International Politics after Coronavirus Crisis

by Prof. Cenap Çakmak*

The coronavirus crisis has in a matter of months paralyzed the interstate system which was working modestly, particularly in certain areas. As students of the IR, we have witnessed major developments and radical transformations in the past decades: the Soviet Union collapsed; the EU has evolved into a strong political entity; international terrorism has made it to the agenda of world politics in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks; millions were killed in civil wars in different parts of the world; the so-called Arab Spring raised—albeit for a brief moment—hopes for sweeping democratization in the MENA region; ethnic nationalism rose as a driving force in intra-state disputes, causing fragmentation in national territories; globalization, conversely, remained an attractive analytical tool to explain the propensity towards integration. The list can be further extended. In none of these instances was the international institutions as ineffective as they are now in dealing with the Coronavirus crisis; the elements and pieces of global governance did not experience such large scale collapse; the severity of non-cooperation in the ongoing crisis is incomparable. The World Health Organization (WHO), supposedly set up to address such exact global health issues, has done too little other than calling it a pandemic and urging nations to take care of themselves.

* Professor of International Law and Politics.

However, the unique circumstances in the ongoing crisis that calls for an urgent response do not justify the ineptness of the international society that is built upon the assumption of a normative political design. It is just sufficient to recall the indifference of the European Union—a shining example of multilevel governance, democracy promotion and political cooperation—which failed to give a helping hand to one of its founding members, Italy, currently in a fierce struggle to contain the epidemic.I would not go as far as to call the demise of the IR discipline, along with the international institutions, norms and the international law as a whole. It is quite possible that the coronavirus crisis would be remembered in the history of the IR as an individual case, with no significant implications on the future nature and conduct of international politics. It is also possible to be optimistic and assume that the unique features of the crisis, its probable solutions and the uncertainties surrounding it might have required radical measures, including a total and absolute withdrawal from the processes of a globalized world. It appears that the horror the coronavirus caused, due to the potential collapse of the even the strongest national healthcare system unless radical and extraordinary measures are taken, led almost all nations to take unusual steps, including abrupt isolation and cessation of any interaction with others.

How the world ended up here?

A meaningful analysis of international politics should make references to the dynamics and principles that abstractly create the discipline of the IR as a political construction. Without such references, any argument will remain speculative and unsupported. Thus, the ongoing crisis cannot be perfectly isolated from the past and the practices and paths that created the present. This is not to suggest a deterministic and linear political evolution; but we can still speak of an order constructed by diverse political organisms that are able to make rational decisions, learn from and interact with each other through socialization. This is an anarchic order which cannot be suggested to be ideal and which in some cases experiences partial chaos.

Unlike widespread public conviction, international politics are not, and have never been, all about maximization of power and protection of national interests. An argument insisting that it is the power that all matters will instantly make a study of international politics obsolete. As an analytical endeavour, the study of IR upholds an imagination of political order; and in most cases, what actually matters is to better understand this order from a political perspective.

This imagination bears several outcomes: first, if we speak of an order (which does not necessarily have to be perfect and produce justice and equality), we also need to refer to a society and a normative setup that identifies the responsibilities and rights of the constituents. We all know about the conventional constituents; but what we actually do not know that they are not unrestricted autonomous entities; they are not independent in absolute terms. In other words, the states may exist only together with other subjects which are only possible when they observe and honour their responsibilities (a fact that essentially necessitates a normative order).

How this discussion relates to the global governance crisis during the coronavirus pandemic? To begin with, the crisis reveals serious flaws in the ways global affairs are conducted. Basically, we have an assumption of connectivity and interdependence between members of the international society and of a set of rules and code of conduct that sustains this state of interdependence. However, we have not noticed any trace of a society built upon the premise of interdependence, of any working rules and of an approach that prioritizes the common good of that society.

Why have we not seen any useful response by the international society to the pandemic in a way to make itself noticeable? Obviously, the primary reason is the lack of political (and collective) interest in the global health issues, the interest that, given the current crisis, these issues truly deserve. Any mainstream IR textbook makes mention of these issues within a political context. But let us not kid ourselves: these references are often of secondary significance; more importantly, unlike the issues of the so-called “high-politics,” including terror, civil war, territorial disputes, global health has not been considered an indispensable part of a strong political discourse. True, the IR discipline emerged out of the concerns on how to eliminate the conditions that make wars political alternatives for the states and how to maintain lasting peace. So this is a discipline whose ontological justification stems from security-related debates. In recent decades, the security framework has been extended beyond its traditional themes to include human beings as an analytical subject (i.e. responsibility to protect and human security); however, the enhanced framework does not yet make any reference to global health.

I believe that a more structural problem is the erosion of the state responsibilities that exist by virtue of acting as sovereign units and the internationalization and endorsement of this erosion by particularly the big states. This does not mean much for those who subscribe to the cliché that international politics recognize no friendship but national interest. As I noted above, however, international politics becomes analytically meaningful with the responsibilities attached to the members of the community. These responsibilities have been redefined constantly over the past centuries; list of the state responsibilities has been updated; some becoming less significant, others more powerful. What I am trying to draw attention to is the growing tendency over the last decades to normalize non-compliance with what being a member of international society requires. More precisely, security-focused states like China and Russia, which have not contributed a great deal to the world’s normative agenda and instead in many cases acted irresponsibly, are the most to blame. Let us pause for a moment and think: what position does these states uphold in transnational issues including global environmental degradation, human rights, democratization, poverty, inequality and refugees? What contribution have these states made in the international regimes and mechanisms developed to address these issues?

This argument may not bear direct relevance to the coronavirus crisis (except the explicit responsibility of China which, despite calls, has not shut down wet markets, and denied the existence of a dramatic health problem that potentially may turn into a global concern until it was too late); however, the gradual normalization of withdrawal from international norms should be taken into consideration. The explicit or implicit endorsement of the Crimean annexation and heinous international crimes in the Syrian civil war (just two examples to cite) is more salient than these violations themselves. Worse, a number of the states which previously contributed to the making of international society seems to have joined the frenzy of deconstructing some of the well-established norms.

What is next?

Those who have a keen interest in foreign policy or international affairs are often tempted to offer predictions on how the future will look like. The widely held expectation that the study of IR plays such role is one source of this temptation. It is at least partly true, as this is one of the functions of the discipline. But any prediction on the future direction of international politics should make sense in reference to the underlying logic and dynamics, as well as observable interplays between changes and continuities within the international community.

One thing is almost certain to happen: that the current chaos and state of inaction will be replaced by some sort of coordination and cooperation which may or may not be conclusive. However, it is hard to argue that global pandemics will be made part of the political agenda of international society. Despite that it has been a major concern even at times when the interstate affairs were dictated by the concept of security dilemma (for three centuries), cited as the main reason for the states to resort to war, it took a long time to outlaw conduct of the war in international law (only after the end of World War II). And yet comprehensive rules of law of armed conflict have been drafted (the late 1800s and early 1900s) without any serious objection shortly after the observation (in 1860s) that wars were being fought in an inhumane manner. Recognition of pandemics as a concern and issue of international politics is possible via a process of social learning which we will only observe when the international society is willing and ready to do so.

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