By the time the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak- a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, it had reached every continent on earth except uninhabitable Antarctica. More than 120,000 confirmed cases were reported worldwide including 4627 deaths.i As of this writing this numbers have risen significantly. The official number of total infected cases is almost 6 million whereas the death toll is 364,610 and counting.ii
However, many experts have been questioning these stats. Most of them are saying the numbers coming from certain countries are underreported, they do not match the field condition so the total cases should be far higher. On the other hand, some critics are claiming these numbers are manipulated and exaggerating the overall situation, in order to pressurize mass people into submission.
One thing for certain, the emergence of novel coronavirus may be the most disruptive event of this century, disarraying every pillar of this current world order from private job sector, freedom of movement, entertainment industry, education sector, economy to globalization, and International relations. The blow of COVID-19 pandemic is so tremendous that it is oftentimes compared to the massive H1N1 virus outbreak of 1918 famously known as “Spanish flu”. Lasting about 15 months from spring 1918 to early summer 1919, it infected an estimated 500 million people globally – about a third of the world’s population at the time. Many estimations suggest, throughout the whole world, 20-50 million people died. iii Only in United states, 550,000 Americans (0.5 percent of the population) were killed by the flu. Adjusted with the US population growth, this would be a little under two million deaths today!
Here- a very important distinction can be made. The infection & death rate of Spanish flu was far more dangerous and destructive than today’s coronavirus. Nonetheless, the panic and disruption caused by COVID-19 outweigh any pandemic in the past. Old containment techniques like quarantine, isolation, facemasks, gloves, disinfectant spraying etc got modernized and implemented in every big city. In addition, tracking apps, A.I., robot scanners, thermal CCTV cameras, drones etc technologies were used pervasively by the states – which would create outrage in normal situation. Factories shut down, small businesses were closed and many of them have gone bankrupt, public and private offices either stopped their activities or went to passive mood by working from home. International movements, flights, trades, tourism or cruising have totally stopped functioning for the first time in this modern era. Even during Spanish flu, such a shut-down of lives could not be enforced by the governments. Mainly because, people by choice or sometimes by force, fought the flu actively, not at home quarantine. And the real reason is the states and the governments did not have the capacity to enforce it on their citizens, and even if they did – studies suggest, people would not accept it. Not that in today’s world most people are happy with the total lockdown.iv But states and the authorities have the power, technology to implement it against the popular will.
The people in the power might not have ill intentions and they are doing everything for the greater good, yet some questions still stand. Is it a sign for a wave of stronger states with the power of high end technology and the support of rich corporations – which can flex its muscle whenever it perceives something as an extra-ordinary situation or threat to security? Will it surge the neo-mercantilitsm, protectionist approach, and closed economy in the world? Will the International organizations and NGOs lose their authority and influence? Will globalization take a hit? Can current international relations theories predict the future of world politics?
- Well, firstly – as the pandemic situation is still unfolding and changing many equations every day, it is hard to tell exactly what is going to happen in one month let alone a year or more. But theories are there to help us to draw possible outcomes. There is no doubt the U.S. led unipolar system will lose its reputation. As The New York Times noted – “..this is perhaps the first global crisis in more than a century where no one is even looking to the United States for leadership.” USA under Trump was already struggling to maintain its hegemony long before Coronavirus. And the title of “the worst covid-19 affected country” definitely did not help it at all.
- Neo-liberalism’s continuous popularity in international relations theories will cease to exist for a while. Most countries are now looking for sustainable ways to be self- sufficient. Developed and developing nations stopped caring about the rest of the world when the virus struck them. Less developed and under developed nations understood how vulnerable the international system is. All these defied the pre-existing neo-liberal ideology, which is based on co-operation, complex-interdependence, and international institutions. Co-operation during this pandemic puts the whole world in shock. Trump’s decision to withhold WHO funding, rich European and gulf countries’ reluctance and distrust – were poor show of interdependence and co-ordination. Only a handful of country such as United States, Cuba, Russia, China, Germany, Turkey continued their international relief work and provided medical assistance during COVID-19.v In early February, WHO (World Health Organization) issued an emergency appeal for $675 million to fund its work to fight the coronavirus. By early March, the fund had only received $1.2 million by one account.vi That proves neither Institutionalism was any better.
- In international relations, constructivism is the theory that asserts – significant aspects of international relations are historically and socially constructed, rather than inevitable consequences of human nature or other essential characteristics of world politics.vii It emphasizes on the interpretation and epistemology. This theory should be implemented on explaining the post coronavirus world. However this would be too complicated, and a long discourse whereas with the help of Neo-realism theory one can decipher the future more simply.
- Neo-realism is the development of classical realism idea. It was first coined by Kenneth Waltz in his 1979 book Theory of International Politics, and one of the most popular theories in international relations. Neorealism or structural realism differs from the traditional realism in a sense that it focuses on the anarchic structure of the world system instead of human nature. A human society or a state can establish a state of law whereas it is almost impossible to enforce universal laws in a diverse world with billions of people with different cultures, histories, religions, ideologies in it. While it accepts State as the only legitimate actor, it gives a great deal of attention to forces below or above the state as well, unlike realism. Otherwise just as realism, neorealism puts same importance on self-interest, security, state, and survival by force. It believes in perpetual conflicting interests with other states, and sides with the idea of a strong military force, and economy.
- After the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be assumed that neo-realism will replace neo- liberalism. Many developed countries such as USA, UK, France, Italy, Australia were already doubting the utility of neo-liberal idea even before the pandemic. Co-operation, maintaining security, and internationalization have not made that much of a good impact on most of their citizens, which resulted in rise of populism in the latest national elections. This pandemic will do nothing but fuel this issue on a wider scale. As thousands of small businesses are dying, as millions of people are out of jobs and deprived of the right to lead their normal lives, as number of middle class urban citizens is decreasing because of the fear of infection in densely populated cities– more people will lean towards right wing protectionist politics which thrives on lower middle class citizens of small towns, and fear of globalization as well as free trade. Moreover, this will not only happen in developed countries. Developing and under developed nations will see a spike in ultra-right, nationalism. Countries which had managed to contain the effect of Covid-19 relatively better such as Japan, Germany, South Korea, Norway, Canada, and Turkey might face a less powerful blow in this regard. While democratic countries will see a tidal of neo-realist politics through votes or protests – non democratic, autocratic, monarchic, one party states will adopt neo-realism by default. Border-control, visa process will be stricter than ever. Showing health clearance will be permanent. Older people might get a second look while travelling, Tourism will struggle to get back on track.
- According to neo-realism theory, vaccine or possible medicine to recover from COVID- 19 will be an interesting issue to follow. Countries have been collecting huge sum of money separately for national funds for COVID-19 research. There is a gold-rush for vaccines, and remedies – being done by various developed countries mainly working on their own. It will continue to be more exclusive and competitive. As countries will start to prioritize their own securities and economic interests more, the first successful country will definitely achieve a higher authority both literally and figuratively. In this race, U.S. has the head start due to having numerous big bio-tech companies who are already working on multiple vaccines and medicines.
- Idea of self-help will reach a new high. Big change will come in free international trade. Especially in basic daily products, energy, and food sector – trade volume can decline dramatically. Food and beverage control will be more extensive. Developed countries will try to be more self-sufficient. In contrast, developing or less developed trade dependent countries will try to continue doing trade at any cost. There might be new inter-governmental economic or political blocs among those countries.
- Agriculture, health, and I.T. sector will have more budget and attention by prudent governments. Number of Bio-tech companies and researches will go up. Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) will be the next X factor, impacting on every organ of the world system. Agriculture related trade might plummet. Health tourism will take a downturn.
- A rise in religious conservatism can be observed against the dominant liberal secularism. Democracy will take a hit globally. One party, autocratic tyranny will spread more. Income inequality and class cleavages will increase. These issues altogether will have great impact on the foreign policies inspired by the neo-realism theory.
In conclusion, Post Covid-19 world is bound to be different. Although Constructivism synthesis theory would be more helpful for the world leaders to understand, and evaluate these incidents in a nicer way, most will choose hard-line populism. Thus long term visions are trumped by short term gains. And common sense sometimes becomes the most uncommon thing in world politics. Voltaire wrote this very much relevant quote a few centuries ago, “Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas … It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere.” Neo-realism anarchy is the old idea designed to become relevant in this unprecedentedly difficult time. However those countries which have managed to handle this outbreak relatively better, will get the upper hand to rise above this obvious paradigm.
Rakib Bin Wali
Istanbul Medeniyet University