The first casualty of war is truth, they say. I would add that truth is equally moribund in a cold war and a pandemic, or other calamities for which humans blame one another. These days, there are two mysteries of particular importance about which we might never know the truth.
One has to do with the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, and the wider confrontation between Moscow and the West. This is the question of who sabotaged — with four huge undersea detonations in September last year — the two Nord Stream pipelines, one of which carried natural gas from Russia to Germany, and the other nearly ready to double capacity.
The other mystery involves the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed about 7 million people. It is the question of whether SARS-CoV-2 emerged naturally in China in late 2019 — by jumping from animals to humans — or was manufactured in a biomedical laboratory in Wuhan before escaping into the population. This one touches on the relationship between China and the world, in the context of what increasingly looks like a new cold war between Beijing and Washington.
The four pipeline explosions took place in the Baltic Sea near the Danish island of Bornholm. Geographically, they might have seemed far from the Ukrainian battlefields. However, geopolitically, the blasts occurred on the front line, because they were entangled with two strategic factors. One was Europe’s, and especially Germany’s, dependence on Russian natural gas at the time. The other was the cohesion or fractiousness of the Western alliance in supporting Kyiv and resisting Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There is a consensus that the hit against Nord Stream 1 and 2 — each of which is actually a pair of undersea conduits — was a sophisticated and professional job, and almost certainly state-sponsored. Divers must have brought — undetected — enormous amounts of explosives to the locations in the open sea, then attached the charges deep underwater.
As usual, all parties in the conflict immediately blamed whomever they deemed their enemy. Ukraine and Poland said the Kremlin was behind the sabotage, as part of its “hybrid warfare.” Russia, unsurprisingly, denied involvement. Evoking James Bond memes, the Kremlin instead accused the UK, which refuted the charge in turn.
More recently, US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh blamed the US, which Washington immediately denied. Now new theories have emerged that point either to an unnamed and unknown pro-Ukrainian group working independently of the Kyiv government, or to Russians working against the Putin regime. As ever, denials all around, and no hard evidence.
As to the provenance of SARS-CoV-2, there is a consensus that it was never engineered to be a biological weapon. However, from the early days of the pandemic, some experts and Western politicians have speculated that it might have accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which experimented with just such coronaviruses and is geographically near the epicenter of the first outbreak.
Early proponents of this theory included former US president Donald Trump and former US Centers for Disease Control director Robert Redfield. Until this day, scientists, government officials and intelligence services are split. Some believe the virus is zoonotic, having hopped from animals to humans. Others, including the US Department of Energy, believe that a lab leak is more likely.
As in the mystery about the pipeline sabotage, nobody in the lab-leak controversy looks good. China, rather than being forthcoming at any point in the pandemic, withheld, suppressed, censored or destroyed evidence. This suggests the regime in Beijing — led by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), who has just been rubber-stamped into his third presidential term — is more concerned about saving “face” and power than about human life or, indeed, truth. Fittingly, Beijing is thought by some people to have leaned on the WHO to skip the Greek letter Xi in naming COVID-19 variants and go straight to Omicron.
Nor is the US political response all that edifying. In US Congressional hearings during the past week, the sides lined up largely along partisan lines — on a matter in which nothing should carry weight but pure science and empirical fact.
The two mysteries have much in common. First, we probably cannot solve them. Second, that cannot keep people from seeding new conspiracy theories to suit their propaganda goals or worldview, and human nature spreads them. A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology confirms the old adage that a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
Some people exploit this human proclivity more ruthlessly than others. Putin, with his KGB-trained mind, has over decades honed his methods of convincing audiences, at home and abroad, that, as the author Peter Pomerantsev put it: “Nothing is true and anything is possible.”
In effect, Putin’s propaganda goal is to persuade friend and foe alike that there is no objective reality at all, so that he can shape it however he likes. Xi and the Chinese Communist Party have taken notes.
Where does that leave us? At an obvious level, there are lessons the world should draw immediately from both cases, irrespective of where responsibility properly belongs. One is to better protect our energy and other infrastructure, because there are likely to be more attempts at sabotage. Another is to renew multilateral efforts to increase security at the world’s biolabs, about 69 of which work with the most dangerous pathogens imaginable.
At a more subtle level, restraint and intellectual humility should be practised, by not speculating unduly whenever the facts are not at hand. The open societies of the West, flawed as they self-evidently are, do have an advantage over autocratic regimes such as Russia and China. It is that they make it more likely, at least in the long run, for the truth to come out.
In that sense, our adversaries are not only Moscow and Beijing, but also cynicism as such. To prevail and have our victory mean something, we must keep believing in truth. That includes enduring uncertainty whenever, and however long, the truth chooses to be coy.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. He is a former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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