierce information war that is taking place between Washington and Beijing.

Whatever happens in this tug of war in the Security Council, the underlying conflict will remain. Either humanity will find the strength and determination to move to a new level of governance by relinquishing a part of the national sovereignty of states, or new pandemics (particularly climate change, international terrorism, uncontrolled migration and artificial intelligence gone bad) will, in the most archaic of manners, force us to pay an increasingly higher price for the priority we give to national sovereignty and the loyalty we show to political particularism.


In the four months that have passed since the coronavirus outbreak began, it seems that just about everyone has had something to say about the situation—experts, regular folk, politicians, businesspeople, footballers, ice hockey players, the G7, the G20, the European Union and the African Union. So why, then, has the UN Security Council, the very body that supposedly bears the prime responsibility for maintaining peace and security in the world, remained stubbornly silent?

The official explanations—that the Security Council supposedly deals with security issues, while pandemics fall within the purview of the World Health Organization (WHO) — are rather unconvincing. Only a dedicated cynic (or a fool, perhaps) would ignore the obvious connection between the spread of the coronavirus and growing security threats around the world. As for the WHO, in the words of one of O. Henry's characters, "Sand is an unimportant substitute for oats!” With all due respect to the WHO, it is very much secondary to the Security Council in terms of its status, effectiveness and clout.

Anyone with a penchant for common law will note that there is precedent of the UN Security Council doing its part to counter the spread of dangerous diseases. Take Resolution 1308, for example, which was adopted 20 years ago to help fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. Or Resolution 2177 adopted in 2014 to fight the Ebola epidemic. In both cases, the consensus reached by the Security Council made it possible to mobilize previously inaccessible financial, administrative and political resources, set up targeted funds and public-private partnerships, incentivize global and regional banks, and provide the WHO and other relevant UN agencies with additional opportunities.

One gets the impression that the main reason behind the Security Council’s silence is the fierce information war that is taking place between Washington and Beijing.

According to the American side, any Security Council resolution on COVID-19 should be worded in such a way that the main blame for the outbreak is placed squarely on the shoulders of China and should also punish Beijing for trying to conceal the full scale of the problem from the international community. China, for its part, sees the spread of the virus as a side effect of Washington’s unilateralist policies, its proclivity to exert pressure on its partners to get what it wants and its national egotism.

It is worth mentioning here that China currently chairs the Security Council. This will make it more difficult for the Americans to get their way in terms of the language used in a resolution on the coronavirus. However, that does not mean that China's preferred wording will be any easier to adopt either. We should also add that the Security Council has been meeting via conference calls since mid-March, which inevitably makes its work less effective.

It would be fair to say that the inability of the Security Council to adopt a resolution on the coronavirus is symptomatic of a number of other problems within the agency. The pandemic has brought the now somewhat commonplace question of the limits of national sovereignty in today’s closely interconnected world to the forefront. Any meaningful international cooperation in the fight against coronavirus would require, at the very least, maximum transparency and completeness of information about the state of affairs in every single country, and most states are simply not prepared to be this open.

But this is not even half of the work that needs to be done. Far more importantly, the creation of a global front to fight the pandemic would effectively tie the hands of national governments in terms of what they can and cannot do.

And we are not talking here about issues that are difficult for the layperson to grasp fully, such as strategic arms control. Rather, we are talking about politically sensitive topics—the management of cross-border migration flows, the introduction of local and national quarantines, restrictions on the internal movement of the population, the use of unilateral sanctions and other restrictions on international trade, etc.

This is not the same as fighting Ebola in some remote African territory, where conflicts between national sovereignty and international cooperation are always resolved through cooperation. The problem is that supranational regulation could end up encroaching on one of the main symbols of state sovereignty—the basic standards of national health systems!

In this sense, the recent standoff between the United Kingdom and the European Union about how to tackle the pandemic is intriguing. Having left the European Union and fully restored British sovereignty, London has set about pursuing its own "national" strategy here too—an approach that included minimal social distancing and a refusal to close restaurants, bars and night clubs. This was done in the hope that elderly people would stay at home, while the rest of the country would catch the virus and thus develop an immunity to it. In the end, President of France Emmanuel Macron was forced to point out rather bluntly the real limits of British sovereignty to his pompous counterpart Boris Johnson. Having threatened to close the border between the United Kingdom and France (and between the United Kingdom and the European Union), Paris forced London to keep in step with other European countries.

The European Union had thus twisted the United Kingdom’s arm, forcing it to play by European rules. But who will twist Russia’s, or China’s, or the United States’ arm? And this is why the UN Security Council is keeping quiet, and it does not look like this will change any time soon.

Even if the Security Council does manage to come up with a resolution, it will probably be very general in nature and require nothing in particular from the great powers. It could use the non-binding final statement on the fight against coronavirus adopted at the recent virtual G20 summit as a template.

Whatever happens in this tug of war in the Security Council, the underlying conflict will remain. Either humanity will find the strength and determination to move to a new level of governance by relinquishing a part of the national sovereignty of states, or new pandemics (particularly climate change, international terrorism, uncontrolled migration and artificial intelligence gone bad) will, in the most archaic of manners, force us to pay an increasingly higher price for the priority we give to national sovereignty and the loyalty we show to political particularism.

First published in Russia in Global Affairs.

(votes: 2, rating: 5)
 (2 votes)

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
For business
For researchers
For students