Fostering social capital is a national-security issue

‘For now, the order of the day in Europe is “social distancing” to limit the spread of Covid-19. That threatens to accentuate fragmentation, not heal it’

Points East & West

It has become commonplace for European leaders to lament the West’s geopolitical fragmentation. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February, for example, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany accused the Trump administration of “rejecting the international community” and trying to Make America Great Again at the expense of US allies.

But the West’s most significant vulnerability is not the lack of cohesion among the countries comprising the transatlantic alliance, it is the disengagement of its citizens from each other and from wider society. Sound odd? Not when one considers that nation-state aggression is changing, and that today countries are jostling for power by attacking their adversary’s civil society. Russia, China and their proxies engage in disinformation campaigns and cyber attacks. China uses its economic muscle to play divide and rule on issues ranging from next-generation mobile-phone networks to intellectual freedom in academic life.

20 years ago Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, published Bowling Alone, a groundbreaking study that documented the significant decline of civic participation in the United States. In the quarter-century investigated by Putnam, the number of people who attended club meetings had dropped by 58 per cent, the number of people having dinner as a family had declined by 43 per cent and the number of people having friends over had dropped by 35 per cent.

The picture is similar in the UK. The 2018-2019 UK Community Life Survey reported that 35 per cent of UK residents say they borrow things from their neighbours or exchange favours with them, down from 42 per cent five years previously. Some 40 per cent of Britons reported they could trust many people in their neighbourhood, down from 48 per cent during the same time period. A 2018 German report, meanwhile, showed that while the number of clubs and associations in the country is increasing, it is decreasing in rural areas, where such clubs’ presence is vital.

And as Putnam showed, civic engagement is not just a matter of fulfilling practical needs; it also creates social capital, the grease that helps society function smoothly. People who regularly engage with their fellow citizens are more likely to trust and look out for one another. Lack of engagement, in turn, breeds loneliness. The BBC’s global Loneliness Experiment reported in 2018 that 40 per cent of people aged 16-24 feel lonely, compared to only 27 per cent of those aged 75 and older. With declining social capital, a society becomes more vulnerable to disruption. It is tempting to contemplate whether Russian attempts at interfering with the 2016 US presidential elections would have been so successful if Americans had had more social capital.

Some countries are trying to involve civil society in the defence against new forms of aggression. Latvia has a new national defence curriculum for secondary schools. Sweden sends disaster-preparedness booklets to every household and is currently conducting its first “total defence exercise” in more than three decades. Total Defence Exercise 2020, jointly led by the armed forces and the Civil Contingencies Agency (which also published the preparedness booklet), brings together more than 400 government agencies at the national, regional and local level, plus private businesses and volunteer organisations. Finland teaches its schoolchildren to identify disinformation and trains its top managers and decision-makers at regular “National Defence Courses”. These not only raise skill levels but break barriers between the silos in modern society: people from the business, health-care, media and education worlds forge deep personal ties with their counterparts in defence, security and intelligence.

For the most part, however, the West suffers from enormous gaps. Social engagement is clearly not the whole answer, but public cohesion in the face of, say, an attack on the national grid would remove much of the attack’s potency. Without such cohesion, an attack may swiftly lead to chaos and disintegration. Panic-buying prompted by the Covid-19 outbreak is a frightening harbinger of this. By contrast, concerted planning and sharing—even among individual citizens—would make such an attack less devastating and thus less attractive to a perpetrator such as Iran, which has already showed that it can interfere with, not just disrupt, power plants and oil refineries. Another reminder of our fragility comes from the (accidental) 15-minute power cut in the UK last August, which caused widespread chaos on the transport network.

Western countries’ increasing ethnic diversity makes civic engagement even more important. Russia has shown its ability to stoke racial tensions in the US, promoting both white nationalist and militant black and Muslim causes. Similar efforts are underway in Europe, stoking resentments among alienated social groups on both sides of ethnic and linguistic divides.

For now, the order of the day in Europe and North America is “social distancing” to limit the spread of Covid-19. That threatens to accentuate fragmentation, not heal it. Yet the virus outbreak is also illustrating the need for altruism and collective action. In an email in mid-March, the chief executive officer of the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain, Mike Coupe, pleaded with customers: “Please think before you buy, and only buy what you and your family need. If we all do this then we can make sure we have enough for everyone.” An additional suggestion would have been that those who have stocked up on pasta, toilet paper or hand sanitiser should share some with neighbours who have none. The bounce-back from the virus epidemic offers plenty of other opportunities from local street parties to national celebrations.

We should do this because everyone benefits from more social capital—and because it strengthens our national security. Next year, the leaders convening at the Munich Security Conference would do well to discuss not just the value of nations walking together, but of citizens walking together too.