As a political scientist, theories of International Relations (IR) are my weapon of choice to try to make some sense of global political and economic dynamics. So what – if anything – do some of the most prominent ones tell us about the impact of the Coronavirus on the international system in general and globalization more specifically? It turns out; they offer very different takes.

Neorealism – Covid19 will spur de-globalization

Neorealism posits that the international system is a dog-eat-dog (wonk jargon: anarchical or Hobbesian) world of egoistic states. In such a world, survival is the overarching goal of states, which try to rely on their own strength as best as they can. The key dynamics in this system are shaped by great powers.

They constantly observe each other’s actions and try to make sure they do not fall behind their peers (defensive or Diego-Simeone-style neorealism) or even constantly try to pull away from them (offensive or Jürgen-Klopp-style neorealism). Globalization, then, is nothing but a means for powerful states to project power beyond their borders to counterbalance their rivals or control less powerful states. In this view, the United States has traditionally used Western-dominated international institutions to maintain its dominant position, while China has recently put a lot of effort into building the “One-belt-one-road” initiative as a counterweight.

So from a neorealist perspective, the key question is: How does the pandemic affect the relative power position of the key players? At first, the pandemic hit China hard, thus seemingly curtailing its momentum to challenge the U.S. position as the dominant international player. Now, the tide appears to be turning: With rising infection numbers and a growing death toll, the United States looks like the more vulnerable big shot.

If this trend continues, we should expect China to seize this opportunity to close the gap, for example, by trying to buy up U.S. firms or pushing back against U.S. influence in international institutions. By the same token, neorealism foresees that the U.S. will try to increase its counterbalancing activities, such as imposing new protectionist measures. As a result, we are likely to enter a phase of increasing tensions that is likely to negatively affect global cooperation and/or international economic exchange.

Institutionalism – Covid19 will re-invigorate global governance

Institutionalists have an altogether different perspective on how the world works. According to them, globalization (wonk jargon: complex interdependence) has profoundly transformed the nature of the international system. It is no longer a mere power-struggle of states for survival but resembles an economic competition of states for market share.

In such a world of deeper and denser economic ties, powerful incentives to cooperate and form permanent alliances and institutions to enhance and manage cooperation exist. In this view, the current system of international institutions or global governance is not a tool of the powerful to exert control, but a reflection of the greedy to cooperate. As form of deliberation or coordination, the G20 and the WTO provide important services to their member states, which help them maximize their welfare beyond the amount they would be able to achieve on their own.

So from an institutionalist perspective, the key question is: How does the pandemic change state’s incentives to cooperate? We are not yet able to foresee the exact amount of social and economic cost of the crisis. Yet it is obvious that it will be substantial. With forecasts turning grimmer by the day, incentives for states to mitigate their individual losses by teaming up in new alliances or using proven institutions should increase, too.

So, from an institutionalist perspective, we should see a rising number of international initiatives to pool expertise or share lessons learned. We should see states trying to maintain and further improve (i.e. reform) institutions that have proven helpful in mitigating the pressing and long-term effects of the crisis – the most obvious candidate being the World Health Organization (WHO). By the same logic, we should also see declining support to institutions which have not lived up to the expectations of their creators.

Constructivism – Covid19 will re-shape our ideas of globalization

For constructivists, the neorealist and institutionalist takes on international affairs lack sophistication on two important accounts. First, the structure of the international system and the interests of states are not objective facts but – to use Alexander Wendt’s famous words – “what states make of it.” They lie in the eye of the beholder who constructs them (hence the name of the theory) in the light of his understandings and beliefs. As a result, a state’s identity and political culture play an important role in making sense of a given international situation.

A powerful country will, for instance, refrain from ruthless power politics if playing by the rules and acting cooperatively form an important part of its identity. Second, understandings and beliefs can change over time. Most importantly, they can change by interacting with other states. States might have set up an institution for merely economic interests in the first place, but as they are constantly engaging with other states’ views in this forum, they review and – sometimes even reconstruct – their own norms and values.

So from a constructivist perspective, the key question is: How does the pandemic change or reinforce the understandings and beliefs which states hold about globalization? As this is a complex and ongoing process, it is difficult for constructivism to arrive at neat and definite predictions as of now – that’s the price for theoretical sophistication. It rather offers, first, a different or additional perspective for understanding the unfolding situation.

While neorealism or institutionalism, for example, would find it hard to make sense of why states take in infected patients from other states to their hospitals, constructivism would point to norms of compassion and the positive effect such an example might have on other states. Second, it also reminds us to pay attention to important new paradigms and narratives that might change globalization in the long run. One case in point is certainly the debate about resilience, which might lead states to form new views about the optimal exposure to global value chains.

Liberalism – Covid19 will reinforce “America First”

Contrary to the previous three theories, liberalism does not assume states to act like a single person (wonk jargon: unitary actor) that has one overriding national interest (neorealism), that can make neat cost-benefit calculations (institutionalism) or that follows one common identity (constructivism). It reminds us that each state consists of a myriad of domestic actors with different interests and ideas, who are in a constant struggle to shape (foreign) policy.

In the end, one of them or a collision of them ends up on top – with the result of the game being far more predictable in authoritarian than in democratic states. Consequently, the foreign policy of states is not shaped by the entire society but only by the dominant part of it. Thus, it is important to pay attention to this very group’s preference, ideas, and interests to explain the policy of one state. And it is important to look at the agreement or contradiction of states’ preferences etc. to explain bilateral or multilateral outcomes.

So from a liberal perspective, the key question is: How does the pandemic change or reinforce the configuration of states’ preferences? Given the number of states and the variety of political systems and powerful players in them, there is, again, hardly a straightforward answer to this. But as the United States is a key actor in the international system, a closer look at them should be most insightful. The more the pandemic turns into a national emergency, the more it becomes “the hour of the executive branch.” The U.S. president’s preferences will thus be left more and more unchecked by other political players.

There is ample evidence that the overriding political interest of President Trump is his own re-election – even more so as we are inching closer to the election date. As long as he is firmly convinced that riding on a wave of grandstanding with China (“the China virus”), passing the buck to international instututions (most prominently, the WHO) and clinging to crisis policies that benefit the U.S. and the U.S alone will serve his goal best, it is hard to imagine meaningful overlap with the preferences of other countries. As a result, the chances for a boost for multilateral or global responses to the crisis or for globalization, in general, are dim.

Conclusion – It depends…

So, who is right? Well, there is an easy answer and a difficult answer. The easy one: If you are convinced that only one theory is correct because it has the only correct view of how the world works (wonk jargon: ontology), then pick your winner. You will surely find ways to rationalize any behavior and outcome accordingly – die-hard neorealists, for instance, would not find it far fetched to claim that offering hospital beds a) does not matter in the greater scheme of things of the crisis and b) could be a cheap strategy to give goodies to (potential) alliance partners.

The difficult (and my) answer is the standard answer of social scientists or economists: It depends. Each of the theories has its comparative advantage depending on the situation. So, the more the crisis becomes an existential threat to the survival of a great power, the more predictive power neorealism should unfold. The more it is viewed as a predominantly economic problem, the more institutionalism should tell us about it. The longer the crisis lasts, the more it should re-shape the ideas that states hold about it, thus bringing constructivism back in the game. Finally, liberalism would reach the ultimate peak of its explanatory power after an election defeat of Donald Trump, as it would very likely upend the current U.S. preferences.