No man is an island: Michael Chertoff

National security needs to take into account interdependence: Michael Chertoff, Former Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Michael Chertoff  : 

He is an American attorney who was the second United States Secretary of Homeland Security, serving under President George W. Bush. As Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009, Michael Chertoff led the country in blocking would-be terrorists from crossing our borders or implementing their plans if they were already in the country. He was the co-author of the USA PATRIOT Act. He also transformed FEMA into an effective organization following Hurricane Katrina.

If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has proven, it is that we live in an increasingly interconnected world -- of goods, services, capital, people, and ideas -- for mutual advantage. However, what has become starkly clear during this pandemic are the dangers of this very reliance on one another. "But, cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world is not a realistic option. This issue will surely be part of the political discourse in the years to come," said Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of Homeland Security during the George W. Bush administration, at a Webinar organised by Synergia Foundation last week.

The global world

Most countries are linked through supply-chain dynamics. When the pandemic hit the United States, Americans discovered that 72% of its pharmaceutical needs were mostly from the European Union, India, and China. Worse, of this, 97% were for antibiotics [source,year: 2019]It was the dire need to battle this unknown virus that drove President Donald Trump to threaten India well nigh to lift the ban on her considerable stock of hydroxychloroquine. Germany, France, and the Czech Republic had announced bans on the export of protective gear to avoid shortages at home in March. Although under pressure, India as well as some countries in the European Union, did indeed lift the ban, with the situation highlighting the fragility of supply chains, which could so easily be broken when national interests overtake cooperative international trade.

While this line of thinking would imply that the preferred remedy is protectionism and increasing domestic production of goods and services, it is possible that it could make matters worse and not better. After the initial panic of the pandemic, there were responses from economic blocs such as the EU, ASEAN, and BRICS, to combat the pandemic together.

'Extraordinary measures should be extraordinary, not ordinary.'

While the pandemic did catch nearly all countries off guard, there was also the fear of governments taking on more authoritarian tones to deal with the crisis. As Chertoff said, "There's always a risk that people will exploit this opportunity to cement their authoritarian tendencies. President Jail Bolsonaro of Brazil is trying to use this crisis to push back on his own limitations on power. Chinese President Xi Jinping is attempting to consolidate his power. The Chinese, in many ways, tried to overplay their hand to minimise the extent of the pandemic. That has caused a backlash as there is much more cynicism and questioning. It requires us to be mindful and conscious that extraordinary measures should be extraordinary and not ordinary."

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been granted, by vote, extraordinary powers for an unlimited period to tackle the virus, and there is fear he might misuse it. There is a perception that modern-day western democracies such as the U.K. and the U.S. have been reactionary in their approach and have faced the brunt of the calamity.

The debate over data surveillance

This brings to focus the debate over using data surveillance to track those infected to ensure people remain in quarantine. Israel has come under fire for using the pandemic to spy on people by collecting and recording call details, while Italy has resorted to using heat maps to indicate hotspots, using anonymised data.

According to Chertoff, there are long-term measures that countries should take to handle a situation like this. It consists of building contingency plans, applying time-limited emergency measures with clarity over how such measures will be implemented, and by whom. The U.S. did this post 9/11. In the present extraordinary situation, world leaders must balance the principles of civil liberties and authoritarian tendencies until we chart a clear way forward, and should not exploit the situation.

Michael Chertoff : If you look at what is going on in China, the upsets in Hong Kong, and the election in Taiwan, unhappiness also manifests itself in the population over censorship, and in the way, they have managed information with respect to the pandemic. I think there's a fragility: the Chinese regime has always acted upon the assumption that their legitimacy comes from performance. You have economic damage and the way they have handled the pandemic -- there is fragility there.

An extra layer of fat

The pandemic has highlighted three things, said Chertoff. First, the importance of resilience. The general expectation of a normal society is an efficient system where one doesn't have any wasteful capabilities. The problem is when one hits a bump in the road. Resiliency is about having a margin of error, an extra layer of fat in the system on which one can rely upon when they wind up in dangerous times. We need to build our systems with that in mind. Second, we must realise that we live in a global world that will be affected by global issues, like pandemics, climate change or massive international disruptions on the internet. We need to have a global approach to respond to it. No country can do it alone, because no one can have borders which will keep out all germs and the internet, unless they wish to be completely disconnected. We all must recognise that there is a category of issues that we need to work on together and come up with some understanding of how we will police these multinational threats.

Finally, countries themselves need to take responsibility to a certain level of their own basic health and security. That would mean building a contingency plan, having extra supplies, and making them available. This does raise the question of how supply-chains would then work. Another part of resiliency is to have alternative supply chains so that one can turn to others in times of need.

The bottom line is this: national security needs to take account of interdependence in a global world. People may not like what they call globalisation, but the reality is that given technology, weather, viruses and bacteria, we live in a global environment and it requires concerted efforts. So, hopefully, we can emerge from what is in my experience the most trying international challenge we have ever faced.


  • When a country suddenly fights for itself in a global crisis, the idea of interdependence needs a rethink. The pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of supply chains and prompted countries to protect national interests rather than cooperative international ones.
  • When it comes to dealing with crises, there is a need to establish contingency plans for natural as well as human-made disasters, and applying time-limited emergency measures with oversight and clarity over how such measures will be implemented.
  • Post-COVID, there is a need to look into how systems are built, make them resilient, ensure alternative supply chains and diversification of sources, and create a portfolio of global crises that would require all countries to have all hands on deck.