NATO in the Fight with COVID-19

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Photo: Dan Kitwood - Getty Images

NATO Foreign Ministers are meeting this week at a time when global institutions are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Some institutions are even fighting for their lives, uncertain whether their missions and functions can emerge intact from this crisis. NATO does not have that problem—its focus as a military alliance is squarely on deterrence and defense against external threats, whether they flow from terrorists or state actors.  Its job is to defend its member states, and it will stay ready to do so. 

But NATO must pay attention. Some of its members may be tempted to upset democratic principles and take the law into their own hands. This process has already begun with Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who has extended the country’s state of emergency and declared that he will rule by decree for an indefinite period.  The excuse is that such measures are needed to fight the pandemic, but they extend a trend that was already underway in Hungary and Poland. 

NATO Foreign Ministers do not have the same toolbox to deal with such problems as the European Union: EU Justice Minister Didier Reynders has already launched a formal process to investigate and perhaps censure Hungary. NATO Foreign Ministers, however, can remind all of its members that the principles enshrined in its founding document, the Washington Treaty—democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law—are a condition of their participation in the institution.  They must post the warning this week.

Beyond stating its values, NATO Foreign Ministers need to make clear this week that the organization’s strength and coherence can be a global beacon in the fight with COVID-19. They need to show what international institutions can do if they stay together, focused on the fight and using the tools they have available. Being ready to fight on the military front means that NATO must be resilient, and not only in members’ armed forces, but also in their governments and civil societies. Alliance resilience is paying dividends now, as member countries tackle the pandemic.

For instance, NATO has long worked on providing military transport under even the most difficult of circumstances: this kind of capability is needed in crisis or conflict, but it is also needed in this pandemic, right now. NATO heavy transport planes have airlifted over 200 tons of crucial medical equipment acquired from China and South Korea. These shipments have gone to the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. The transports are also delivering field hospital tents to Luxembourg.

This heavy lift capability is a NATO function, but individual NATO countries are also doing what they can: the United States has provided medical equipment to Italy, and the Czech Republic has donated 20,000 protective suits to Italy and Spain. Even today, Turkey is flying military supplies to Italy and Spain. On March 30, the German Luftwaffe flew 400 patients out of France to hospitals in Germany. More such transports are underway. Polish and Albanian medical teams are serving side by side with medical teams in Italy. Militaries across the alliance are setting up temporary hospitals, disinfecting public areas, and helping with logistics and planning.

NATO’s newest member, the Republic of North Macedonia, is finding out in real time how the alliance can help.  NATO’s long-standing disaster relief function has trained both Allies and partners to deal with natural disasters such as earthquakes and forest fires. Allies are able to call on the NATO crisis response system to help them cope with such disasters. With its flag just raised this week at NATO Headquarters, North Macedonia is already using the system to coordinate its government and provide the public with information and advice on COVID-19.

These efforts are a quiet testament to NATO’s most basic principle: all for one and one for all. It is the principle inscribed in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, that if the time comes to fight, all NATO members will stand together to defend each other. The message today is that the principle stands also in peacetime, when tragedy strikes. It is a powerful statement that NATO as an institution strives to be fit for purpose and ready for what is thrown at it, whether in crisis, conflict or peacetime. 

We need strong institutions right now, committed to the rule of law, coherence and cooperation.  NATO has shown what an international institution can do if its members stay together, focus on the fight and use the tools they have available. This Thursday, NATO Foreign Ministers should send that message out to the world: NATO is a global beacon in the fight against COVID-19.