NATO proves we're not all in this together

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — Where has NATO been during this pandemic? U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron have repeatedly referred to their nations being at war with the coronavirus, so why haven’t we seen a coordinated international response to the “attack”?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization operates on the premise that an attack on one member country warrants a response by all. In 2003, NATO formed the Multinational Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Defense Battalion. According to NATO’s website, this unit is “prepared for deployment in crisis situations such as natural disasters, infectious disease outbreaks and industrial accidents, including those involving hazardous material.” A global pandemic would certainly seem to qualify.

So what would NATO’s response to a pandemic look like? By the alliance’s own standards, it would have a voluntary lead member nation with other countries contributing troops, equipment and logistical support, with components such as decontamination stations and deployable laboratories.

NATO’s website introduces us to Lt. Col. Piotr Wachna, deputy commander of the 4th Chemical Regiment of the Polish army. Wachna is also the current head of the CBRN. Photos show his team in hazmat suits disinfecting hospital beds and hallways — in Poland. What we don’t see are brigades of biological warfare specialists going to war with a virus abroad.

Unlike its bombings of Libya and Yugoslavia, NATO’s war on coronavirus has been more discreet. It’s been so subtle, in fact, that any 15-year-old kid with a computer connection and a blog could achieve similar results. NATO has resorted to posting appeals on its website that amount to: “Hey, Country X needs protective equipment. Anyone have any?” The requests ask suppliers to contact the country in need directly.

To be fair, NATO announced a few days ago that 10 CBRN medical specialists from Romania will be helping Alabama authorities in a two-week deployment. But for weeks, China, Cuba and Russia have been seen sending teams of doctors and supplies to coronavirus hotspots all over the world, including NATO member countries. Critics have accused them of exploiting the crisis for propaganda purposes — every act of assistance can be played as a public relations and diplomacy card, after all — but that doesn’t mean it’s not helpful.

NATO should have mobilized to outshine its traditional Cold War foes. Instead, it seems largely focused on fighting what it considers “disinformation” coming from Russia and China.

“We have several examples of statements coming from Moscow and Beijing, which are not correct, which try to undermine the cohesion of NATO allies, and also portrays NATO in the absolutely wrong way,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last month, adding that both countries “portray NATO allies as if we are unable to, for instance, protect our elderly people or that we are not able to work together. We are working together. That’s exactly what we do.”

It’s not disinformation that NATO allies were hijacking each other’s mask shipments. Sweden’s Sveriges Radio reported that a Swedish producer’s masks, which were being sent from Chinese factories to Spain and Italy, were intercepted in France. And there have been myriad reports of mask hoarding, blocking and hijacking in the U.S. by states competing with each other for supplies.

Nor is it disinformation that the elderly in care homes have been disproportionately affected in NATO countries.

What NATO’s secretary-general calls “disinformation” is really just inconvenient information. There has indeed been a lack of solidarity between NATO member states, with every country looking out for itself. It’s not an unreasonable position, of course. Anyone who’s flown in a plane knows that before you help your neighbor with an oxygen mask, you’re supposed to make sure that your own mask is properly secured.

Rather than focusing on how it can capitalize on this crisis to peddle questionable propaganda against old Cold War foes, NATO should be examining how it could perform better. Heaven forbid there’s ever a biological attack on a NATO member country that kills millions of people. What would NATO do then? Coordinate equipment bids online? Send 10 medical professionals into the field two months later?

At the very least, NATO could have organized the transport logistics and security of medical supplies from the outset. And if it really wanted to get into the disinformation-busting business, it could have cautioned its members against using “coronavirus cases” — a measure largely dependent on a country’s ability or willingness to test — as a benchmark. NATO also could have lobbied its member countries to establish a uniform definition of what constitutes a coronavirus death. Instead, some countries (including the U.S.) have been counting those with serious underlying medical conditions that could have caused their death as coronavirus victims. Countries with lower fatality counts seem to have a more strict interpretation of what constitutes a coronavirus death. This disparity has impeded objective analysis of the epidemic.

NATO blew an opportunity to reposition itself during a global emergency. Instead, it’s still obsessed with ghosts from the last century’s Cold War.