There Can Be No National Security Without Human Security

The year is 2020, a global pandemic has ground the world to a halt. Borders are closed, countries are in lockdown, the global economy is crashing. Militaries across the world are primarily functioning as medical support and distributors to maintain supply chains. A few months ago, this may have sounded like a dystopian sci-fi novel, but is now the reality we find ourselves in.

Authors: Jack Maycock
  • Reading time: 7 min.
  • Posted on: April 16, 2020

Security is a concept that most people are familiar with – simply put, it is what keeps us safe. Heavily impacted by the global events of the 20th century, security has generally been understood through the lens of national security. Predominantly framed around threats of war, or more recently terrorism, the nation-state has been the primary unit of analysis concerning security challenges. However, aspects of our safety that impact daily lives, such as healthcare or access to clean air, fall not under the remit of national security, but of human security.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, there can be no national security without human security…

Source: Financial Times

The security response to COVID-19 has varied dramatically between nation states, with varying success. A lack of preparedness has appeared evident in the ad hoc responses of many countries around the world, with death rates accelerating and health services struggling to cope with unprecedented pressures. Perhaps even more striking has been the individual nature of national responses to what is essentially a homogeneous external threat. This implies the absence of a coordinated global strategy to deal with a transnational crisis. Instead of pursuing punitive and isolationist measures such as the US halting its substantial funding of the World Health Organization (WHO), countries need to face up to reality — when it comes to transnational threats such as COVID-19, we are only as safe as our neighbours. 


Over the past decade the majority of nations have misallocated their security resources. Preoccupied with perceived threats from adversarial state and non-state actors, governments around the world have insufficiently invested in global and domestic health structures that could have been crucial in the fight against a pandemic like COVID-19.

Take the United States (US) as an example — the richest country the world has ever seen. The US has an annual defence budget of $738 billion, rising to over $1 trillion once Intelligence and Homeland Security budgets are included. Compare this to the annual budget for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — just $6.8 billion. 

It’s not just the US either: all NATO members are expected to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence. However, the purpose of this defence spending is to combat state and non-state national security threats, not existential human security threats, such as pandemics and climate change. 

In the United Kingdom (UK), despite a combined budget of over £3 billion (that exists outside of the 2% mandated by NATO), MI5, MI6, Defence Intelligence and GCHQ appear to have no dedicated planning or intelligence gathering process for health crises. 

Perhaps most alarmingly, the United States and British governments had already been warned that a global pandemic was the major threat to security. These warnings came in the last four worldwide threat assessment reports carried out by the US Intelligence Community, and in all six editions of the UK government’s National Risk Register.

This misallocation is replicated once again in India where as recently as December 2019, a group of the country’s leading scientists and health experts voiced major concerns around the limited infrastructure in place to report and address the outbreak of disease. India’s health expenditure as a % of GDP is one of the lowest in the world at 3.7%, despite it having more people than any other country. But when it comes to the size of its military, India has the 4th highest expenditure in the world. 

The result is there for all to see, with India forced to act reactively in response to the spread of the virus, rather than proactively carrying out comprehensive preparedness plans.


Where many nations have failed, some have shown that dedicating resources to prepare for crises works. Take South Korea who—after the 2015 MERS outbreak—allocated significant resources to establish rapid centralised approval systems for infectious disease testing. Within 17 days of the COVID-19 outbreak, they had: 

  1. designed and created an accurate test, 
  2. set up a network of labs,
  3. arrived at a capacity of 140,000 tests per week. 

The US took over two months to achieve this weekly capacity feat, while the UK only passed 140,000 tests in total at the start of April.  

Absence of a coordinated global strategy

The focus on national security doesn’t just have implications for an individual nation’s resource allocation — it also affects the global responses to crises. Logic *should* dictate that global or transnational threats require a coordinated and multilateral response. If threats aren’t recognised to the appropriate scale, domestic and global responses unsurprisingly suffer. 

The WHO reported in 2019 that 92 of its member states had a national influenza pandemic preparedness plan, much of which would be transferable to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, only 42 of these countries had updated their plan since new comprehensive guidance was published by the WHO in 2017. The same report found that only six countries in the world were introducing measures from at least four of the WHO pandemic preparedness guidance documents, while 34 were completely unaware of three or more guidance documents. 

In a globalised and interconnected world, if tens of countries are ill-prepared for a global pandemic, the security of all other nations is undermined. Many of the most ill-prepared nations are low-income countries – although the report did conclude that even in high-income countries, the level of pandemic preparedness was “far from optimal”. These findings reinforce the need for increased financial support from wealthier nations to the WHO, bolstering its existing $4 billion annual budget (that already covers a wide variety of global health responses). 


National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies – 2017 Edition. Source: Cabinet Office

In the same way that the early 20th century set the security agenda for decades to come, the early signs from the 21st indicate the emergence of a different type of threat. Global pandemics, antimicrobial resistance, climate change and cybersecurity have little or no consideration for state borders and can threaten our entire existence as humans. We must redefine how we approach the concept of security. Extensive response plans must be established at the state and global (through the WHO) level to ensure all nations are fully funded, with structures in place to share information and best practice swiftly and effectively as part of a coherent strategy. 

As COVID-19 has made all too clear, humanity is at stake and we must respond immediately. Next time, we might not be so lucky.   

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