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The Realist’s Guide to the Coronavirus Outbreak

Globalization is heading for the ICU, and other foreign-policy insights into the nature of the growing international crisis.

Pedestrians wear face masks as they walk outside the New Orient Landmark hotel in Macau on Jan. 22, 2020.
Pedestrians wear face masks as they walk outside the New Orient Landmark hotel in Macau on Jan. 22, 2020. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

The realist approach to international politics and foreign policy does not devote much, if any, attention to the issue of potential pandemics like the COVID-19 outbreak. No theory explains everything, of course, and realism focuses primarily on the constraining effects of anarchy, the reasons why great powers compete for advantage, and the enduring obstacles to effective cooperation among states. It has little to say about interspecies viral transmission, epidemiology, or public health best practices, so you shouldn’t ask a realist to tell you whether you should start working from home.

Despite these obvious limitations, realism can still offer useful insights into some of the issues that the new coronavirus outbreak has raised. It is worth remembering, for example, that a central event in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War (one of the founding texts in the realist tradition) is the plague that struck Athens in 430 B.C. and persisted for more than three years. Historians believe the plague may have killed about a third of Athens’ population—including prominent leaders such as Pericles—and it had obvious negative effects on Athens’ long-term power potential. Might realism have something to say about the situation we find ourselves in today?

First, and most obviously, the present emergency reminds us that states are still the main actors in global politics. Every few years, scholars and pundits suggest that states are becoming less relevant in world affairs and that other actors or social forces (i.e., nongovernmental organizations, multinational corporations, international terrorists, global markets, etc.) are undermining sovereignty and pushing the state toward the dustbin of history. When new dangers arise, however, humans look first and foremost to national governments for protection. After 9/11, Americans didn’t turn to the United Nations, Microsoft Corp., or Amnesty International to protect them from al Qaeda; they looked to Washington and the federal government. And so it is today: All over the world, citizens are looking to public officials to provide authoritative information and to fashion an effective response. As the journalist Derek Thompson wrote on Twitter last week: “There are no libertarians in a pandemic.” That is not to say that broader global efforts are not necessary as well; it is simply to remind us that despite globalization, states remain the central political actors in the contemporary world. Realists have emphasized this point for decades, and the coronavirus is providing yet another vivid reminder.

Second, although the more structural versions of realism tend to downplay differences among states (apart from relative power), thus far responses to the coronavirus outbreak are exposing the strengths and weakness of different types of regimes. Scholars have previously suggested that rigid dictatorships are more vulnerable to famines, epidemics, and other disasters, largely because they tend to suppress information and top officials may not recognize the gravity of the situation until it is too late to prevent it. This is precisely what appears to have happened in China and also Iran: People who tried to sound the alarm were silenced or punished, and top officials tried to hide what was happening instead of mobilizing promptly to address it. Authoritarian governments can be good at mobilizing resources and undertaking ambitious responses—witness Beijing’s ability to quarantine whole cities and impose other far-reaching controls—but only after the people at the top figure out and acknowledge what is going on.

Because information flows more freely in democracies—due in part to independent media and the ability of lower-level officials to sound the alarm without being punished—they should be better at identifying when a problem is emerging. For democracies, however, problems may emerge when trying to fashion and implement timely responses. This deficiency may be especially severe in the United States, because the first responders and other agencies that do the real work in an emergency are mostly under the control of a plethora of state or local governments. Unless there is adequate prior planning and effective coordination from Washington—something that is not easy to pull off in the best of circumstances—even accurate and timely warnings may not produce effective emergency measures. The bungled reactions to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico are obvious cases in point.

Unfortunately, as Michelle Goldberg pointed out in a recent New York Times column, “Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus combines the worst features of autocracy and of democracy, mixing opacity and propaganda with leaderless inefficiency.” Having previously downgraded disaster preparedness throughout the federal government and in the White House itself, Trump has consistently downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak, overruled or challenged the assessments of qualified scientists, failed to coordinate an effective federal response, picked fights with local officials who are on the front lines, and blamed it all on his predecessor, who has now been out of office for more than three years. Put a would-be authoritarian in charge of a decentralized democratic system, add a serious emergency, and this is the sort of train-wreck to expect.

Is there a silver lining? Realism suggests there might be a small one. In a competitive world, states cast a wary eye on what others are doing and have a big incentive to imitate success. New military innovations tend to be quickly adopted by others, for example, because failing to adapt can lead one to fall behind and become vulnerable. 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 politicizing it or using it to gain advantage.

Unfortunately, realism also reminds us that achieving effective international cooperation on this issue may not be easy, despite the obvious need for it. Realists recognize that cooperation happens all the time, and that norms and institutions can help states cooperate when it is in their interest to do so. But realists also warn that international cooperation is often fragile, either because states fear that others will not abide by their commitments, worry that cooperation will benefit others more than it benefits them, or want to avoid bearing a disproportionate share of the costs. I don’t think such concerns will prevent states from doing a lot to help one another address this global problem, but any or all of them could make the collective response less effective.

Lastly, foreign-policy realism also suggests that if the epidemic does not subside quickly and more or less permanently (as the 2003 SARS epidemic did), it will reinforce the growing trend toward deglobalization that is already underway. Back in the 1990s, apostles of globalization believed the world was becoming ever-more-tightly connected by trade, travel, global financial integration, the digital revolution, and the apparent superiority of liberal capitalist democracy, and concluded that we’d all get busy getting rich in an increasingly flat and borderless world. The past decade or more has witnessed a steady retreat from that optimistic vision, with more and more people willing to trade efficiency, growth, and openness for the sake of autonomy and the preservation of cherished ways of life. As the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom put it, they want to “take back control.”

For realists, this backlash is unsurprising. As the realist Kenneth Waltz wrote in his landmark Theory of International Politics, “the domestic imperative is ‘specialize,’” and “the international imperative is ‘take care of yourself’!” The Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr offered a similar warning in the 1930s, writing that “the development of international commerce, the increased economic interdependence among the nations, and the whole apparatus of a technological civilisation, increase the problems and issues between nations much more rapidly than the intelligence to solve them can be created.” 

Liberal theorists have long argued that increasing interdependence between states would be a source of prosperity and an obstacle to international rivalry. By contrast, realists warn that close ties are also a source of vulnerability and a potential cause of conflict. What Waltz and Niebuhr are saying is that ever-tighter connections between states create as many problems as they solve, sometimes more quickly than we can devise solutions for them. For this reason, states—the critical building blocks of international politics—try to reduce risks and vulnerabilities by placing limits on their dealings with one another.

From a realist perspective, therefore, the coronavirus is likely to give states another reason to limit globalization. Hyperglobalization made the global financial system more vulnerable to crises and created serious domestic political problems due to job displacement; we now know that it also increased our exposure—literally—to the sort of global pandemic we may be witnessing today.

To be clear: Realism doesn’t predict a retreat to autarky or even the same level of deglobalization that occurred as a result of the two world wars and the Great Depression. Contemporary states cannot afford to sever all ties, even in the face of something like the coronavirus. But I’m guessing that the high-water mark of contemporary globalization is now behind us, and that a virus that crossed the boundary between two species is going to one of the reasons that borders between states will become a bit higher.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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