Global Reckonings and Covid Clichés

By Ken Booth

A Fellow of the British Academy (FBA); Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University (AU); President of the David Davies Memorial Institute of International Studies; Editor-at-Large of the journal International Relations; and Honorary President of CESRAN International.

This is an edited and shortened version of my keynote address delivered at the 8th Annual Conference on Eurasian Politics & Society, 22-24 September 2021. To maintain the character of the address I have avoided detailed references. Instead, at the end, I add a note listing the main sources.

I wish to thank the CESRAN organisers of the conference for their invitation, and the Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa for hosting the event. We are together today in Lisbon virtually, but in reality at this moment I am in Aberystwyth Wales. I want to begin with a poignant story involving the two places.

In September 1939, the very month of the outbreak of the Second World War, the famous book The Twenty Years’ Crisis was published in the UK. In it, E.H.Carr – the most distinguished Professor in the history of my Department at Aberystwyth University –  reflected on what he thought had been the muddled thinking and delusions about international relations during the previous two decades. At one point he related a story about a street-seller in Lisbon wandering the devastated streets in the aftermath of the terrifying earthquake in 1775 shouting out that he had ‘anti-earthquake pills’ to sell. An onlooker told him that pills could not be of any possible use in such circumstances. The hawker retorted: ‘But what would you put in their place?’

This is a story for our times. It concerns uncertainty and fear, delusions and remedies that don’t work, and the challenge to come up with something better. It provides the framework for my overview of where we – the global-we – are in human history.

The Greatest Reckoning?

In1945 the world entered an era of prolonged uncertainty and fear. It has seen the potentiality – still ongoing – for some of the most far-reaching transformations in the 200,000 years existence of Homo sapiens. It began with the first A-bomb, and will close with whatever is done or not done in the next three decades about today’s climate and biodiversity emergencies. I have long called this century-long era humanity’s Great (or Greatest) Reckoning.  

I am conscious that earlier generations have considered their own situations to have been particularly portentous. Such feelings were subjectively valid, but my claim for the uniqueness of our predicament is based on its objective characteristics. These can be summarised in relation to the global reach of our lived experiences (galloping globalisation), issues with the highest stakes (notably threats to the natural world on which we all depend), and the concatenation of so many profound dangers at the same time (omni-risk).

Humanity is trapped in a face-to-face confrontation with the very ideas that over time have constituted the common-sense (even ‘natural’) answers to the biggest questions of politics – including how human societies do or should live together globally.

A potent mix of big ideas (and institutions constructed to support them) made world politics what they became. The mix includes structures of patriarchy (domination of society by men); the persistence of proselytising religions (faiths in competition for souls); the ideology of sovereignty (a system shaped by state units asserting supreme law-making and law-enforcing power within a territory); an intoxication with nationalism (the norms of ‘my country right or wrong’); the talent of capitalism when it comes to producing and selling, but its evil genius when manufacturing inequality, class divisions, and the exploitation of the natural environment; a system of international relations whose default position rests on the Clausewitzian philosophy of war, Machiavellian ethics, and the ruthless instinct to survive; divisions within common humanity through perverted notions of race; security on the part of the strongest ‘powers’ being assessed in military hardware rather than in multilevel cooperation; and the two-edged implications of technological innovation, from the most benign life-saving inventions to instruments of death and destruction. I could throw in more, such as the culture of rampant consumerism and other powerful ideas that do not work in the collective human interest or for the global environment on which we ultimately depend. New developments forever intrude and add to this era of question marks: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now one of the most prominent.

Global-business-as-usual resulting from this inherited structure of ideas and their institutions has resulted in patterns of division, destruction, disutility, disorganisation, and danger. In international relations, the resulting ‘common-sense’ emphasised such ideas (inventions) as the ‘nation-state’ as the highest focus of decision-making and loyalty; the prioritising of ‘the national-interest’; the struggle for relative gains in the context of ‘self-help’; and the default of security against not with others under the condition of anarchy and its associated security dilemma dynamics. The structure and drivers of the international system have thrown up persisting puzzles which constantly confront the collective-action problematique. This ‘international’ became a condition Rousseau recognised as prone to the sanity of madness.

Humanity these days is a global-we as a community of fate on a lonely planet, but not (or not yet?) a global-we as a community of shared values. It could hardly be otherwise while we are socialised to hawk ancient delusions about ‘human nature’, ‘the human condition’, and ‘human history’, while ignoring the logic of Albert Einstein’s famous advice: ’We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’.

Covid clichés

At this point, over 75 years into The Great(est) Reckoning, the agenda of many states is consumed by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has led to a wave of clichés about its meaning. Some of the most prominent (in the UK) follow, and my brief counters:


‘We are in unprecedented times’

We are not, except for the over-use of the word ‘unprecedented’.

There have been ancient plagues and modern pandemics (including eight caused by influenza). The risk of the spread of disease has been historically normal, not unprecedented. In my father’s time, the Spanish Flu was more deadly, relatively speaking, than today’s pandemic. In future, Covid is predicted to be around indefinitely, so we all have to learn to live with more risk. For some people it will add to their everyday life of risks; for others, notably in the developed world, it will take us back to daily risks familiar even in my boyhood in the UK in the 1950s (facing deadly small pox and incapacitating polio).


‘Health is global’

I don’t think so.

Whether it’s hoarding surplus vaccines, or destroying soon-to-be out-of-date supplies, or aggressive shopping for PPE, ‘vaccine nationalism’ should not have caused anybody surprise given nationalism’s power. Predictable outcomes have been the failure to expand global production through technology transfer (waiving patents for example), the lack of a Global Pandemic Treaty (a reluctance to cooperate), and the unfulfilled G7 promise to vaccinate the world (reneging on commitments). Heath needs are global: health policies have a national flag pinned on them.


‘If all aren’t protected, none is’

This seems logical but it is a delusion.

We are learning all the time how much we don’t know about the future health challenges that may confront us. We do know that no vaccine guarantees 100 per cent protection, that new variants are predictable and may escape current vaccines, and that some people will always be more vulnerable than others. Even if all were jabbed, none would be fully and indefinitely protected. Being protected is always relative: to think otherwise is to swallow propaganda, albeit in a good cause. The indefinite prognosis is of some increased risk for all, globally, and significant risks sectorially.


‘Viruses know no borders’

They do – or at least they infect as if they do.

Viruses get stopped at strong borders and find their way through weaker ones. No state has been overthrown by Covid, but the defences of certain groups within and across states have been penetrated. Viruses metaphorically do have some respect for the Hobbesian state, where the liberty of inhabitants is sacrificed for greater security, but even in what some call today’s ‘Covid State’ the internal borders of class and ethnicity are disproportionately breached.


We must get back to normality’

Definitely not.

‘Normality’ is not what we need. Normality was responsible for getting us into most of our present difficulties. The old normality involved unwise patterns of interaction with other animals (zoonosis); avoiding warnings (complacency and inadequate preparedness); and self-delusion (‘it won’t happen to us’). Any new normal, when it comes about, must start with a firm rejection of the old.


‘New Zealand got it right’

I share the view of those critical of the New Zealand response as a sort of ‘ultra-nationalist’ model of isolation and eradication.

There is a temptation to believe in the (somewhat inappropriate) cliché of the silver bullet. But the ‘ultra-nationalist’ version of this cannot work: New Zealand’s ostensible ‘lessons’ cannot be generalised, and if widely tried would impoverish developing countries dependent on the global economy. Isolation and eradication, alongside autarky and food sovereignty, are nationalist dreams in a densely interdependent world.


‘We’re all in it together’

We are not.

We are only in it ‘together’ in the sense that it is happening to human societies globally at the same time: but we’re very differently together at the same time depending on our ethnicity, colour, the competence of our government, the infrastructure of our state, our gender, class, and all the other things that historically stop us being truly together.

The pandemic will be a historical turning point’

I do not think it will.

When it comes to international relations, the pandemic in the fullness of time will be seen to have had limited impact on world order. Domestically however, it has had profound impact on some societies, including worrying trends in assertions of state power. It may, I hope, stimulate a stronger sense of ‘globality’ (global consciousness) in many individuals, but at the international level I think the pandemic is comparable to Kenneth Waltz’s assessment of the global reaction to international terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11. Waltz called it ‘a mile wide…[but] only an inch deep’: in other words, it was an event that would attract obsessive attention round the world but would not transform the fundamentals of international politics. Likewise, despite the global reach and human tragedy of the pandemic (with several million people dead already, and many more with severe illness) its impact does not look likely to be transformative in international politics. Its meaning has essentially been national, even family-sized.  

A(nother) wake-up call for IR

It is finally time to respond to the Lisbon street-seller’s challenge: In face of the uncertainties of our time, what would I put in place of what’s on offer?

There is no ‘pill’: that is for sure. There can be no promise of instant relief. Instead – and these remarks are particularly for the academic audience I am addressing – this moment offers a timely wake-up call for a disciplinary reset. What is the challenge? In the words of Philip Allott (diplomat, international lawyer, philosopher): ‘What is needed is a revolution, but in the mind not in the streets’. In the university, this translates for me into a potentially far-reaching change of direction in teaching and research about the past, present, and future of the international level of world politics. It is for all you readers, of course, to decide whether such an offer is infused with as much (or even more) self-delusion as that of the Lisbon hawker so long ago.

A revolution in the mind rests on three ontological assumptions: the belief that human reality is to a significant degree made up of ideas (it is ‘mind-made’), the knowledge that humans have agency (the capacity to affect change), and an understanding that history is a story of ‘never say never’ (‘there is nothing as radical as reality’ as Lenin is supposed to have said). It is in speculating about such assumptions in the context of world politics that we academics may hope have some impact through the ways we conceive – or better reconceive – ‘human nature’, ‘the human condition’, ‘human history’ and the other dimensions of humanity relating to what is desirable and feasible in order to live in greater harmony with each other and the rest of the natural world. 

Could anyone seriously disagree with the point above about the radical nature of reality after considering the (once seemingly ‘impossible’) transformations that have occurred during the existence of Homo sapiens? We are, after all, the amazing featherless biped primates who learned love, conceived emancipation, invented computers, flew to the moon, and discovered the edges of the cosmos.  

What in one period seemed ‘impossible’, ‘impractical’, ‘idealistic’, ‘unrealistic’, ‘utopian’, and all the other put-downs working to leave things as they once were can become ‘normal’, ‘commonsensical’, even ‘natural’ in another. There is empirical proof of humans being capable of progressive collective action: of old enemies reconciling: of ideals such as gender equality being operationalised (however inadequately so far); of social values being spread (such as thinking it proper to donate money to help suffering strangers half the world away); of science bringing about not only negative radical surprises (such as constructing horrendous weapons) but also positive ones (such as eradicating historical diseases}; and of the shifts in ideas, albeit not perfect, about genocide, slavery, empire, and race.

New images can revolutionise old mindsets. As the writer Anais Nin precisely put it: ‘We see things not as they are but as we are’. Consider the dramatic effects of new images of reality: finding out that the earth is round, without edges to fall over; and the sight of our brilliant ‘blue planet’ photographed from Apollo 17 in 1972. Contemplate the potential existential reset likely to be provoked by a photograph of the last family of polar bears clinging to a melting ice floe.

Crises can clarify. It is not my preferred theory of change, but sometimes ‘the worse, the better’. The First World War led to a significant resetting of diplomatic mindsets about the need for a multifunctional universal international organisation. The Holocaust led to the creation of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To date, Covid-19 has helped many to rethink what is important in their personal lives, though it has not exhibited the heft to turn family-sized tragedies into an emancipatory step forward in globality.

It does not follow from these points that progress towards a more humane humanity – a better world – is inevitable. Far from it. My claim is simply that it is rational to hope that the conditions of better possibilities exist, and that there is potential agency, individually and collectively. We in the academy cannot do the work of decisionmakers, but we can contribute to society by asking much better questions, and offering sounder knowledge with which to think about them.

Individually humans have more capability than in the past, and collectively the agency of ‘global civil society’ has more potential than once seemed possible. Global solidarity, bringing together inspiring individuals and collective drive, has already been powerful on single-issues such as ‘race relations’ (think of Nelson Mandela), climate chaos (think of Greta Thunberg), nuclear weapons (think of Joseph Rotblat), planting trees (think of Wangari Maathai), and educating girls (think of Malala Yousafzai). These are just some of the most prominent names among many others.

Progress towards what Jürgen Habermas has called ‘Global Domestic Politics’ (international relations with a heightened global consciousness) is hindered by static thinking about ‘the international’. This is not surprising, for we are all children of international relations. Even before birth our lives were shaped by the tides of international history. As children we grew up trapped by the chains of myths regarding our ‘Motherlands’ and ‘Fatherlands’. We are well and truly nationalised before we can properly think.

Critics will cancel the direction of these arguments as another exercise in ‘universalising’: but were they to do so they would make the categorical error of thinking that ‘universal’ is necessarily inconsistent with the ‘unique’ attitudes and behaviour of real people in real places. The global-we share the realities of human needs, of cultural universals, and of the persisting puzzles regarding relations with others.

‘Only connect’

The Time of Covid already tells us many things. It exposes further how the global-we as a community of fate is confronted by a set of great reckonings. It underlines a response more of ‘business-as-usual’ rather than global rethinking. It shows that governments are distracted by the pandemic from attending to even more critical matters. And it steals precious time from working towards solidifying the potential global-we as a community of values.

For students of International Relations, I have pointed to the wake-up call about bending teaching and research towards the global referent, while recognising the causal power of the international level of world politics; and of being wary of the pills that we became addicted to. We must critique traditional approaches (human nature fatalism for example) but also current fashions characterised by reductionism, relativism, sectarianism, the cult of the micro, nationalism. and identity-fetishism. It is time for a philosophical reset, for mind-remaking, and for the construction of human solidarity. If not now, when?

Students of IR, in response to yet another wake-up call about the awful realities of world politics, should embrace the spirit of the famous appeal of the English novelist, E.M. Forster: ‘Only connect!…Live in fragments no longer’. For me this means, among other things, searching for the universal in the unique, and the unique in the universal.

This is our intellectual and political challenge.

I dare to hope for a global-we of shared values, but I cannot finish without looking at the world news and asking whether things have to get worse before they get better?

I fear that they do.

Further Readings

For longer versions of my ‘Great Reckoning’ argument:

Booth, K (2007) Theory of World Security. Cambridge University Press.

Booth, K (2019) International Relations: The Story so Far. International Relations, 33(2): 358-390.

Booth K (2020-2021) History’s Greatest Reckoning: International Relations 1945-2045. Interstate Journal, 1: 1-24.

On ‘Human Nature, The Human Condition, Human History’:

Allott, P. (1998) The future of the human past. In Ken Booth (ed) Statecraft and Security. The Cold War and Beyond. Cambridge University Press, pp.323-337.

On the pandemic, the following are thought-provoking: 

de Waal, A (2021) New Pandemics, Old Politics. Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. John Wiley & Sons.

Green, T (2021) The Covid Consensus. The New Politics of Global Inequality. Oxford University Press.

Tooze, A (2021) Shutdown: How Covid Shut the World Economy. New York: Viking.

On the social construction of ‘impossibility’ in politics, and the compatibility of utopianism and realism:

Geuss, R (2015) Realism and the relativity of judgement. International Relations, 29(1): 3-22.

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