Why Covid-19 could lead to 1930s-style nationalism

Head of UK armed forces General Sir Nick Carter draws parallels with fallout from Wall Street Crash

British Army Challenger tank of the NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle group based in Estonia, fires during certification field tactical exercise in Adazi, Latvia June 18, 2020. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

The Covid-19 pandemic could lead to a rise in global nationalism and the threat of war, the head of Britain’s military said.

Gen Sir Nick Carter also feared that the economic crisis might be followed by the rise in extremism witnessed in the years leading up to the Second World War.

Once coronavirus is overcome, countries will face a choice of becoming more nationalistic or multi-national, co-operating better to combat future global threats, he said.

But it was the Chief of the Defence Staff’s stark warning about the possibility of post-pandemic conflict that has received the most attention.

“What you generally find with a crisis like this, which becomes an economic crisis, is that it then undermines the stability and security situation as well,” Gen Carter told The Daily Telegraph. “What often follows a very significant economic event is a security challenge.”

He highlighted Russia, Iran and North Korea as the countries that posed the main threat to global peace and suggested that China was “not so much a threat as a challenge”.

He drew attention to the dire economic period following the First World War, culminating in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and subsequent worldwide recession that gave rise to extreme nationalism in countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain.

“If you look at the 1930s, that started with a significant economic crash – and that acted as a very destabilising feature. There are moments in history when significant economic challenges have led to security challenges because they act as a destabiliser.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised global tension over vaccine supplies and countries shutting their borders to keep out foreign travellers.

Similarly, the dawn of “vaccine nationalism” with countries holding stock only for their own populations has created discord, particularly in the last month between Britain and the European Union where supplies are low.

“There has been some unity with the vaccine but, generally speaking, people have put up nationalist barriers – and that does not exactly help you with security and stability,” Gen Carter said. “What the virus has revealed is some fault lines internationally but also within society.”

Relations between the world’s major powers are straining with China accused initially of covering up the outbreak, followed by Russian disinformation that claimed the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine was linked to monkeys. Other countries also attempted to deride the British-made vaccine suggesting it was not effective in over 65s but it was cleared this week by the World Health Organisation for all ages.

The fallout from Covid, which has claimed almost 2.4 million lives, has resulted in a re-evaluation of protecting supply chains that previously counted on free global movement, Gen Carter said.

The Army officer, who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, believes the greatest challenges will come post-pandemic. “We will be confronted with a couple of big choices. There will be a big choice between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, and there will be a big choice between global solidarity and nationalist isolation.”

Despite the strain on international relations, he said that the threats of “violent extremism, climate change or problems like Covid,” had to be “solved globally”.