“We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world:” Brent Scowcroft & the world he helped fashion

Almost exactly thirty years ago, on August 2, 1990, Brent Scowcroft sat on a small airplane. Crammed in the seat in front of him, their knees touching, sat George H.W. Bush, the President of the United States. Bush spent the flight on the phone, calling up leaders around the world.

Scowcroft, who was the American President’s principal foreign policy advisor, was madly revising the speech Bush was going to give at their destination in Colorado – he had to make it compatible with the things that had happened the day before. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, had sent his troops to invade neighboring Kuwait. The entire world was now watching the United States. The Cold War was almost over. The Berlin wall had fallen. Two Germanies would soon become one. Faced with naked aggression in a somewhat less-than-crucial context, would American leaders look the other way? Or would they conclude that it was in their country’s interest to intervene?

He had had “absolutely no doubt” about Bush’s determination, Scowcroft subsequently recalled (1). A few days later, after landing back at the White House, Bush told journalists that “this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” And another few months later, an international coalition led by US military forces defeated Iraq’s army, with broad reverberations throughout the international system (2). Brent Scowcroft died a few weeks ago, on 6 August 2020. He was 95. Today, the question on many an analyst’s mind is whether America was very much a different country three decades ago, or whether Washington’s key policymakers back then were a different type of people.

Despite Bush’s clear words and Scowcroft apparent lack of doubt, the decision to intervene had not come easy. “Yours is a society which cannot accept [ten thousand] dead in one battle,” Iraq’s dictator had told the US envoy in Baghdad before his daring move. He was implying that Americans had no stomach for long wars in far-away places. For as long as America’s capitalist democracy had been engaged in a deadly battle with Soviet totalitarian communism, leaders in both Washington and Moscow had had little choice but to intervene. But now the Soviets were down and the Americans were surprised by their sudden success, the Iraqis reasoned. The world seemed remarkably unrestrained. These circumstances “will not happen again for fifty years,” an adviser told the Iraqi dictator. It was the “opportunity of a lifetime.” Moscow had its own fish to fry and Washington would swallow his land grabbing, Saddam concluded (3).

“We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future.

The Iraqi despot was not alone with his assumption. Before boarding for Colorado, Bush and Scowcroft had attended a meeting that seemed to reach that very conclusion. The US government’s key policymakers had congregated for an hour at the White House. “There was sort of a fait acompli atmosphere,” Scowcroft later recalled (4). All gathered had agreed that they had to protect Saudi Arabia – it was inimical to US interests to permit any power to “gain dominance over Gulf oil supplies,” Pentagon planners had argued before. But the world needed oil, and Saddam would provide it, the officials at the meeting had concluded. Liberating Kuwait was “not viable,” budget officials concerned with the costs of a potential deployment had opined. Military leaders doubted whether their political masters possessed the resolve to go to war over Kuwait. Some had even argued that the crisis offered an “interesting opportunity” to boost production and drive down the global price of oil – to the benefit of US consumers. Dick Cheney, Bush’s Secretary of Defense at the time, later remembered that the general feeling had been that most citizens of Kuwait lived “in the south of France anyway.” (5)

Mere hours later, jam-packed on their small plane, Scowcroft told Bush that he was very disturbed at the tone of the morning meeting. It had skipped over “the enormous stake the United States had in the situation, or the ramification of the aggression on the emerging post-Cold War world.” (6) First, there was a regional dimension. Washington wanted to stabilize the Gulf, and Saddam’s actions were reinforcing old antagonisms. Also, neither Iraq nor Iran could be allowed to dominate the region, and Saddam’s incursion was threatening to start tilting the balance in his direction. However, the second – the global order – dimension was dominating. “We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future. (7)

In other words, had the remaining superpower allowed a rogue dictator to do what he wanted, others would have registered the message. Scowcroft, together with his principal White House staffers, worked in the background. Luckily, upon further consideration, various other decisionmakers throughout the US government came to the same conclusion. By the time of the next meeting on the crisis, the tenor had changed. “This is the first test of the postwar system,” Larry Eagleburger, the Deputy Secretary of State, underlined. If Saddam succeeded, “others may try the same thing.” This would be a “bad lesson.” The world would become a more dangerous place – with long-term negative consequences for America’s goals of constructing a liberal and democratic global order. Both US security and prosperity would suffer (8). The bottom line was that the US leadership had to accept the costs of intervention now in order to prevent larger future threats to the national interest.

And yet, Bush’s choice – as preordained as it appears in the rearview mirror – was anything but easy (9). For instance, US military leaders were aware that high losses would once again damage their reputation and, hence, their position within the American society. Scarred by the war in Vietnam a few decades prior, military commanders wanted the armed forces to have the support of the population. Their “number one priority was to rearrange the relation with the American people,” a former official told me a few years ago. Thus, military leaders pushed the President to authorize an overpowering but very expensive deployment – they believed that decisive force would end the war quickly and save (American) lives. (10)

This type of military expedition ultimately delivered a crushing victory, but significantly increased Bush’s political costs in case of defeat. Towards the end of August 1990, Bush met Secretary of State James Baker – who was also his best friend – at the White House. Baker cautioned that the Iraq crisis had “all the ingredients that brought down three of the last five Presidents: A hostage crisis, body bags, and a full-fledged economic recession caused by [expensive] oil.” Bush replied: “I know that, Jimmy, I know that. But we’re doing what’s right; we’re doing what is clearly in the national interest of the United States. Whatever else happens, so be it.” (11) Thus, when the military leadership asked for very large forces to be dispatched to the Gulf, Bush – at Scowcroft’s advice – listened carefully and then stood up and said, “You’ve got it. Let me know if you need more.” He then promptly walked out of the room, leaving everyone stunned. (12)

Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended.

Ultimately, Bush and Scowcroft’s choices were grounded in a particular reading of international affairs and, implicitly, of the post-Cold War era. “We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world,” Scowcroft later remembered his and the President’s thinking. “We thought it was going to be a messy world.” (13) Francis Fukuyama, who was at that point the deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, had just advanced his famous and popular end-of-history thesis: With communism dead, nations would converge, and conflict would be avoided. But Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended. Regional disputes, long suppressed by the US-Soviet competition, would be reawakened, and new “political and economic” forces would be “unleashed.” Without the US global engagement, Washington’s international politico-economic designs would be imperiled.(14)

Today, we face a chicken and the egg problem. We see how Donald Trump, the current US President, is abandoning long-held American responsibilities. Was America so different three decades ago that it brough people like Scowcroft and Bush to power to served its interests at that point in time? If this is the case, we should brace ourselves – any American President will be transactional, less interested in global order and stability, and more likely to question the utility of the transatlantic alliance. Conversely, maybe the United States did not change that much, but the people who governed it three decades ago were different individuals, with different priorities and different ideas. Should this be the case, there is hope. Maybe the next President will be able to go back on some of the steps this Administration has taken, especially towards mending Washington’s relationship to Western Europe. In any case, the future remains interesting and uncertain. What is certain is that Scowcroft wisdom will be sorely missed.


  1. Philip Zelikow and James H. McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project, released August 2020.
  2. The best overview is Richard N. Haass, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). For a more recent narrative, John Gans, White House Warriors (New York: Norton & Co, 2019), 89-114.
  3. Cited in Jeffrey A. Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 381 and 388.
  4. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 59.
  5. Sandra Charles, “Memo for Haass: Minutes from NSC/DCM, August 2, 1990, on Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait,” January 22, 1991, Bush Library, Richard N. Haass Presidential Meeting File CF0118-019, NSC Meeting – August 2, 1990 Re: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait; Philip Zelikow, “Interview with Dick Cheney,” March 16, 2000, 55, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project; and Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero: The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (New York: Bantam, 1993), 297.
  6. George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 317–18; and Richard Haass, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (New York, New York: Penguin Press, 2017). Also, Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 9.
  7. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61 and 72–73.
  8. John Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York: Random House, 2015), 426; and Andrea Mitchell, “Interview with Brent Scowcroft,” November 7, 2007, Princeton University Library, James A. Baker Oral History Project.
  9. For the same conclusion, see Stephen Knott, “Interview with Richard Haass,” May 27, 2004, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  10. Interview with Joint Chiefs of Staff official, March 2018, Washington D.C. See also Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero.
  11. James A. Baker and Thomas DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: Putnam, 1995), 277.
  12. Robert M. Gates, “The Scowcroft Model,” Foreign Affairs, August 13, 2020.
  13. Philip Zelikow, “Interview #1 with Brent Scowcroft,” November 12, 1999, 52, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  14. Brent Scowcroft, “Memo for Bush: US Diplomacy for the New Europe,” December 22, 1989, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (December 1989). Also, “Memo for Bush: Your Meetings in Brussels with NATO Leaders,” November 29, 1989, and “US Policy in Eastern Europe in 1990,” January 1990, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (November 1989) and NSC Collection, Robert D. Blackwill Chronological Files 30547-010, January 1990. For Francis Fukuyama’s essay, “The End of History?,” The National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3–18.

This is Sparta! Insights from international relations theory into what the post-Covid world might look like

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.