2500 years ago, in his account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Athenian historian and general Thucydides made the ravages of the plague affecting Greece a central feature of the tragic decline and fall of the Athenian Empire. The plague ravaging the many territories that Athens had dominion over, at the time of a desperate struggle against its arch-enemy Sparta, undermined its power and hastened its demise.
Today’s great pandemic consuming the world has produced similar reactions among some commentators. The trade and security struggles between the United States, as the receding hegemon, and a resurgent China have been interpreted by scholars and commentators as a reiteration of the ancient theory of power transition that defines Thucydides’ history. However, IR theory has more to say about the world of tomorrow than the dramatic effects that, according to Thucydides’ followers, the pandemic could have on security and trade relations between the U.S. and China. This piece seeks to offer a brief but comprehensive overview of the major approaches in IR theory, what they may say about the world after the end of this pandemic, and how it will affect global politics.
IR scholars are often criticised for their engagement in what seems a purely academic exercise centred on an obsession with theory and abstract debates. And, true enough, IR theory is ill-suited to providing pre-packaged solutions to current problems, but many scholars will argue that that is not their business. IR theory can provide insights into international behaviour, and may provide informed predictions about how international affairs may evolve and how states may react to shocks, but it cannot prescribe a course of action. Moreover, IR theory is not in fact a homogenous, coherent‘theory’, but a divergent set of theories and approaches which look at different problems and phenomena in world affairs from different ontological and epistemological positions. No one theory can provide a comprehensive interpretation or predictions of world politics. However, taken together, these theories can help decision makers and the public fill the gaps in the puzzle we call ‘International Relations’. The aim of this essay is exactly that: to suggest a way we can integrate various pieces of the puzzle in a comprehensible way that makes the most of what we know from IR theory. IR scholars produce knowledge, not ‘solutions’ˋ to policy problems; nevertheless, this knowledge can become a tool for devising fruitful solutions.
IR theory can provide insights into international behaviour, and may provide informed predictions about how international affairs may evolve and how states may react to shocks, but it cannot prescribe a course of action.
This essay is divided into three parts. First, it discusses the current pandemic through the lenses of the ‘agency-vs-structure’ debate in International Relations. Second, it uses the three mainstream approaches in IR to interpret and predict the effects of the pandemic on the development of the international system. Finally, it discusses what insights we can gain from other, more critical approaches in IR and their importance for understanding world events.
Changing the structure of world politics
International Relations is a discipline defined by structural theorising. Each of the three major schools of thought in the discipline, neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism, are theoretically dominated by a structural understanding of world politics. What makes them different is their assumptions about these structures and state behaviour. Neorealism and neoliberalism share a materialist understanding of structures, arguing that all that matters is the distribution of capabilities under anarchy. How wealthy you are (in weapons, natural resources, GDP, technology) defines your status and behaviour in the international system, which is taken as inherently anarchical and competitive. Where they differ is in their assumption about what drives state behaviour: relative gains, as neorealists argue, or absolute gains, as neoliberals suggest.
Constructivists criticise this materialist understanding of structure and argue that we should conceive structures as inherently social, as the product of social interaction. Structures are, therefore, the product of what we do and how we do it. This means that anarchy is neither pre-given, as the other two schools assume, nor exclusively based on material capabilities, but very much on ideas which give meaning to those capabilities. When the ideas actors have change, then their behaviour changes, and that produces a change in the structure of the international system.
Why does this matter in respect to the effects of the global pandemic in world politics? It matters because change in much of IR theory translates into changes in the structure of the international system. On the one hand, if the structure of the international system is material – defined by how wealthy you are – then change can happen only when the distribution of material capabilities (i.e. wealth) changes. Therefore, according to a materialist ontology, the global pandemic will produce change in the international system if it alters the distribution of material capabilities. On the other hand, if the structure of the international system is ideational, defined by shared ideas and norms, then change can happen whenever the overreaching ideas held by states change. It is thus apparent that the global pandemic can effect change in world politics if it produces changes in the way states (i.e. politicians) understand the world and their role in it.
How does this work in practice? From a materialist perspective, actual changes in the distribution of resources must happen in order for change in world politics to take place. This could happen due to the economic consequences of the pandemic, which may destroy economic capacity in some countries, decreasing their relative material capabilities and therefore shifting the relative distribution of capabilities. If, for example, the United States and Europe are substantially more affected economically than China because of the crisis in the medium and long term, and will experience lower rates of growth with higher rates of public debt, then China becomes relatively more powerful (i.e. it gains more assets than Europe and the US). Conversely, if the pandemic forces a reconfiguration of value chains in world trade, then the United States and Europe may benefit because of what economists call on-shoring, near-shoring, and shortening of value chains.
The global pandemic can effect change in world politics if it produces changes in the way states (i.e. politicians) understand the world and their role in it.
However, from an ideational perspective, constructivists would argue that in order for shifts in material capabilities to happen, changes in ideas need to happen first. The economic ideas dominating the economic models currently operating around the world will define the level of growth, depending on how successful their growth models will prove to be. At the same time, constructivists stress that the international structure is ideational in nature and a product of social interaction. How political leaders decide to act during the pandemic and afterwards will affect how the structure evolves. If decision-makers choose a confrontational approach, then the world of tomorrow will be confrontational. If they decide to cooperate, then the future will be cooperative. In the end, the world is what states make of it.
The distinction between material and ideational structure is important not only because it emphasises different factors that affect change, but especially because it delineates the importance of actors as producers of change. For neorealists, for example, history is deterministic, and agency has almost no role in it. In the great scheme of things, neorealists believe that what matters is how material power shifts, not what people do or believe. For constructivists, human agency is at the centre of structure, defining and re-defining it constantly. Human action determines the future of the international structure, not simply how material resources are allocated. However, this structural perspective of change in world affairs is not all that IR theory has to offer.
Power, institution, and ideas in times of global pandemic
Neorealism as a structural theory of international relations is informed by the political theory of classical realism. Therefore, neorealists conceive the world as a dangerous, anarchic world inhabited by egoistic states that seek either their own survival (defensive realists) or to maximise their power (offensive realists) and use any tool at their disposal to achieve these goals. In a world where survival is the main goal and the survival of the fittest is the main mechanism of ‘natural’ selection, states can only rely on their own strength and cannot trust other states. According to this view, international organisations such as the World Health Organisation or historical phenomena such as globalisation are devised and used by great powers to further their power and enhance their control over less powerful states. This is one of the reasons why neorealists dismiss the role of international organisations as venues of cooperation, together with the assumption that all states seek relative gains, making cooperation difficult.
During the current pandemic, a neorealist will ask: how does the pandemic affects the distribution of power in the international system? As mentioned previously, power is understood here in terms of the material capabilities that states have at their disposal. Here, the economic component becomes particularly interesting for neorealists. If the pandemic affects the US economy much more than that of China, for example, then this increases the relative power of China, which over the medium to long term may build an economy which is substantially stronger than the American economy. In the short to medium term, a weak American economy may create opportunities for China to acquire US assets or push to ‘reform’ US-sponsored international institutions, increasing its global influence. The Chinese takeover of Western assets is perceived as a real danger in several Western nations, with Germany taking active measures to prevent Chinese takeovers of strategic companies. The United States may seek to do the same. At the same time, a neorealist would predict that the US will react by counterbalancing China, seeking to preempt or block Chinese takeovers of US-sponsored international organisations, and perhaps impose new economic protectionist measures and create incentives to near-shore or reshore the American manufacturing capabilities currently abroad. In the neorealist playbook, the pandemic will produce increased international tensions, a struggle for power and diminishing opportunities for cooperation.
In the neorealist playbook, the pandemic will produce increased international tensions, a struggle for power and diminishing opportunities for cooperation.
Reversely, neoliberalism suggests that the outcome of the pandemic will be the opposite of what neorealists foresee. Neoliberals assume that states seek absolute gains, not relative gains as neorealists do, and states have a tendency towards cooperation in order to reduce transaction costs and the negative effects of unwanted events, and to enhance the benefits from deeper and denser ties. This means that when faced with a pandemic of global proportions, states have a powerful incentive to cooperate. For neoliberals, international institutions reflect the desire of selfish states to cooperate in order to reduce costs and maximise benefits. Institutions such as the World Health Organisation exist to allow coordination between national health authorities, as a channel for knowledge exchange, and as a forum for deliberation.
Therefore, the question that neoliberals ask is: how does the pandemic affect incentives for states to cooperate internationally? If the pandemic reduces the incentives for cooperation, then a more neorealist logic will dominate world politics. But if the human and economic costs of the pandemic as foreseen prove to be substantial and able to be managed more effectively through global coordination, than the pandemic may increase cooperation and may enhance the importance of international organisations such as the WHO. Signs of increased coordination and cooperation, particularly on economic matters, are already visible. The leading central banks (the FED, the BCE, the CBJ, the BoE) have already signed swap and repo agreements that will provide almost unlimited liquidity in the currency of each party, and the FED is playing its role as the lender of last resort for the world economy. In healthcare we can observe some signs of regional cooperation in Europe, among Latin American countries and, to a lesser degree, in North America and Asia.
Neoliberals would predict the emergence of cooperation frameworks for pooling expertise, sharing knowledge about the virus and how to fight it better. This is visible in the quest to develop a vaccine, even if the Trump administration has been acting in a less cooperative way than the rest of the world. At the same time, the crisis is forcing states to reassess the limits of their cooperation, and to consider why certain cooperative frameworks such as the WHO have not lived up to their expectations by pushing forward reforms. But all these are defined by what ideas are circulating in the national capitals.
Neorealism and neoliberalism presuppose that the way the world works and what interests states have as pre-givens are objective facts which can be taken for granted. Constructivists dismiss this as a lack of sophistication, and even an outright misunderstanding of how world politics works. Instead, constructivists such as Alexander Wendt argue that world politics is “what states make of it”. The beliefs and identities of political leaders define how the world is and how it will evolve. National identity, culture, political interactions play a substantial role in making sense of the world and constructing it as it is. The choice between competition or cooperation results, not from changes in the distribution of power or the incentives states have, but from their identities and beliefs. A state may exhibit bellicose or friendly behaviour in international politics depending on the ideas and identity defining its society and political elite. But these ideas and identities change over time, especially because of crises which force people to reassess their beliefs and who they are.
Therefore, a constructivist would ask: how does the pandemic change shared beliefs and identities, and what effect would these changes have on world affairs? If the pandemic produces new ideas and identities that promote competition and conflict, then international relations will be defined by conflict. Conversely, if the pandemic produces solidaristic and cooperative ideas and identities, then world affairs will be characterised by increased cooperation and harmony. The world is what we make of it; it is constructed by us according to our beliefs about what is appropriate.
A neorealist or neoliberal would find it hard to answer why states would build air bridges to transport COVID-19 patients from Italy to Germany, for example. Constructivists, instead, would say that this sign of solidarity is the result of the beliefs dominating the public debate in the societies of Italy and Germany and among the political elites of those two countries. Another example is the reappearance of policy debates about resilience, ideas about the need for strategic autonomy in the production of vital products such as medicine, or the need for European solidarity.
Malign actors may seek to produce bellicose beliefs and identities by promoting polarising ideas, or fake news which provokes anger and fear, or reframes truthful news in ways that promote conflict and social tensions. The world is what we make of it, as constructivists say.
At the same time, constructivists would caution about the impact of misinformation and information warfare on which ideas and identities become dominant. Malign actors may seek to produce bellicose beliefs and identities by promoting polarising ideas, or fake news which provokes anger and fear, or reframes truthful news in ways that promote conflict and social tensions. The world is what we make of it, as constructivists say.
Who is right? None of them and all of them. While these three major approaches to international relations are often framed in opposition to each other, they illuminate various parts of international politics. Practitioners and policy elites should use them together to make sense of the world and to build better calibrated and critically informed policy responses to global challenges such as the current pandemic.
Society, discourse, and security in the world of tomorrow
IR theory may be dominated by neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism as the three major approaches to the study of world politics, but they are not alone, and several other theories and approaches can fill other gaps in the puzzle. Among them, new liberalism and the critical approaches to IR and security studies are frequently mentioned in disciplinary debates.
New liberalism is a contemporary reformulation of interwar liberalism, and was proposed primarily by Andrew Moravcsik. New liberal theory looks at domestic dynamics to explain foreign policy. In its most common formulation, new liberalism argues that the most important actors in world politics are not the states, but the domestic groups and actors which define state policy and thus influence world politics. Adopting a bottom-up approach to foreign policy analysis, liberals assume that domestic actors have different interests and are in a constant struggle to shape state policy. Therefore, foreign policy is defined by this confrontation between various groups seeking to influence foreign policy. As a result, the question asked by new liberals is: how does the pandemic reshuffle or reinforce the configuration of power and influence between domestic groups?
In Europe, the economic consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic have the potential to increase the power of those social and political groups which seek a more solidaristic European Union, pressing for more social transfers at the European level and more integration, especially with regards to monetary and fiscal issues. This may overcome the long dominance of austerity- driven fiscal hawks that have ruled the higher echelons of power in Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris and Brussels. If that happens, the configuration of power between these groups will change, and consequently it will shift the policies adopted at national and European level.
In other parts of the world, such as in the United States, the effects of the pandemic are harder to discern, but they seem to be producing a new wave of social unrest which may or may not unravel the current political configuration, and with it the American foreign policy. In an increasingly dangerous world, ‘America First’ could become an even more persuasive idea, and the US may seek to shore up its current unilateralist and isolationist foreign policy. In totalitarian or authoritarian regimes faced with increased death tolls, such as Russia or Belarus, the regimes may seek to enhance their power over society by increasing the levels of oppression and intrusion, as well as the elimination of political opponents.
Finally, another perspective comes from the Copenhagen School’s ‘theory of securitisation’, which argues that security is intersubjective and socially constructed. This means that there are no inherent security threats, and that all threats are defined socially through processes of persuasion by powerful actors, which seek to securitise – to take outside the sphere of normal politics and life – certain issues. The pandemic itself has been securitised in much of the world, as an existential threat to life and our societies, with leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel using a martial language, talking about a ‘state of war’ in relation to the pandemic and the imposition of exceptional measures (i.e. lockdown).
In Europe, the economic consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic have the potential to increase the power of those social and political groups which seek a more solidaristic European Union, pressing for more social transfers at the European level and more integration, especially with regards to monetary and fiscal issues.
If issues related to the pandemic or its aftermath are subjected to further processes of securitisation, this may further impact world politics. If the virus continues to be an existential threat, social, economic, and political links may be distorted by the perception of danger. If travel between countries becomes impossible, as the risk of infection during transit appears too great, then trade routes will be cut and investment and tourism will be imperiled. This, in turn, could escalate into political and diplomatic tensions and conflict between countries who ban travel to certain countries and those who are thus affected.
IR theory cannot provide prepackaged forecasts or solutions about and for the world after the pandemic, but it can suggest further possible trends in world politics, depending on the theoretical assumptions each approach supports. Neorealism assumes conflict as the natural state of the world, and therefore predicts more conflict. Neoliberalism presupposes cooperation and foresees as much. Constructivism tells us that it is what we make of it, that nothing is predetermined, and what matters is the ideas and identities that come out of this pandemic. New liberals look inside the state and tell us that what matters is how domestic groups will be affected by the pandemic, while the Copenhagen School argues that the socially constructed understanding of threats will define much of the world after the pandemic. Who is right? Again, none and all at the same time. Every one of these theories provides a piece in the larger puzzle we know as world politics. Understanding what each of them has to offer and what its limits are can help practitioners to better understand what is happening and prepare better for tomorrow.