Whatever field we work in, the inevitable fact is that we live in a certain space and ﬂow of history. Our existence is defined and limited by the dimensions of time and space. If you are an academic in the social sciences, especially international relations, the inﬂuence of these space and time dimensions are felt even more deeply. In a sense, they form an existential context for your own test tube. Theoretical academic studies beyond the test tube attraction one into the reality that exists within it; the conclusions one reaches within this reality start inﬂuencing one’s academic work’s theoretical perspective. In wake of Coronavirus, has the realist paradigm is over?
The coronavirus pandemic has acted as the coup-de-grace to the efficacy and capability of the global institutions. It has challenged the realist paradigm. The United Nations and the uncountable regional organizations have seemingly failed humanity when people needed the world to act together the most. The talk of the town is that the state has become the sole provider of security and stability and that globalization is in retreat. In this context, one needs to ask whether the failure of these global institutions mean a failure of liberal institutionalism in its totality? And, what does the realist theory of international politics have to offer at this point of global crisis? The most targeted organization has been the World Health Organization (WHO). Amidst the accusations that it helped China cover up the spread of the disease and did not propose travel restrictions on it, one must not forget the fact that it had declared coronavirus as a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020. Yet large scale allegations against the organization particularly by US president, Donald Trump, have done much to discredit the organization.
Such charges and counter-charges need to be explained within the context of the relationship between states and international organizations (IOs). Though most international organizations, especially those based on a charter/constitution/treaty have their own independent legal personality, that does not give them absolute authority. The reality is vastly different where there is an endless pull and push between the power of these organizations and the various states. The fundamental contradiction lies in the fact that international organizations are mandated with the task of governing the behavior of states which encompass them. The present structure of the international politics dictates that states are sovereign entities and they are voluntarily a part of these multilateral forums. If their interest demands, they can opt out of these institutions. The actual power of international organizations depends on how much the states are willing to delegate, authorize and empower them in all manners.
Even if we agree to the hypothesis that with this pandemic, states have returned to the world stage as a stronger unit against the forces of political and economic globalization, one requests to ask who is making these claims? Is this coming from the states that already have a certain degree of power and were in the competition for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council? This is imperative as small island states or states with limited resources/power do not have the capacity to make such arguments. They rely on international organizations and their allies for a number of basic goods/services in the field of health, education, technology and others. The United States has the resourcefulness to opt out of climate change negotiations or the WHO, but underdeveloped and developing countries in the Global South do not have that option.
The realist paradigm posits that since the international structure is anarchical because it lacks a world government, sovereign states have no option but to involve in self-help in order to survive. The states become the main actors and international organizations become a mere tool in the hands of the powerful. Within this realm, which is akin to Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’, competition and conflict is the order of the day. The paradigm falls short in giving an outline to understand and analyze a global threat like this pandemic. The continuity of the discourse of great power rivalry with the politics of blame game and passing the buck to the enemy outside/inside one’s country becomes anachronistic in such a situation.
For example, calling the virus as a Chinese Virus/conspiracy by China with the WHO being complicit or some people in India blaming Muslims for the spread of the virus comes in this category. Such ruthless pragmatism done for the sake of saving one’s government electorally has enormous possibility of bringing about more chaos internationally. This is because of the realist paradigm. On the other hand, the liberal framework proposes that though there is no global authority above the states, this does not automatically make states behave only in an egoistic and self-seeking manner. Here, the role of international organizations is one of not only providing a common platform for negotiations but also mitigating the selfish tendencies of states by making them realize the benefits of mutual co-operation.
Within the domain of liberal institutionalism, varied global institutions have been created at various points of time to benefit humanity on a number of fronts. The argument against their existence from a realist perspective is that states are not only worried about cheating and the ‘free rider’ problem, but also about relative gains. It is presumed that states will find it difficult if another state gains more by their interaction than itself. Such a standpoint is turned on its head in a case like a global health pandemic. Presently, the point is not whether states seek to co-operate or not, but that their choice of non-co-operation will bring about a great collective loss. The realist logic of absolute versus relative gains falls flat when it comes to problems like global health and climate change. As an oft quoted line says ‘global problems require global solutions.’
The realist paradigm is under the threat in the wake of pandemic. The pandemic has truly asked the limiting theories of global politics which posit self-regarding/egoistic behavior by states as the only natural behavior. The mainstream of the humans is at such a stage that states, international organizations and the global civil society will have to work together to bring people out of this chaos towards curative, stability and prosperity. This is not only ideal but also an important considering the nature of the challenges that the future holds for humanity. One cannot give up on the values of global fraternity at this point.