no, Realism cannot explain the international Covid-19 response

Mar 24, 2020

As the world rushes to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, international relations scholars have a lot to say. We are not public health experts, or pathologists. But we can speak to the way states respond to common threats and the political process needed to formulate an effective response. One common reference is the realist idea of self-interest driving state behavior and undermining collective action. Yet, while realism as an inclination can explain what’s going on, Realism as a scholarly theory cannot.

Many scholars and general observers of international relations have reacted with frustration at state responses to Covid-19. The Trump Administration delayed testing and has provided insufficient information or help to states and communities. Britain’s Boris Johnson vacillated from doing nothing to locking down the country. China failed to be sufficiently transparent during the early stages of the pandemic.

This led some to turn to realism as an explanation. For example, Steven Walt wrote in Foreign Policy that realism can “offer useful insights into some of the issues that the new coronavirus outbreak has raised.” And this makes sense. States are putting short-term interests ahead of long-term benefits through cooperation. Cosmopolitan values are suffering. Even when states do work together, it is to limit interaction, as seen with the US-Canada cessation of non-essential travel.

So does this mean realism is right? Well…no.

I say this because there is realism and there is Realism. The former is the general idea that people are self-interested, people run states, and thus self-interest will win out over ideals in a crisis. Thus, any policies we enact should take this into account. But there is also Realism, an international relations theory; by this I really mean neorealism, but that’s the dominant strain nowadays. While it claims to be based on realism, Realism in IR is a different thing. Realists assume not just self-interest, but rationality. They argue that great powers are the most important actors in the international system. They claim the only relevant actors are states, often viewed as unified black boxes. And, based on the things they study, they implicitly suggest that the only topics that matter in IR are alliance formation, war initiation, and defense strategy.

Now, you could say I’m being unfair. Just because Realism hasn’t analyzed things like pandemics doesn’t mean they couldn’t. Walt himself admits this. He notes:

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

And he continues to point out how they could speak to it. Also, one could argue that many IR studies of public health draw on Realist assumptions of rationality and self-interest.

But this is not enough to claim that Realist IR theory can explain the international Covid-19 response, and it’s not enough to justify this theory’s dominance over our sub-field.

  1. First, “could have written on it” is not the same as written it. As I’ve noted, there is a temptation in IR to come up with a paradigm-based explanation for contemporary issues that doesn’t exist. For example, a neoliberal explanation for civil war; we could imagine one, but they’ve never really worked that out. So until Realist scholars come up with a theory of pandemics, a Realist theory of pandemics doesn’t exist. Constructivism (to which I’m most sympathetic) seems like a great fit for the study of religious politics, but has basically ignored it. I’m not giving constructivists credit for all the great work on religion &IR, so I can’t give realists credit for hypothetical work on pandemics.
  2. Second, there may be a reason that IR studies on public health use realist assumptions but not Realism. In grad school, I was talking with an IPE scholar and referred to him as a neoliberal. It made sense-he studied neoliberalism topics based on rationalist analyses. But he said he doesn’t see the paradigms as relevant for most of what we do now in IR. I think there’s a similar issue for realists. Sure, scholars studying public health from a rational self-interested perspective could be Realists, but they don’t identify as such. This suggests that Realism as an IR theory just isn’t relevant for contemporary IR.
  3. Finally, the strict and arbitrary definitions of contemporary Realism may be preventing it from paying attention to important issues like Covid-19. Remember Realism is not just self-interest and power; it assumes that states (particularly great powers) are all that matter, and that narrowly defined security issues are paramount. This has prevented contemporary Realism from studying terrorism (non-state), or intense power politics within international organizations (not security). And unless they expand what they mean by Realism, it doesn’t leave much room for analysis of public health responses.

This may all sound pedantic, but it’s important for both the sub-field of IR and our attempt to be relevant to policymakers:

  • The grand paradigms that dominated IR for so long excluded a lot of important issues, thus hastening their irrelevance. There have been some noble efforts to change this–such as this volume on religion and classical realism that Dan Nexon and I contributed a chapter to–and that’s a good start. Those who want to salvage a theory like Realism need to do this–explicitly explore its assumptions that limited its applicability–rather than just claim it’s still relevant.
  • Policymakers and the general public are not going to wade through tomes of irrelevant writing on nuclear doctrine to find nuggets of wisdom for their pandemic response plans. If Realists do not write rigorous studies on crucial contemporary issues–public health, terrorism, ideological struggles–then policymakers will turn to scholars who study these issues without forcing themselves into a paradigmatic mold. Or they will, distressingly, abandon IR scholars altogether.

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Peter Henne is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences in the University of Vermont. His research focuses on religion in foreign policy and political violence.