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New Threats, Same Theories?

In January 2020, the WHO alerted on the presence of an unknown virus, which will be later referred to as COVID-19. Since then, we experienced large-scale effects of this mysterious disease not only at a social, economic and political level but more commonly in our daily life.


The use of tools provided by International Relations theories could allow us to grasp the rationale behind the responses states, organizations and leaders have adopted during this crisis. Indeed, the reactions to and expansion of the virus are inherently linked to politics inasmuch "changes in the international system affect the spread of disease". Therefore, studying this event through a political prism could shed some light not only on current elements such as national policy responses but might also give us suggestions on how to tackle future outbreaks and worldwide crises.


Due to its global scale, at the beginning of the contagion, International Relations theorists and analysts have argued that COVID-19 was a global challenge that will bring forth an "alternative world order", transforming the geopolitical landscape in its aftermath. According to these scholars, the pandemic should have been seen as a landmark event that would have permanently altered world politics. However, almost one year and a half since the beginning of COVID-19, it could be argued that from an International Relations theory's perspective, they were mistaken. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, it would seem that the international arena has remained largely unchanged and that the main paradigm of International Relations - Realism and its different formulations - best predicted states' behaviours and the unfolding of events since January 2020.


The assumptions underlying Realism and its variant, Neorealism, consist of four pillars: nation-states are the key players in international relations; the state is a unitary actor; decision-makers always strive to pursue national interest; and, nation-states live in a self-help system, characterised by anarchy and the absence of a central authority. In particular, Neorealism strips Realism of the explanations connected to human and domestic factors and underlines how the structure within which the states are embedded determines their behaviour. As a consequence of this logic, Kenneth Waltz, the representative of Neorealism, asserts that "(t)o achieve their objectives and maintain their security, units in a condition of anarchy [...] must rely on the means they can generate and the arrangements they can make for themselves.” Thus, in their strive for survival, states end up competing for power and security. In this uncertain world, Realism and Neorealism regard cooperation between the units as difficult to achieve, because states will try to adopt a self-help strategy that will guarantee their survival.


When looking at a large-scale phenomenon such as Coronavirus, most of us would have guessed that the most logical strategy for preventing the spread of the disease and an increase in fatalities was following a Liberal approach and focus on international cooperation. Indeed, to contain casualties, the most suitable option would have seen the deployment of steadfast cooperation among states, facilitated by the guidance of international organizations. Instead, what was witnessed was the prevalence of national interests over the common good and the powerlessness of international organizations in constituting a unified response to this threat; developments that Realism and Neorealism would have easily predicted. These patriotic behaviours led to what F. Kliem has coined the "self-fulfilling prophecy or realism - a vicious cycle of national self-help responses paralysing regional cooperation".


Among many others, the predominance of self-centred national policies adopted from March 2020 up until now illustrates the "self-fulfilling prophecy of realism" F. Kliem was referring to.

Since the onset of the pandemic, world politics has been dominated by national pride and protectionism that confirm the Realist and Neorealist thesis.

Indeed, already in March 2020, in an attempt to protect Americans, President Trump and his administration blocked access to the US to European - and then, British and Irish - citizens affirming that he "will never hesitate to take any necessary steps to protect the lives, health, and safety of the American people" and "will always put the well-being of America first".

However, one of the most significant examples of the governments' self-centred response to the widespread disease was seen in the European Union (EU), the supranational organization which per definition is built on economic, social and political cooperation. Nonetheless, the EU was quick to set aside a pan-European strategy and instead decided to adopt policies bolstering national interests. Violating its initial ideals, the EU closed down its external borders, banned the export of medical equipment, medicines and testing kits. Moreover, the collapse of European solidarity became clear when in February 2020, Italy - at the time the epicentre of Coronavirus - called for the EU's help, but was only met with silence.

Following a pragmatic logic, European countries decided to preserve national security while following domestic interests, which made Stephen Walt's claim that "(t)he pandemic will strengthen the state and reinforce nationalism", become a reality.


Even though a one-fits-all approach cannot explain all the events we experienced in the last months, it seems that the Realist strand's explanatory power still upholds. Indeed, the failure of cooperation, the weakness of world organizations and the pre-eminence of nations and their interests were all elements that Realism and Neorealism would have anticipated. This does not only restate the importance of this paradigm in International Relations but also sheds light on concerns that future challenges present. Recently, one step towards global cooperation has been offered by the WHO, who has urged states to sign a universal pandemic treaty to prepare for future epidemics. However, much has still to be done to overcome national egoisms and strengthen global collaboration to face the challenges of the 21st century. To successfully respond to future health, environmental and social crises, governments will need to reflect on the deep-rooted issues COVID-19 has revealed.


Written by Cinzia Saro


Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.


Photograph: Boris Johnson|Wikimedia.org