The editors of International Organization, the leading scholarly journal in international relations, thought that was a good question to solicit tentative answers. As they explain: “It is much too soon to answer these questions with the rigor we typically require in social science journals. Yet international relations scholars have studied the politics of crises and their consequences for a long time. We therefore asked scholars with varied expertise to weigh in on what theory, history, and early data tell us about the politics and implications of the covid-19 pandemic.” You can access the online issue here.
I was one of the international relations scholars who participated. The result is “The Song Remains the Same: International Relations After Covid-19,” which is accessible to all. Here is the abstract:
Since the onset of covid-19, there has been a surfeit of commentary arguing that 2020 will have transformative effects on world politics. This paper asks whether, decades from now, the pandemic will be viewed as an inflection point. Critical junctures occur when an event triggers a discontinuous shift in key variables or forces a rapid acceleration of preexisting trends. Pandemics have undeniably had this effect in the far past. A welter of economic and medical developments, however, have strongly muted the geopolitical impact of pandemics in recent centuries. A review of how the novel coronavirus has affected the distribution of power and interest in its first six months suggests that covid-19 will not have transformative effects on world politics. Absent a profound ex post shift in hegemonic ideas, 2020 is unlikely to be an inflection point.
This is a fair summary! But let me unpack it a little bit. Here is my argument, condensed.
First, for most of human history, pandemics have had a pronounced effect on international affairs. From before the Peloponnesian War to the Napoleonic age, disease has affected the balance of power on multiple occasions. In some cases, such as Spain’s encounter with the Aztecs and Incas, the effect was to aid the more powerful actor. Diseases like measles were far more effective than muskets in aiding and abetting the territorial conquest of the New World. In other instances, such as Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, disease was the great leveler. Typhus and dysentery overwhelmed the Grande Armée; Napoleon lost 120,000 troops to disease just in the weeks leading up to the seizure of Moscow, tipping the balance.
Second, beginning 150 years ago, a series of societal and technological gains muted the effect of disease on world politics. In the 19th century, dramatic improvements in urban sanitation, food preparation and living standards began to constrict multiple disease vectors. Simply put, it became harder for a pandemic to break out in urban settings. The germ theory of disease acted as a further damper through the development of vaccines and therapeutics for major infectious diseases. Note that all of this was before the microbiological revolution and the development of antibiotics.
Third, my claims from March continue to hold up: Covid-19 has not fundamentally altered the distribution of power and interest. The pandemics likeliest to have society-altering effects are those that incapacitate and kill working-age populations. This coronavirus does neither. Both the United States (finance) and China (manufacturing) have exercised leadership in their areas of strength. It is difficult to identify any foreign policy outcome over the past six months that would not have happened in a counterfactual world of no disease.
Finally, there are still ways that covid-19 can have system-altering effects. It is relatively straightforward to detect shifts in power and interest. Ideas and identity are different matters entirely. It is possible that the pandemic could, say, cause policymakers to focus far more on economic resilience than efficiency. That would have dramatic effects on the way that world politics proceeds. Similarly, covid-19 might be viewed as a harbinger of more serious threats to come: a more virulent pathogen, or other threats that could trigger systemic collapse. The problem is that we will be uncertain whether lasting effects like these will stick for at least a decade.
My essay is the contrarian one, and I urge readers to check out the others that have been published by David Stasavage on regime type and disease, and Michael Kenwick and Beth Simmons on border politics during a pandemic. More will be coming in the next month or so.
One reviewer described my paper as “ornery.” As intellectual epitaphs go, I could do a lot worse.