Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen

From the islands of the South China Sea to Korea's DMZ, the tribes of Arabia across Africa and throughout Europe, red lines have been setting agendas and changing history for centuries.

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Chapter 12: The Red Lines of COVID-19

| S:1 E:12
Chapter 12: The Red Lines of COVID-19

In the final episode of A Red Line in the Sand, a companion podcast to the book of the same title, author David Andelman examines the world’s newest and most toxic web of red lines - the web that has grown up around the most lethal pandemic in a century: COVID-19.

The coronavirus knows no boundaries, natural or manmade, throwing red lines across the world into question. Should we restore these red lines once the crisis has passed? Is it even possible?

David Andelman: In these eleven episodes so far, I have sought to shine a light into some of the darker corners of our human existence, to show their historical roots and the positions they have led us to today. So perhaps, dear listener, you will now indulge me for a final moment in some reflections. Where might we be going now?

I’m David Andelman, author of the new book A Red Line in the Sand. I’m your host as we hopscotch around the world in this 12-part podcast. Together, we’re examining the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.

Today, in episode 12, the final in our journey, we’re examining the world's newest and most toxic web of red lines. This is the web that has grown up around the world's most lethal pandemic in a century - COVID-19.

I am no soothsayer, but history can provide us with a useful roadmap, and there are many cautionary tales. Beware of leaders who have learned none of these lessons, but who seek to blaze their own way to a dark future. Now arrives the new coronavirus. It brought with it finger-pointing and efforts at isolation in the name of self-defense. As former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put it:

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd: What I've found most horrifying around the world has been the ready resort to racism as people in various parts of the world have begun to reflect their anxieties and anger and fear toward Asians in general and Chinese nationals in particular. Any of us around the world should have sufficient maturity in the 21st century to recognize that we are global citizens confronting a global problem, and this is not the time to harbor the emergence of any form of closet racism.

DA: In some cases, red lines may utterly disappear, and others may arise. A globally existential event, of which there have been only a handful in each millennium, can transform this entire construction. COVID-19 has proven to be one such event. A virus knows no boundaries, natural or manmade. The vital question is whether the lines that have worked in the past can, or should, be restored once this crisis has passed. Red lines have all become questionable in the face of COVID-19, crossing national and natural boundaries across the world.

The last global event that threatened the entire world community was the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1917 to 1920, overlaid in part by the First World War. Some 500 million people became infected, nearly a third of the world population. The largest single concentration of flu deaths was in Africa, where it ran all but unchecked. The disease entered the continent through three seaports. In Freeport, Liberia, a Royal Navy warship crew infected 70 percent of the town’s population in two weeks. Ships returning African troops home from the war in Europe traveled onward, spreading the pandemic. As the soldiers headed home into the African interior, the disease traveled with them at a catastrophic pace, the roads they followed strewn with dead and dying. Planting, harvesting, milking all came to a halt, bringing famine. In the face of this disease, many of the colonial African red lines were erased.

We have seen other pressures coming to bear that have affected the nature and structure of red lines. And today’s COVID-19 epidemic threatens to be longer, more lethal, and more universal than any in the past. It may be a harbinger of other global threats on the horizon, like climate change. So, it would be useful to take a quick tour around the world to suggest what it may look like when we emerge from the coronavirus.

Europe was already challenged. In a half century, this continent managed to rid itself of ancestral red lines that were its national frontiers. That led to two world wars in the 20th century alone. The European Union was created, surrounded by an all-encompassing protective shield. But there were already serious centrifugal forces at play even before the arrival of COVID. Britain split from the continent through Brexit. Millions of refugees from Africa and the Middle East began knocking on Europe’s doors. There was growing pressure to turn back these immigrants who threatened to strain social safety nets, and carried risks of expanded terrorist activities.

The vast mechanism of border crossings on Europe’s major highways had long been dismantled and passport controls eliminated. But there was still a recollection of life before 1985, which introduced a single European passport for 26 nations. The concept was to provide free movement of goods and people across all of Europe, but it also allowed free movement of guns, munitions, terrorists, and eventually viruses as well. This virus turned out to be far more lethal than any terrorist and led to more divisions in a region that had been speaking with a single voice.

The coronavirus first hit Europe in Italy, then spread south from Spain across France and eventually into Germany. As it spread, the pressure to isolate intensified. Makeshift controls began going up at long-ignored frontiers. In mid-March 2020, Germany shut its borders with France, Austria, and Switzerland. On April 13, French President Macron announced that, while schools and some businesses would begin to re-open on May 11, France’s frontiers would remain closed “indefinitely.” In each country, national police set up checkpoints at the borders, turning back non-nationals. Germans were still allowed to enter Germany, the French to return to France. The existential emergency only accentuated tendencies of some rulers. Hungary’s Viktor Orban, already displaying autocratic and xenophobic qualities, turned into an evil caricature of himself. Hungary’s parliament granted him sweeping powers, allowing him to rule by decree and suspending all elections that could have removed him from office. This Hungarian red line seems likely to intensify the longer the viral crisis continues.

The question of what might happen after the coronavirus began to arise across Europe. Britain had already severed its ties with the continent only months before the coronavirus hit. There had been discussion before the COVID outbreak of Poland being expelled from the European Union. Changes in its judicial system clashed with the European community’s rules for fair and impartial justice. Since COVID, accusations have flown back and forth across the continent of hoarding medical equipment or profiteering from the outbreak. Cases involved stolen cargos and defective medical masks. The fully united Europe has been undergoing its biggest test since it began to cohere a half century ago. Kristalina Georgieva, head of the International Monetary Fund, said in June 2020:

Kristalina Georgieva: No country has escaped the health, economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. It is truly a crisis like no other. While moving at a great speed, the IMF has consistently emphasized the importance of improving governance and accountability. Our message to governments, very clear. In this time of crisis, please spend whatever is needed, but spend wisely and keep the receipts.

DA: In this crisis, there has also been an unprecedented reversion to nationalism—to ancestral barriers, especially in the developed world. The barriers began going up or intensifying not only between nations in Europe, but between regions as well. The traditional gulf between the wealthy northern European nations and their poorer southern brethren began widening even further. A half billion Euros of emergency lending was quickly exhausted as Germany and the Netherlands failed to come to Italy’s aid in terms of medical supplies and financial relief. One opinion poll found 70 percent of Italians believed Germany was seeking to “strangle” Italy. Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek finance minister and cofounder of the Democracy in Europe Movement, believes Europe must return to a boundary-free region.

Yanis Varoufakis: We need consensus in Europe. We need Europe to work as one and to work strongly and I think this is crucial for Europe. I would appeal to the leaders to show this unity. That will develop trust.

DA: A unified response is more vital than ever. The preeminent question was whether the reversion to the norm is to globalism or nationalism—the destruction or construction of red lines or borders. In the midst of the pandemic, the efficiencies of a broad, unitary market became increasingly problematic, as 26 fragmented economies reappeared. As COVID risks persisted, citizens across Europe came to appreciate the value of a common, cross-border approach. The early artificial frontiers were futile in halting the virus’s spread. The value of all players acting in concert is far more useful for assuring the rapid return to a degree of normalcy. By July 2020, much of Europe had begun to reopen, lifting national boundaries. But by the end of September, a second wave spread across the continent. France was forced to restore a national lockdown. In the end, the continent managed to come together, returning to a boundary-free region where the well-endowed help the more fragile and impoverished. Germany and France, especially Merkel and Macron, stepped up to the leadership role each was accustomed to play.

The Middle East was different. By early April 2020, the pandemic had begun spreading across both divides of the Middle East—dramatically in Iran and simultaneously in Iraq and Syria. Each catastrophically underestimated the extent of their exposure. Of course, none of this took the edges off the ongoing battles pursued by Iran and its proxies in Syria and Iraq, the civil war waged by the government of Syria against its insurgents, or the proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran. No nation in the region was hit harder by COVID-19 than Iran. But no nation was more completely isolated. Of the ten countries with the highest number of Covid cases, Iran was the poorest. An outstretched hand at that moment, rather than the back of a fist could have paid enormous dividends even for demagogues like Trump.

Early on, Iraq officially cut itself off from Iran, canceling all air connections and sealing its border. None of which really stayed the willingness of Iranian leaders to wage jihad. And their minions among the Iraqi militias continued, even expanded, their activities. Phillip Smyth, the Shiite researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, maintained his contacts with militia leaders throughout this period. Many took the opportunity of relaxed enforcement of the Iran-Iraq red lines to ramp up social activities. They cleaned villages and towns, offered vital medicines and food to local populations, and filled in where the government was unwilling or unable to make good. Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations said the country was “already in terminal collapse, doesn’t really have a government, doesn’t have much in the way of resources.” Even before the coronavirus, Iran was cash-strapped as sanctions began to bite and oil prices plummeted. But even so, the militias were undaunted. “‘Go big, or go home,’” Smyth quotes militia leaders. “They still believe in theocratic rule and they’re trying to impose God’s will on earth.”

For many in Iran, and across militia groups, there was a growing feeling that these may be The End Times. “Well, we want to be on the right side of our version of history,” Smyth quoted militia contacts. They believe “the Islamic Republic will survive because it’s an ordained rule of government.” Indeed, Iran has sought to double down on its self-sufficiency, even as a number of leaders embraced the view of UN Secretary General António Guterres. He told the G-20 summit of world leaders:

Secretary General António Guterres: My main message is simple. We need solidarity and cooperation. And we need concrete action now, especially for the most vulnerable. We must advance on two fronts. First, recovering in a way that is inclusive, bringing everyone along. Secondly, recovering in a way that is sustainable.

DA: As spring turned to summer in the Middle East, the virus continued its spread. Iran had begun loosening all restraints in April. By July, it was posting its highest death toll since the start of the outbreak, the world's highest mortality rate. By late September, Iran and Iraq were still the two leading COVID hot spots in the region. As for Iran’s other principal antagonist, Saudi Arabia has been forced to pull down some of its own long-standing red lines. The coronavirus struck the kingdom with unanticipated ferocity. 150 senior princes fell victim to the virus. Its vast oil reserves that had supported its economy through good times and bad was suddenly under attack from two quarters. The coronavirus was drying up oil demand worldwide, and Russian leadership was prepared to wreak havoc on the Saudi and American oil industries by allowing prices to plunge as it ramped up its own output. This mad oil crush, compounded by COVID, sent both careening toward existential crises. The open question was how long Saudi Arabia could hold out to challenges across multiple fronts. Clearly its move to end the fighting in Yemen was evidence that time might be running out. A sudden ceasefire in April 2020 was an indication of just how profoundly Saudi Arabia was hurting.

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The other side of this oil trade was Russia. For Vladimir Putin, the coronavirus appeared to be an opportunity of a lifetime. Russia has been increasingly tied to the Middle East since Putin's arrival in power. Oil had been the lubricant enabling Russian efforts to expand red lines critical to Putin’s strategic vision. In late April 2021, Putin laid out his vision of a “red line,” adopting a term that had so long been used against him. This time he pointed out what the West could and could not do to challenge Russia’s strategic interests. But there are limits even for an autocrat.

With the global shutdown of business, travel and economic activity, the need for oil began to dry up as well. Prices began to plummet, from a high of $63 a barrel in January 2020 to $20 three months later. By early April, the pain had become so intense that Russia and Saudi Arabia agreed to substantial oil production cutbacks in an effort to return oil prices to some vestige of pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, Putin was finally forced to postpone the nationwide vote that would allow him to serve as president for life. Eventually, he would win this vote, but there was a big price. Each day Russia was vastly outpacing every other European nation in cases and deaths with no apparent strategy of controlling the spread, especially in the vast territories outside of Moscow. Still, Putin actually saw the COVID crisis in the Middle East as an opportunity to expand his reach in the region. Putin continued on the offensive, considering how Russia might come to the aid of Turkish president Erdogan and Iranian president Rouhani. Of course, there are two ways of looking at all such efforts. Rulers like Putin are using this opportunity to enlarge red lines that are in their own interests. Meanwhile, the pandemic forced dictators like Putin to restrain their appetites and adjust their goals, while they dealt with a virus that respected no edict.

Over now to Asia. The strategic shipping lanes that crisscross the South China Sea once carried a third of the world’s shipping. Traffic plunged by nearly a third in three months at the start of the pandemic. The Chinese navy was hardly idle. It remained intent on enforcing the red lines the nation had painstakingly built. Following the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, the government announced it was establishing new research stations on its military bases at Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef in the Spratlys. You’ll recall from Episode 4 that these South China Sea bases are also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. Still, an overlay of opportunism has allowed China to move into a region that had been directly contested by the U.S., which had been defending the rights and claims of the surrounding nations.

The Chinese are adept at playing the long game, and the pandemic has only strengthened their hand. Still, a host of issues combined to puncture Beijing’s efforts to extend its red lines and dominance. Countries that China had spent years courting found that donated Chinese medical supplies were defective. The Netherlands found 600,000 face masks were unusable; Spain, Turkey, and the Czech Republic found thousands of test kits failed to yield accurate results. China sought to blunt the impact of these reports by suggesting that the US Army was the source of the pandemic. These converging patterns of weakness derailed Chinese efforts to expand its influence. Still, the clear and continuing absence of the United States from the world stage at this critical turning point, the ineptitude of Donald Trump in dealing with COVID, and his aversion to any sort of global engagement, gave Xi Jinping just the opening he was seeking.

At first, it appeared China and North Korea had been so shattered by the pandemic and its aftermath, they could not help but change their behavior. Both nations seem to have been more focused on domestic challenges posed by COVID. But China recovered decisively, becoming a model for much of the world. And it began to reinforce and defend the red lines it had built, in its own backyard of the South China Sea. This is not to say that Beijing went unchallenged. Indeed, in early July, China and the U.S. went nose-to-nose. China staged five days of large-scale air and naval exercises around the Paracel Islands at the same moment Trump sent two aircraft carrier strike groups for air and naval maneuvers. Strike force leader, Rear Admiral George Wikoff, observed:

Rear Admiral George Wikoff: USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimetz carrier strike groups are teaming up to provide warfighting readiness and proficiency by conducting tactical air defense exercises which improve the Navy's ability to respond to regional contingencies. Integrated strike group operations, which the US Navy conducts regularly, promote an international rules-based order wherein each country can reach its potential without sacrificing national sovereignty.

DA: China is doing its best to build its attack forces with potentially global reach, far outside its immediate red lines. In 2020, Chinese shipyards launched the nation’s first two major amphibious assault ships, the core of a planned expeditionary force. Massive landings on South China Sea islands or even Taiwan could become difficult and costly to repel. Suddenly, China’s red lines seemed to be deepening.

Like I mentioned earlier in the episode, more than two million people died in Africa during the Spanish Flu pandemic, triple the number who died then in North America. Today, Africa’s exploding population risked an exponentially higher death toll. The contagion and lethality of COVID-19 threatened to eclipse the more traditional flu a century earlier. One immediate fear was that the coronavirus could find in Africa a fertile seeding ground for retransmission to the rest of the world. Bill Gates, who's devoted vast resources to eradicating diseases in the developing world, told CBS that he'd been watching Africa's progress with COVID:

Bill Gates: They are likely in the end to have the greatest economic damage and the greatest number of deaths. And we should care about that as humans and we should also care because we need to get rid of this disease from the entire world to avoid the chance that you get reinfection coming back into countries who've already gotten it down to low levels.

DA: Most pandemic experts have focused on the continent as a whole rather than any specific zone, since common failures of control cut across the continent. The pandemic quickly erased boundaries as containment, availability of lifesaving equipment, and lack of trained medical personnel was equally dismal across sub-Saharan Africa. A host of efforts have addressed Africa’s coronavirus problems. French President Macron proposed a debt moratorium for 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Economic relief, he said, should be accompanied by emergency funding for new intensive care beds and respiratory units.

At the same time, China continued to knock on Africa’s doors—outdistancing both the United States and Russia in its response. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered American aid confined to funding, rather than critical supplies or expertise that Africa would have to find elsewhere. Africa is a region where social distancing and traditional methods of controlling viral spread are nearly impossible, with crowded millions living from hand-to-mouth, in crowded open-air markets where it is impossible to keep people apart. And as we saw in Episode 8, terrorist or revolutionary activity has often isolated communities from any medical delivery systems.

The very need to deal with the outbreak could have helped bring down some of the more pernicious red lines, establishing a common effort across borders. Activities by terrorist groups would be seen as counterproductive to restraining the spread of the pandemic. Evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis believed that human beings have been unusually successful as a species. She says the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out. Our social organization, unlike that of any other species, has managed until now to prevent such extinction. Part of this organization has been in the form of red lines, whether physical, social, diplomatic, economic, religious, or military. As we have seen in this podcast, the most effective red lines through the ages have had a purpose - often for the good, and at times malevolent.

The United States has traditionally in times of crisis taken the lead, at times leading global efforts to remove unwelcome or toxic barriers. Yet from the very beginning of the pandemic, Donald Trump congratulated himself on his ill-considered decision to cut the United States off, pulling up and securing the national drawbridge. Not only did he ban immigration, he withdrew from the World Health Organization, the one global body charged with preserving the world’s health and stability. Trump also slashed aid to many of the world’s most disadvantaged nations and proclaimed at every turn, “America First.”

When the Group of Twenty agreed to inject $5 trillion into the global economy and establish a global effort to find a vaccine, the United States retreated to the sidelines. As Gilles Paris, Washington correspondent for Le Monde, put it, “The health crisis risks accentuating the insular reflex developed over the past three years, further excluded Washington from the role of metronome of an international order of which it has been, for decades, the main beneficiary.” The coronavirus pandemic was the first moment in a century when the entire globe found itself plunged into a common threat to our species. And beyond the immediate threat from the virus, there is a host of attendant threats. World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley warned the UN Security Council in April 2020:

David Beasley: Today with COVID-19, I want to stress that we are not only facing a global health pandemic, but also a global humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the specter of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.

DA: We must understand that for us to survive as a species, it is essential to act in unison using our collective intelligence, greater than any single individual’s. Certainly, our minds are more advanced than those of any other species that at one point in our planet’s history seemed to dominate, then fade into extinction. We now have a unique opportunity to choose our own direction. We must seize the opportunity, not squander it by fearful retreat into ourselves. If we can manage this, perhaps we may find the means of coming together on other longer-term existential issues: an end to nuclear weapons and environmental excesses, all with the capacity to extinguish life on Earth. We have seen here what has divided us. Now we must learn how to unite and come together. At the same time, none of this will be possible without some visionary leaders able to look beyond their own frontiers and self-interests. This is the challenge facing Joe Biden. The United States and those who would lead it must understand the new reality. Others already have. French President Emmanuel Macron, seizing the reins of Europe while guiding his own nation deftly through its existential crisis, is a prime example. He was prepared to assume a global role beyond the size of his nation, but utterly appropriate in a time of peril.

The coronavirus and its pandemic certainly caused people to retreat into their baser, more nationalist instincts. But it has also provided the opportunity to remember the benefits of multilateralism, internationalism, and liberalism. These approaches have proved to be the bulwark against tyranny and war throughout recent history. Now globalism has an opportunity to shine through once again. While we may yet prove to be another species hurtling toward our destruction, as Lynn Margulis feared, we may also be the only species smart enough to engineer our own survival - if we can only get out of our own way.

This was our final stop - the shape of the world in the time of COVID. Thanks for listening. To dive deeper into all of the stories I shared in this series, check out my new book from Pegasus, "A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen."

If you enjoyed the show, make sure to leave us a review - even a 5-star review - on Apple Podcasts to help other fans of history and adventure find the show.

Red Lines is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. My special thanks to producer Isabel Robertson, engineer Sean Rule-Hoffman, and executive producers Michael de Aloia and Gerardo Orlando.

Visit evergreenpodcasts.com to access a transcript and get more info on the show.

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