Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Realist’s Guide to the Coronavirus Outbreak

| Mar. 09, 2020

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

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?

Powered By 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....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Realist’s Guide to the Coronavirus Outbreak.” Foreign Policy, March 9, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt