COVID-19 and Geopolitics: Security and Intelligence in a World Turned Upside Down

August 24, 2020

he COVID-19 pandemic has shut down normal activity around the world since mid-March 2020.

Even if international relations had been in a period of relative stability before the onset of the pandemic, the consequences of the pandemic would be complex and far-reaching. We were not in a period of relative stability. Just as China was constructing an aggressive and complex plan for achieving a position of geopolitical dominance, the United States was belligerently withdrawing from its former global leadership role.

There will be many geopolitical impacts of the prolonged pandemic crisis. Two of these will be major preoccupations for the Canadian security and intelligence community. The US presidential election will confirm or reverse the steady alienation of the United States from its close allies, Canada included. China’s aggressive push for global dominance will reshape global politics, and the increasingly close relationship between China and Russia will confirm the development of a new bipolar competition.

These pre-existing trends have been accelerated as China punishes countries that want to examine its responsibility for the pandemic, and US leadership fades further in the shadow of its own response to the pandemic and racial tensions.

For the Canadian security and intelligence community, there are three direct consequences of events of the last few months. First, the bitter partisanship in US politics is leading to a politicization of intelligence, which could undermine intelligence sharing within the Five Eyes alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States). Second, the hesitant response to the pandemic crisis in Canada underlines the need for multiple warning capabilities. Third, the shift to home-based work will create a new theatre for cyber warfare, espionage, insider threats and online criminal activity, and a new defensive preoccupation for the security and intelligence community.

The Five Eyes and the US Presidential Election

Membership in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance has given Canada access to intelligence sources and analysis we could not afford on our own. The Five Eyes intelligence communities have sometimes departed from the core value of non-political, neutral judgments, but the accountability mechanisms and reviews had increasingly operated to reassert democratic values and sound methodology.

President Donald Trump has been very critical of the US intelligence community since it judged that the evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was undeniable. It is not easy for an intelligence community to continue to give its best advice if it is unwanted, but the public evidence, until recently, had been that the intelligence community had resisted pressure to amend its assessments to make them politically acceptable. This may now change.

Even if international relations had been in a period of relative stability before the onset of the pandemic, the consequences of the pandemic would be complex and far-reaching.

With the firing of the inspector general for intelligence and the appointment of a partisan, non-professional director of national intelligence, it will be more difficult to maintain the policy-neutral values of the intelligence community. Assessments the president would not welcome may not reach him. Purges of non-compliant officials will continue.

These developments are ominous for Canada as an ally receiving intelligence from the United States, but the danger is heightened by changes and incoherence in US foreign policy. The US president has made US self-interest the focal point of US foreign policy. Further, his application of this perspective to foreign relations is frequently contemptuous of allies.

More disturbing still is the ambiguous policy toward Russia and the chaotic relationship with China. Both are seen by other Five Eyes partners as the principal threats to global stability. Ill-considered US policies have decreased support from allies.  

Policy makers need accurate intelligence, careful analysis and insightful conclusions to preserve a stable international system. The changes at the head of the US intelligence community leave no doubt about the administration’s intentions. Intelligence will support policy. This approach will be opposed by intelligence professionals at many levels, but Canada will have to deal with the possibility that intelligence from its US ally will be distorted, altered or held back.

Intelligence leadership and priorities change when a new US administration is elected. This time, the outcome of the US presidential election will determine how closely Canada can work with the US intelligence community, and what degree of confidence Canada can have in the intelligence and analysis shared with us.

During the pandemic, we have seen the fragility of the relationship between the president and expert advisers. This dynamic has contributed to the president’s disastrous handling of the epidemic and, according to pre-election polling, has led to a dramatic fall in his support.

If the president is re-elected, Canada’s intelligence community will have to maintain a relationship that will be distrustful on both sides. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins, we can expect a return to the belief that the intelligence community will give policy-neutral advice and a reassertion of more traditional US foreign policy goals. Canada will still be aware that US intelligence is collected to serve US priorities, but we will not have to start with the assumption that US intelligence has been deliberately politicized.

China’s Aggressive Rise

Whether the next US president is Trump or Biden, China will continue to pursue its geopolitical ambitions. A renewed Trump presidency may well confront China’s global strategy, but this may continue to be a drama of sound and fury, lacking both vision and strategy. The United States and its allies must define a China policy that treats China as a strategic competitor and as a trading partner.

China has steadily worked toward reaching its goal of global leadership. This strategy has taken a particularly aggressive form as China has moved from “peaceful rise” to “wolf diplomacy” without stopping at confident engagement. This belligerence in word and action continues to escalate in response to assertions that China should be held responsible for the severity of the pandemic.

China has become an essential part of the global trading system and is buttressing this position creatively through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), designed to create a China-centric trading bloc. However, China has built its technological power, in part, through an aggressive espionage program, now buttressed by a formidable domestic technical research and production capacity.

Canada is only one of the many countries that has seen China attempt to influence domestic politics, pursue aggressive cyberattacks and mount other espionage activities, all occurring before the mutual alienation worsened with the detention of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, and the corresponding arrest of two Canadians as de facto hostages.

China’s aggressive tactics have alienated many Western countries that want to see a strong counterbalance to the bloc that China is attempting to create with the BRI and the so-far successful campaign to win more influence at the United Nations.

Russia has become more firmly aligned with China, which could lead to close cyber cooperation between two powers with very strong, but different, cyber capabilities and a strong opposition to Western alliances and norms in international relations.

This competitive dynamic will not change in the short term, but there is some hope it might in the longer term. China does not need to be a bully to be a global power, and its current stance is alienating its most prosperous trading partners.

Warning Intelligence, Pandemics and Global Warming

Intelligence communities have increasingly taken an all-hazards approach in their national security reviews, describing the threats from disease and pandemics, climate change and the destabilizing impacts of natural disasters.

There are good reasons for an inclusive definition of security threats as well as of clear dangers. In assessing security risks to Canada, there must be a sense of proportion so that attention and resources reflect the nature of the overall threat. A pandemic, or uncontrolled global warming, represents greater dangers to the lives and security of Canadians than terrorism. Intelligence collection serves all of government, not just the security agencies. Analysis alerts government decision makers to the security consequences of hostile activities in domains that are the primary responsibility of other government departments (for example, foreign affairs, health, the environment, investment, trade, food safety and so on). However, the security and intelligence community has a major operational responsibility for dealing with terrorism that it does not have for a pandemic or global warming.

Providing warning and analysis should not extend to “securitizing” the subject, by implying an operational responsibility or defining the subject matter in security terms. Such an approach would divert the focus from the actual government operational challenge. Intelligence involves providing a service to the lead department, not attempting to replace it.

The intelligence community itself champions debate in assessments and warnings, and could sharpen warning capability on disease and climate change by adding a significant extra level of expertise to the specialized warning capabilities tracking disease and climate change.

The supportive role of the intelligence community on pandemic warning could be emphasized in the machinery of government by not only making pandemic warning an explicit intelligence and security priority, but by referencing the intelligence community’s role in an all-hazards, whole-of-government set of priorities.

Working at Home: Security Implications

Traditionally, intelligence communities in the Five Eyes kept the intelligence function separated from private sector businesses. This changed with the massive threat from cyberattacks on private businesses and the intellectual property (IP) and national competitiveness they represented.

This preoccupation has now been heightened by the requirement that a large number of employees work from home, with a large proportion of them planning to stay there when the emergency is over.

Many employers welcome this potential shift, which will reduce the amount of expensive office space required. Video-enabled work will decrease costly travel for meetings, conferences and facility inspections.

The security implications of this shift from consolidated and protected work sites to scattered and remote ones will be very serious. In an age when many judge that the cyberattacker has the advantage against sophisticated defence systems, the home worker represents a happy hunting ground for state-sponsored, freelance and criminal hackers. Private sector employers and government security agencies will need to extend their cooperation to make sure those working at home are as protected from cyberattacks as workers concentrated in central locations with immediate access to security professionals.

In an age when many judge that the cyberattacker has the advantage against sophisticated defence systems, the home worker represents a happy hunting ground for state-sponsored, freelance and criminal hackers.

This vulnerability could invite the aggressive cyber powers (in particular China and Russia) to target the enlarged segment of home workers, setting off new international confrontations. Home workers may be more vulnerable to troll campaigns and fake news, enlarging the attack areas for misinformation campaigns to include businesses and their reputations.

Just as intelligence agencies realized that protecting national IP assets from cyberattacks and espionage meant building cooperative relations with the private sector, both will now have to deal with the vulnerability of home workers to cyberattacks.

Targets will include home-stored files, communications with other employees and the central office, and video conferencing. Attackers will expand the use of social media profiles and contacts as a means of creating realistic, but fraudulent, emails for malware or financial fraud. Defensive software may include communications monitoring, which will conflict with employee expectations of privacy and concerns about constant surveillance. Encrypted communications as a cyber defence will make the tasks of anti-terrorist and counter-espionage professionals more difficult. Approaching employees for recruitment by a hostile service may be easy if they work remotely. The dangers of penetration by an organization through cyber activity or through an insider will take more resources to detect. 

It has taken time for governments to accept that, for national IP to be protected, the government and private sector must coordinate closely on security. Online work opens a huge vulnerability, not new in kind, but in scale.


As the international system edges toward a new bipolarity, complicated by the existential dangers of new pandemics and climate change, the challenges that the Canadian security and intelligence community must address will only multiply.

The outlines of two credible scenarios for the post-pandemic world are visible. In both, a central driver will be the need for strong international institutions to manage global trade restructuring, climate change and preparation for future pandemics.

In a positive scenario, the United States will start to re-embrace the most positive aspects of its former global leadership role. At some later point, China may modify its hyper-aggressive diplomacy on the evidence that it has alienated most of the countries that it needs for trade and economic growth.

A negative scenario would see the persistent strength of contemporary US isolationism, with or without its current champion. China would be prepared to accept violent conflict with the United States and its regional neighbours to achieve its ambitious foreign policy objectives. As the danger increased, Canada would feel less able to rely on the enormous capability of the US intelligence community to analyze dangers. Intelligence products would be subject to politicization or would not be available to allies.

The Canadian intelligence and security community will be gathering intelligence and providing analysis in a more dangerous world. To all its current preoccupations will be added the challenge of helping governments and the private sector protect IP now housed in hundreds of thousands of home offices.

With the pandemic-driven financial pressures on governments, it will be difficult to find new resources to meet these new priorities.

This heightened risk level underlines the importance of preserving the integrity of the Five Eyes alliance as the intelligence and analysis made available greatly expands the capability of the Canadian security and intelligence community. Canada might need to broaden its intelligence partnerships and build a stronger relationship with some of those already close to the Five Eyes community, such as Germany and Japan, which are among those already seeking ways to offset the current loss of US leadership in defending the rules-based international order.

Even if Five Eyes and allied intelligence is available, Canada will have to assess whether the resources can be found for an expanded warning role. The alternative is to put fewer resources into existing priorities — a familiar exercise that can create other vulnerabilities.

The ultimate challenge will be to show that the intelligence and security community can mobilize resources that are indispensable for coping with the tangled geopolitical dangers we now face.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.