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Realism and global pandemic

Realism, in terms of international relations theory, focuses primarily on the constraining effects of anarchy, the reasons why great powers compete for advantage, and the enduring obstacles to effective co-operation among states. However, what does this mean if the world is faced with a global pandemic like COVID-19? Co-operation or competition.

Realism, in terms of international relations theory, focuses primarily on the constraining effects of anarchy, the reasons why great powers compete for advantage, and the enduring obstacles to effective co-operation among states. However, what does this mean if the world is faced with a global pandemic like COVID-19? Co-operation or competition.

Realism stresses the competitive and often conflictual side of international politics and considers nation-states as the principal actors in international relations. These states under realist though are concerned with their own security, act in pursuit of their own national interests, and struggle for power. National politics is the realm of authority and law, whereas international politics, realists claim, is a sphere without justice, characterised by active or potential conflict among states.

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Realist theory doesn't necessarily glorify war or conflict but sees it as an outcome of competition for power between states. One thing that realist thought does not really delve into is how nation-states cope within times of global pandemic such as the coronavirus crisis occurring currently and it has little to say about interspecies viral transmission, epidemiology, or public health best practices.

This is not to say that realist theory has no significant insight to the current global crisis. Realists assign value to successful political action based on prudence: the ability to judge the rightness of a given action from among possible alternatives on the basis of its likely political consequences. This aspect of realist thought can help explain why some governments have made the decisions they have since COVID-19 emerged often in a unilateral way.

Thucydides and the plague of Athens

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Thucydides' The History of the Peloponnesian War is considered one of the foundational texts of realist thought. It highlights the competition and conflict between the states of Sparta and Athens from 431 to 404 BCE. The text is constituted of paired speeches by personages who argue opposing sides of an issue, although a recounting of events a theoretical position can be extrapolated from it.

Realism is expressed in the very first speech of the Athenians recorded in The History, a speech given at the debate that took place in Sparta just before the war. A realist perspective is implied in the way Thucydides explains the cause of the Peloponnesian War.

The Athenians affirm the priority of self-interest over morality. They say that considerations of right and wrong have “never turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandisement offered by superior strength”. They also denounce anarchy by promoting the importance of the state, without any common authority that can enforce order, “the independent states survive [only] when they are powerful”.

Thucydides explains the cause of the war in the changing distribution of power between the two blocs of Greek city-states: the Delian League, under the leadership of Athens, and the Peloponnesian League, under the leadership of Sparta. According to him, the growth of Athenian power made the Spartans afraid for their security, and thus propelled them into war.

Furthermore on the topic of morality in international relations and the rejection of this morality is again expressed by the Athenians after invading the island of Melos, “We both know that the decisions about justice are made in human discussions only when both sides are under equal compulsion, but when one side is stronger, it gets as much as it can, and the weak must accept that.” 

One key event from for today's context from The History is a plague that struck Athens in 430 BCE and persisted for more than three years. Historians believe the plague may have killed about a third of Athens’ population including a number of important leaders and it had obvious negative effects on Athens’ long-term power potential.

This classical example highlights the competitive nature of relations between states as well as how disease and epidemic can greatly affect the global power structure.

Realism and COVID-19

This current crisis reinforces a number of the key aspects of realist theory. Firstly that nation-states are by far the biggest actors when it comes to responding to global emergencies. The opposite viewpoint is often expressed by experts and commentators on globalisation who say that non-governmental organisations, multinational corporations, international terrorists, global markets and others are undermining the sovereignty of states and pushing the state toward decreasing relevance.

Certainly, at this time of need, people are looking directly towards their governments for a way forward out of the current crisis and an authoritative voice to tell them how to act. This assertion, however, is not to say that co-operation and a global effort are not required but that state interests in the protection of its populations and interest will always come first at a time of crisis.

After the end of the cold war, it was easy to believe that realism theory was taking a back seat as the world became increasingly connected and global institutions such as the UN and regional institutions such as the EU looked to be creating a global and regional solution above states. This has since been dashed with subsequent wars in the Middle East showing conflicts involving nation-states around the globe are still alive and well and the rise of China and Russia more recently has developed into a new era of great power competition, competition that has also permeated the COVID-19 pandemic and the responses to it.

While co-operation has been present the crisis has also highlighted that self-help, or self-preservation, is still the guiding principle for states in the international system. This has both negative and positive effects.

Responses to the crisis and competition

When looking at the responses it is easiest to start from the beginning and move forward. As we know, the virus originated in Wuhan, China, and quickly spread to other areas of the mainland. In China, this prompted an extremely heavy-handed approach to lock down the city and greater Hubei Provence to help stop the spread in the Chinese mainland. The response from China was heavily criticised both for disturbing vision of heavy-handed tactics and well as a perceived slow response that allowed it to spread around the globe. Countries quickly placed travel restrictions on citizens from China and those who had travelled to Hubei province and began flying citizens out of the locked-down areas to get them home; a sign of what was to come in terms of self-preservation.

Two countries, Iran and South Korea, were among the first to be heavily impacted and had vastly different responses, one proving successful and the other disastrous.

Iran's response has been criticised in much the same way as China, Whistleblowers were punished and officials attempted to hide the extent of what was going on for a period of time instead of mobilising up the chain of command to address the spread more promptly. What we have also seen in Iran and China that their authoritarian governments have been able to mobilise resources and heavy-handed responses in terms of lockdown i.e. whole cities locked off, but this is only able to occur once top figures truly acknowledged what was occurring.

China and Iran also began to spread rhetoric blaming the US for the creation of the virus to harm its enemies all with no evidence. For China, this was an attempt to deflect criticism it was facing and for Iran, it was an attempt to convince other nations to help in calling for a lifting of sanctions that were harming its ability to respond to the crisis. The Iranian and Chinese responses were heavily influenced by attempts to hide their failings from their citizens and the outside world, which may have had detrimental implications for the global community as a whole despite limiting their own mortality rates after an initial spike. 

South Korea of the other hand, as a close neighbour and one that receives a high level of interaction and travel with China, faced the threat early but was able to materialise a very effective response. This was in part due to a level of transparency as well as lessons learnt from other incidents such as SARS and MERS. South Korea was able to implement a high degree of testing and very thorough contact tracing principle to help control the spread.

As well as other democratic countries such as Japan and Singapore, South Korea quickly became an example of how democracies have an ability to successfully respond to such a crisis. While realism doesn't take methods of governance as particularly important, instead focusing on the power relative to each other. It is a distinction that can be made to differentiate responses as they still remain insular despite some level of co-operation between states.

When it came to the West, we saw quick restrictions in terms of travel as well as growing criticism of China from other nations for its failure to contain the spread. One consequence of this strong criticism was incidents of growing racism and xenophobia as populations began to blame Chinese and Asian nationals for bringing the "Chinese Virus" to their shores. While criticism is at times warranted, the level of rhetoric from leaders did not prove to be in any way helpful in controlling the spread and simply served as a distraction from the measures being carried out by themselves.

The EU, a bastion of liberalism and idealist thought, as well as America were quick to restrict travel from Asia and then to each other as the virus spread quickly, looking inwards to their own circumstances and limiting the level of co-operation between states even if co-operation was occurring below the state level. Individual states in the EU also began closing their borders within the Shenzen zone to prevent further spread. Similarly, the strong co-operation between the US and the UK was also effectively closed as borders closed and trans-Atlantic travel slowed to a trickle.

We have also seen a level in competition for the procurement of much needed medical supplies with countries attempting to ensure their supply chains for masks, and protective equipment but most importantly for much-needed respirators. This led to reports of foreign operators attempting to gather supplies and having it shipped to their home country.

The US, China and COVID-19

The aforementioned examples all provide some insight into how responses by states are reflecting realist thought, but it is the actions of China and the US that most greatly represent the theory.

Competition between the states has been increasing through trade wars and increasingly opposing interests around the globe but this new crisis has seen a new level of competition to ensure one does not gain an advantage over the other. Similar to the Peloponnesian War where Athens lost power due to its plague, the US and China do not want to be left worse off. At this time it is looking like the US may be taking on that role if Chinese numbers are to be believed.

Both states have displayed actions that support the realist theory. Firstly, both have openly launched blame at the other for creating or failing to contain the virus with the US calling for international condemnation of China's response. The US has now also openly disputed the numbers released by Chinese authorities on the extent of cases and deaths, creating doubt and also attempting to place the current US situation into a different context as it is now facing the highest number of infections across the globe.

If the true numbers have in fact been hidden or doctored in any way by Chinese authorities, this too would demonstrate a self-serving action. If they have purposefully hidden the extent of the effects in China this may have had massive impacts in the way other states reacted, changing policies and responses accordingly. Such attempts would represent apathy for the international community just for the CCP to save face.

The US is now heavily concerned by the apparent control of the outbreak in China and the slow reopening of its economy as they just now begin to face the true extent of the virus on its population and its locked down economy. President Trump has made calls for its economy to be restarted as soon as possible to ensure it does not fall behind or lose its footing at the top of the global food chain. The US leadership has been criticised directly for its response, which has allowed the virus to reach over 200,000 Americans with the number growing, prompting President Trump's calls for co-operation to again return to rhetoric towards China and the 'Chinese virus' as a deflection. 

America has also displayed co-operation with assisting some countries during the crisis, however, as the crisis has worsened at home this has slowed and this assistance had always been supplied in relation to its greater goals or relationships. As Iran faced the brunt of the crisis, the US never considered lifting of sanctions to allow Iran to face the crisis without the additional strain, they did offer aid, which was rejected by the Iran leadership, labelling it a trap for its own political reasons.

Silver lining and your thoughts

There is the possibility that realism offers a silver lining despite highlighting the difficulty of co-operation as states look inward to their self-interests. A fear of falling behind can often be an incentive to imitate successes from other states. This occurs in the fields of technology and defence, so why not in responses to the COVID-19 epidemic? The success shown by countries such as South Korea, Japan and Singapore have been successfully implemented here in Australia to slow the virus spread. While this example isn't purely being done out of competition it is easy to apply this in a competitive context between states. This perspective suggests that as some states develop more effective responses to the coronavirus, others will quickly follow suit. Over time, a set of global best practices will emerge, a process that will occur more rapidly if states share accurate information with one another and refrain from politicising it or using it to gain an advantage.

Contemporary states cannot afford to sever all ties, even in the face of something like the coronavirus. However, there is increasing evidence that a high mark of global co-operation may have been reached as countries begin to seek self-interest against co-operation as seen in Brexit, the US-China trade war, the rising competitiveness of China, Russia and the US, and questions of the EU and effectiveness of the UN. It may just be a virus contracted by a bat in central China and passed on to the human race that speeds up a shift away from globalisation and idealism. 

Are the realists right? In the time of COVID-19, will the work become more insular and nationalistic or will the world seek to regroup to recover from this crisis? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below or by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Realism and global pandemic
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