COVID-19 and International Relations
Author: Muhammed Akalp Ateş
The ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic is a crisis on a global scale that is currently affecting nations, international bodies, and citizens everywhere. It is times of crisis that tend to test political theories harshly but also often exemplify and cement them. The fact that the Coronavirus is not tied to any particular region nor grants immunity to nations with high GDP and HDI ratings does awake images of a World War One “Homefront” mentality, an era in which most of the dominant theories and perspectives in the field of International Relations took root and solidified.
With diplomatic contacts and dealings taking a secondary role to domestic issues, cooperation in medical research at critical importance and the specifics of trade and the flow of goods to maintain our global economy still unsettled, I will present a view of current events and project a potential future path in International Relations through the lens of the Liberal and Neo-Liberal point of view. I will furthermore utilize a Neo-Marxist interpretation to categorize potential causes and use these theories as staging points to analyze the intention and gravity of the most relevant responses to the health crisis at hand.
Liberal political theory dictates that nation’s interests, however, competing is not entirely irreconcilable and leads to balances of equilibrium. Faced with bans on the export of certain medical supplies and personnel, this roadblock is circumvented by the increase in local production. Even in areas that are not conventionally producing their own medical machinery.
While turned inwards, policy makers are still deterred from rash diplomatic action due to the interdependency of our global economy. Adaption and mediation form the bedrock of crisis management.
In the contrast of realism and liberalism, it is relevant to note that the COVID-19 Pandemic has pushed the focus of politics and policies decidedly into so called “Low Politics”. Welfare and the question of employment have taken center stage. While “High Politics” often represents a Nations’s desire for power projection the movement of resources into areas of high public interest may be seen as an example of ample “Popular Pressure” strongly pronounced in republican liberalism.
The lack of institutional channels and mechanisms to accurately respond to this pressure is also often acclaimed to have been an important factor in downplaying the outbreak in the authoritarian Chinese regime.
Neo-Marxist theories obviously concentrate rather on the economic implications. The recent inabilities to mount an effective response to the outbreak in Ecuador and Brazil could be used as an example of “Uneven Development” in Nations whose infrastructures and demographic concentration was initially designed for wealth extraction and exotic export economies. Although this view is not globally applicable to every region and so does not hold up in a global scale, it is useful to understand at least some differences in medical staffing, supply shortages, and maybe even political culture, that is making the Pandemic harder to mitigate for some nations.
The topic of public health, economic downturn, and individual losses has sparked conversations and relevant enough public pressure in most states that expanding welfare might currently be the most sought-after policy worldwide. While research, prevention, and solution seem to progress slow and steady, democracies are under the obligation to introduce new policies and potentially prolong or even permanently enact others.
Although the increasing isolation of nations in their crisis management could be seen as realist “Self-Help”, the gradual closing of borders and the decrease in commercial flights around the world could be interpreted as the equilibrium of interests. Also, non-government actors stay interconnected and global in their efforts.
Where government intervention is ineffective, lacking or simply not up to scale, NGOs and companies are stepping in to fill gaps and niches, in societies and markets alike International NGOs continue to expand their operating capabilities in affected regions. This undermines concepts like the absence of moral behavior in big actors and competition-based decision-making in global politics.
International Corporations, though active globally, mostly struggle to implement measures to battle the Pandemic in their internal workings, not reflecting the precautions required by current research and demanded by employees. Societally this has the effect of public recognition of so called “essential workers” but in this stage of rising demand, necessary policies seem unlikely to be implemented if not forced by governments. This situation could be represented as the need for state intervention in workers’ rights and exercise of economic control from a Marxist perspective.
An interesting perspective to include from the Marxist theory’s history is also that part of the support for the Russian revolution after WW1 came from the Empire’s inability to manage efficient infrastructure and supply demands through the “Homefront” during the great war and its further unpopularity in lacking welfare or reemployment initiatives for veterans, both of which fell to NGO-like local groups, the Zemstvos & Soviets.
As corporations and conglomerates adapt their production cycles and focus on relevant goods and quantities, political campaigning does not seem to stop. In countries like the USA that were hard hit by the Coronavirus, the pandemic crisis seems to be the focal point of campaign debating for upcoming elections. However domestic in its scope, this political maneuvering seems almost hallmark realist.
For future projections, every political perspective presents possible incidents and changes to global politics and relations.
From a Neo-Marxist point of view, one might argue that not all increases in welfare acts would be temporary. Expected common support for these changes might empower workers and employees and possibly increase the number of social democracies in the world.
But citizens taking their political responsibilities more seriously after almost omnipresent quarantine measures worldwide is not a view exclusive to Marxism. As active participation in quarantine policies, for better or for worse effect, has been including populations into the political discourse, this might lead to future expectations. A generation that has experienced a global pandemic might search for security in the expansion of institutions instead of individuals as a crisis created scrutiny in leadership.
This might lead to a clash in demographics as one goal of dominant powers might be to return to heavy investment in “High Politics” and outward spending as the change in economic/export makeup during the Covid-19 crisis might accelerate the process of shifts in balance regarding old dependencies and previously colonial nations toward new diplomatic ties.
And finally, although not explicitly belonging to any single political theory I would like to return to World War One for the last time to illustrate a general future projection. One of the prevalent discussions in International Relations focuses on the state of international Anarchy or the possibility for a governing body to exercise order. In this sense, the international community tends to have the desire to create such new, international, governing bodies after global crises. Seminal moments like the World Wars, always in search of recovery but also to establish some sort of direction and control over fast changing new balances and relations.
Time will tell if an entirely civilian, but still all encompassing, global crisis will be enough of a pretense to create new leagues and unions.