October 1, 2022

Fighting a pandemic and international politics from a realist perspective


The world continues to struggle with the ongoing pandemic of the novel coronavirus, the source of which continues to be a subject of conspiracy and controversy. United States (US) and China continue their finger pointing exercise at each other. While US officials including the president calling it “Chinese virus”, China said it conducted research with the Japanese to establish its origin and their conclusion was that the virus did not originate1 from China. Iran also echoes the Chinese narrative citing that the virus could be man-made by the US government. On a broader spectrum, there are two main issues interfering in the response to the pandemic. First, the spreading of disinformation between states especially China and the US, and secondly, the heavily concentrated domestic interventions by individual states. Consequently, it paralyses the ability of World Health Organisation (WHO) as the institution responsible for global public health governance to find an effective way of coordinating international response. What could explain the shortfall in the global coordination? Realism, as a prominent theoretical tradition in international politics could help provide credible explanations.

The idea of state centrism reflects the realist focus on states as the main units and principal actors in the international system. As representatives of their political communities, states exercise authority within their territorial boundaries and recognise no higher authority outside. The consequence of this is that relations between states is said to be “anarchic”3 because there is no higher authority that can tell states what to do. Realist characterise the arena of international politics as a Hobbesian “state of nature”4 where states with no political superior above them and no common morality between them, act according to the principle of self-help and pursue their own interests, the most fundamental of which is survival.

The state of nature in which individuals without a common superior engage in zero-sum struggle for survival arises as a logical conclusion of Hobbes’ proclamation that self-interest, defined by each individual as the satisfaction of his or her own particular appetites and the avoidance of his or her particular aversions is the foundation of all human behaviour. In order words, humans crave for things they love, cherish and relish, and avoid things that they despise. And if we all crave for the same things, then “arises the clash of ambitions and fear of attack”5 and the desire to destroy or subdue one another. Given Hobbes’ account of human motivations, efforts to achieve human solidarity or to motivate individuals to act in concert for a common purpose are fraught with complications, “for men have no pleasure but on the contrary a great griefe in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all”5.

It is important to note that within the discourse of realism there are some differences between the classical realist who drew inspiration from Hobbesian philosophy and the structural realist (neorealist) whose emphasis is on the structure of the international system based on anarchy and the distribution of power as the main determinant of what states do. However, articulating the differences between the two strands of realism is not the subject of this article. What this article intends to do is to present a fitting theoretical perspective to the current international response to the COVID-19 pandemic and both strands are useful in this exercise. In contrast to realism, liberal theorists argue that selfish and violent behaviour do not come from human nature but from institutions that promote such behaviour. They embraced the idea that setting up multilateral institutions help prevent war or conflict. Therefore from a liberal perspective, cooperation between states is the only way of maintaining order in international relations. The fundamental assumptions of these two dominant theories strongly oppose each other. A comparative analysis of the difference between realism and liberalism in international politics is not the focus of this article.

The COVID-19 is the subject of a global health crisis which has brought the world to a standstill, exposing health systems of advanced countries and requiring the biggest economic stimuli in peace time. Experts have already concluded that it is the worst global public health crisis since the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, called the “Spanish flu”, which intuitively ascribes the origin of the disease to Spain. This is misleading and certainly not an accolade which Spain would wish to be adorned with. One of the reasons why it became known as “Spanish flu” was because during World War 1, Spain was a neutral country and hence the Spanish media was not subjected to press censorship which gave them the latitude to report the outbreak of the disease. The allied powers kept this information away from the press mainly not to give away something that the central powers (opposing forces) could weaponise to their advantage. This is an important philosophy in any conflict or war situation. Your enemy should not know your exact troop numbers, troop movements, the weapon system you have and even the number of casualties you suffer, otherwise they can use that information to their advantage. Shielding information from an opponent has gone beyond traditional military tactics in to inter-state political rivalry. States hide trade secrets and intelligence from one another and would only share when it serves their national interest. Just as the Spanish flu” was clouded in conspiracy theory, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is deja vu all over again, with very high sensation of conspiracy theories especially between China and US.

There is a pattern of conflicting behaviours between US and China which dates back to 19492, albeit a period of détente emerged from 1969 to the end of the ‘Cold War’. The end of the ‘Cold War’ ushered in a unipolar world with the US as the only super power after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, China’s rise to global prominence as the second biggest economy, drew a new frontline of geopolitical competition with the US. On the one hand, the rise of China is perceived as a threat to United States’ global influence that must be restrained. On the other hand, China will not budge to any international pressure in pursuit of her geo-strategic interest. This state of affairs, marked the tipping point where individual ambitions between the two powers becomes unstoppable. The recent accusations and counter accusations of who knew what, reinforced that state of flux.

US is accusing China of not sharing information about the virus when it was first discovered in Wuhan in December 2019. The deduction from this narrative is that if China had shared information with US or another country, then it could have or would have been contained on time. China is therefore responsible for allowing the virus to spread across the world by intentionally withholding information. The problem with this narrative is that apart from the customary political conjectures, it is not supported by any evidence. Assuming that the Chinese had informed the US as soon as they became aware of the virus, what would the response be? Hopefully a more cooperative response with China? Given the history of trade wars and geo-political tensions between the two countries, there is no reason to be optimistic about any cooperative venture to fight the disease. United States wants to maintain its distinguished image as the most powerful nation on the planet. And China is expanding on its global reach to Asia, Europe and Africa to safeguard its national interest. Consequently there will always be that clash of ambitions to the point of trying to subdue one another other because they both crave for things that bear some similarities. Therefore, the ongoing disinformation campaign is not unpredictable.

Nonetheless, the evidence from the WHO is that China did inform them of cases of pneumonia unknown etymology7 on the 31st December 2019. By reporting the cases to the WHO country office in China, it suffices to say that the Chinese followed the correct protocol consistent with the International Health Regulations8, which authorises state parties to notify WHO of any disease outbreak within their territory. What is inexplicable until now is the time that the Chinse became aware of the problem? Since we do not know the answer to this question, US is capitalising on the information gap to push their conspiracies trying to compel or stain China to take ownership of the virus. This is another form of psychological operations which rivals deploy against each other. The heightened suspicion between the two economic giants could have negative consequences in any international efforts to defeat the virus. Whether it is to do with collaboration in research and development for vaccines, sharing technical information and resource mobilisation, this will be dominated by the politics between these states.

The rivalry between China and US is one aspect of the politics in this pandemic. The other issue is the heavily concentrated domestic response. When the death toll continued to rise in Wuhan, countries (those who could afford it) started evacuating their citizens out of the city. It is a given that the primary duty of every government is to protect her citizens wherever they live. These extractions could be perceived as an act of fulfilling that primary responsibility. However no one came to the rescue of states who could not evacuate their citizens because they are not endowed with the resources. They were mainly left to fend for themselves. This behaviour illustrates the self-help system that states operate in, looking out for their own interest. Whether the evacuations were appropriate to stop the disease from spreading will be a subject of contestation. If the literary definition of containment has any relevance in our dictum, then one would argue that the evacuation from Wuhan did not help to contain the virus from spreading worldwide especially when contrast with the ‘stay at home message’ adopted by individual countries. What would have happened if the USA, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and the European Union worked with the Chinese government to provide extra resources to reinforce the lockdown in Wuhan? To what extent does the evacuation exercise aid in spreading the virus? Whether the evacuations were guided by expert medical advice or pure political performance to safeguard their political interests remains to be a puzzle. If the realist assumption that mistrust limits cooperation between states has any explanatory power in this, then perhaps that provides an answer to the first question.

Where does that leave the WHO in its effort to mobilise international scientific intervention? The international solidarity trial9 announced by the WHO is a positive step with a number of countries already confirmed their participation. So far only two G7 members (Canada and France) of advanced economies are on the list. Expand this to the G20 of advanced and emerging economies, only four countries (Argentina, Canada, France and South Africa) are on the list of participating countries. The big players in the world economy China, USA, UK, EU, Japan and Germany are so far not on the list of participating countries. Instead they are intensifying domestic interventions to provide extra resources for their individual health services and stimulus packages to safe jobs and avoid economic collapse. Governments have obligations to rescue their citizens in moments of crisis. When your house is in the frontline of a ravaging fire in a village, which unfortunately you can’t escape from, your priority is to ensure you do everything you can to minimise the damage. Otherwise, you face the threat of homelessness with dire consequences. Therefore, it is perfectly legitimate and moral from a realist perspective to be self-interested and this explains why states are taking individual policy responses according to their own capabilities which eventually limits international coordination.

Therefore, the enduring disinformation campaigns and mistrust between the US and China for purely political reasons, the prioritisation of domestic interventions by individual states and the inadequacy of a coordinated international response to fight the virus, makes the realist idea of anarchy, state-centrism and self-help in the international system highly plausible in this case. To what extent do these ideas impede international cooperation to fight against a pandemic like coronavirus should be a subject of further research.


  1. Romanoff, L. (2020, March 11). COVID-19: Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the US. Retrieved from Global Research: https: //www.globalresearch.ca/covid-19-further-evidence-virus-originated-us/5706078
  2. Council on Foreign Relations (2020) US – China Relations; 1949-2020. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-relations-china
  3. Mearsheimer, J. (2001) The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York, Norton
  4. Waltz, K. (1979) Theory of International Politics, New York, Random House
  5. Hobbes, T. (1996 [1651]) Leviathan, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 70-244.
  6. Andrews, E. (2016) Why Was It Called the ‘Spanish Flu?’: The 1918 influenza pandemic did not, as many people believed, originate in Spain. Retrieved from History: https://www.history.com/news/why-was-it-called-the-spanish-flu
  7. WHO (2020)WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 18 March 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—18-march-2020
  8. WHO (2005) WHO International Health Regulations. Retrieved from: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/246107/9789241580496-eng.pdf;jsessionid=69AB0C7E385C833B1B68A050A630E04F?sequence=1
  9. WHO (2020) Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) SITUATION REPORT – 1 21 JANUARY 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200121-sitrep-1-2019-ncov.pdf


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