COVID-19 and the Contradictions of Interdependence

by Patrick Holden, University of Plymouth

The human experience of COVID-19 is full of contradictions. We talk of society ‘coming together’ by implementing social distancing and refraining from normal human relations. Notwithstanding the incongruities, the pandemic has demonstrated in the most vivid way possible that ‘society’ is a thing. Whatever our pretensions to individualism we share physical spaces and particulates on a daily basis. This interdependence has also been (re) illustrated at the global level, again in contradictory ways. It has demonstrated the very real interdependence of bio-systems and political structures. Strict European regulation of animal welfare and food safety has not saved Europe from viruses emerging in other parts of the world (while the industrialised agriculture we are all complicit in helps create these new diseases).  On the other hand the political, economic and public policy implications of the virus seem to diminish cooperative interdependence.

As has been often mentioned, COVID-19 has reiterated the fundamental importance of the state. Even in an integrated region such as the EU it makes an enormous difference whether you reside in (for example) Germany, Sweden or Italy in terms of the policy response, economic impact and your likely health outcomes. Sovereign governments still have the ultimate power over regulation of society, control of borders, taxation and maintenance of the economy.

To combat the virus many of the flows of what we can call globalization have been halted (in terms of people and many goods, though not finance or digital interaction). Some of this will be temporary but the political economy paradigms seem likely to change. In a global economy, countries rely on being able to import even the most fundamental products (food for the UK, essential medicines for the US). The perils of this are evident as states compete for access to scarce medical equipment (only the European Union has made an effort to moderate this, within its region). Many states have paced temporary restrictions on the exports of key equipment and medicines (see the WTO’s list here) while trade more broadly has been decimated due to the national societal and economic shutdowns.

So what does this mean for the theory and practice of interdependence? In contemporary IR it emerged via the concept of ‘complex interdependence’ in the 1970s and also informed international regime theory (in some senses a forerunner of globalization theory). Keohane and Nye argued that relationships like, for example, the US-Mexico relationship had so many forms and levels of mutual interaction (including many different forms of societal, economic, security, ecological, political interdependence) that domination, even for a power such as the US, was not practical and cooperation was a necessity.

Practical interdependence provided the basis for a lot of international regime theory, which offered a hard-headed counter point to realist statism (stressing that international institutions mattered not because of high minded liberal idealism but because of the practical imperatives for cooperation over issues such as monetary policy and trade). Generally regarded as a liberal concept it was criticised as obscuring the real power realities by those who, whether based on a realist (usually state-based) or a Marxist (class and economic forces based) perspective, retained a rigorous focus on power. Susan Strange’s unique analytical framework  disdained the term interdependence; what, after all, did it mean to say that the US and Guatemala were interdependent? The term asymmetric interdependence offered a little more precision and ‘realism’ here.

Interdependence as concept also permeated what can be called globalization theory (some of the excesses of which are now painfully evident) and ideas of global governance. Liberal globalization in particular rested on classic liberal economic assumptions that states should not pursue autarchy or self-reliance but could rely on being able to purchase what they need in the global market.

What new forms of interdependence will emerge after this crisis? There is no determinism here. Certainly the intensity and scope of this shock may result in new political regimes with radically different socio-economic policies. Globalization still has its defenders, Sandbu argues that intelligent globalization can bolster national resilience (there was nothing to prevent states buying cheap emergency equipment and stockpiling it for events like these, or at least globalization was not the reason that did not take place).

It is certainly true that no average country could aspire to even a limited form of autarchy. Could the UK feed its 66 million people? Could Honduras make its own medical equipment? A vision of regional (as in continental and sub-continental) autarchies based on regional supply chains is perhaps more realistic. However, we have often had predictions of the world devolving into protective regional blocs but that dog has not barked (partly because most regions are hopelessly divided).

Also, as Hans Kundnani notes, thus far only some elements of economic/financial globalization have been shut down (financial flows and the digital economy are proceeding and expanding in the latter case). Although anger at China is evident, the need for the PPE and medicines it produces is more acute than ever at the moment, thus countries pursue a delicate balancing act (in some cases between racist scapegoating and commerce).

 As noted, interdependence is generally regarded as a liberal concept as it implies a need for cooperation, but it could also be read as implying a need for domination.  Absolute domination is not practical but could we see heightened struggle to control the commanding heights of technological, financial and economic networks or what Farrell and Newman call the ‘choke points’ of interdependence? If states emerge with new, more radical, socio-economic visions from this crisis they will have to navigate these also.

Patrick Holden is Programme Leader of the Masters in International Relations, and leader of the Global Instability and Justice Research Group, at the University of Plymouth.

Why ‘it’ happens: Disease, non-humans, and political change

By Brieg Powel, University of Exeter

One of the central questions asked by policymakers and scholars alike is ‘why did X happen?’. Be ‘X’ a war, a revolution, the collapse of a party’s vote-share, or something else entirely, those who seek to understand, prevent, respond to, or replicate a phenomenon often try to understand how it happened in the first place. The coronavirus outbreak of 2019–20, however, forces us all to reassess how we go about answering that question.

An artist’s impression of Uruk around 3500 BCE. Source

Indeed, a striking feature of the Covid-19 outbreak has been its dramatic reminder to both policymakers and scholars of the need to factor non-human ‘things’ such as disease into our understanding of apparently ‘human’ affairs. This is not to say that they were entirely absent: for instance, back in 2008 the United Kingdom government identified ‘pandemic influenza’ as the one threat likely to have the most impact on public life and as being one of the most likely to occur. In 2019, the year that Covid-19 first appeared, the UK was ranked second only to the United States for overall preparedness for public health crises in the Global Health Security Index. Nevertheless, such high regard meant little as the UK’s reported Covid-19 death toll quickly overtook that of China’s, and the US became world leader in a much grimmer, league table of death. The fragility of even the apparently ‘most prepared’ health systems prompted leading public health and societal risk experts to judge that the UK was ‘wholly unprepared’ and that its response was scientifically flawed on multiple levels. The truth, as some were quick to point out, was that policymakers much prefer to spend money on fighting other humans than on more abstract non-human challenges, from our microbial competitors to climate change and biodiversity collapse. Human matters are elevated above the non-human, regardless of their interdependency.

Academic debates over ‘what causes “X”?’ are equally blinkered, albeit without the mortal consequences of governmental policy failures. Colleagues at the Duck of Minerva blog note the distinct lack of public health-focused articles in leading International Relations journals between 1980 and 2017, with American scholarship particularly weak in this regard. Issues such as interstate war and deterrence dominate despite the clear recent decline in such conflicts and the sometimes-seismic impact of disease on the human world. Within our scholarly communities, contemplation of the empirical and theoretical implications of non-humans in the social world has typically been limited to ecologically-focused work, with dominant approaches and theories preoccupied by human actors and human-centred explanations. Promisingly, scholarship around ‘posthuman’ international relations, actor-network theory, and new materialism has increasingly challenged such blind obsessions with humans at the expense of the broader world in which all human processes occur. Nevertheless, even these critiques often fall short of considering pandemics and their associated microbes.

What is needed is a more consistent appreciation of the transformative impact of non-humans on human life and society by policymakers and thinkers alike, along with policies and scholarship that recognise humanity as only part of a complex smorgasbord of interdependent life and chemical elements. After all, Covid-19 itself is a zoonotic disease brought about by the interweaving of human and non-human life (the first known human Covid-19 variant is specifically related to a virus found in bats and pangolins). All human relations are embedded in and continuously shaped by things beyond the human, including disease.

Moreover, human relations have long been so, and by researching across disciplines we can arrive at a fuller picture. As medical microbiologist Dorothy Crawford noted, microbes and pathogens have always been humanity’s ‘deadly companions’ over the millennia. The DNA of many of modern humanity’s ‘childhood diseases’, such as measles, dates their emergence to the very same time and place as the intensification of farming and urbanisation in Mesopotamia around 5000 BCE. Work by archaeologists on the first ‘international systems’, such as the ‘Uruk world system’, may be significant for identifying the importance of ‘international’ factors in the evolution of the first ‘states’. This ‘system’ was driven by trade and the exchange of goods and ideas between increasingly settled populations from the Caucuses to the Persian Gulf, and the Iranian Plateau to the eastern Mediterranean. Yet as anthropologist James Scott observes, it also spread the new diseases ever further, making state extinction de-urbanisation (as populations fled disease-filled cities) as much features of the era as state formation and urbanisation. Humanity and politics have thus been shaped by disease and the natural world just as we have shaped them.

Similarly, viral and bacteriological pathogens have often played a pivotal role in many ‘what ifs?’ of international relations. Dysentery, for one, has long been and remains a powerful influencer of armies’ potency, thereby influencing some notable political processes. For instance, the French Revolution faced a real prospect of defeat before it had the chance to establish itself as, in 1792, the armies of key European powers under the First Coalition invaded France to quash the revolution. Their efforts soon floundered, however, as the Coalition army led by Prussia (a leading military power of the day) was decimated by dysentery. As historian David Bell explains:

Many Prussians suffered so greatly that they could not even drag themselves to the latrines, turning their bivouacs into mephitic “shit camps”. Of the 42,000 who crossed the French border, fully a fifth did not even make it to the site of the first major battle, and many of those who did could barely stand.

The climactic battle at Valmy was a rousing French victory, and the first French Republic was declared two days later.

Such cases are important reminders of the susceptibility of politics to disease and the formative role pathogens have played on socio-political processes, from state formation to revolutions. More broadly, they reinforce the need for us to think of ourselves not as all-powerful masters of the universe, immune to non-humans, but as one part of a co-evolving set of connections and relations wherein sometimes, perhaps more often than we realise, non-human factors such as disease play a key role in why ‘it’ happens.

On the Securitization of COVID-19

By Stephane Baele, the University of Exeter

As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates its propagation across the world, extraordinary measures are being taken by every single government: drastic confinement is ordered, massive liquidities are injected in national economies, the army is deployed in the streets, borders are closed, and the State pays private sector salaries. These are unprecedented developments for peace time. I do not call into question the effectiveness of these measures to tackle the epidemic; rather, I  build on Pandemipolitics’ first post (Heathershaw) to further unpack the process by which they have been presented as necessary by governments, and widely accepted as such by populations. Specifically, I understand this as a clear case of securitization, which I suggest allows us to highlight some of the less obvious socio-political implications the pandemic will have on the longer run.

What is “securitization”?

One of the initial formulations of the concept argues that securitization happens when “an issue is presented as an existential threat, requiring emergency measures and justifying actions outside the normal bounds of political procedure”. In their excellent handbook, Peoples and Vaughan-Williams define it as “the shifting of an issue out of the realm of ‘normal’ political debate into the realm of emergency politics by presenting it as an existential threat”. More sophisticated definitions, such as Balzacq’s, encapsulate the full scope of “heuristic artefacts” (“metaphors, policy tools, image repertoires, analogies, stereotypes, emotions, etc.”) that can be “mobilized by a securitizing actor” in order to convince the audience that a “referent subject [has] such an aura of unprecedented threatening complexion that a customized policy must be undertaken immediately”. The concept has, in particular, proved to be useful to study the consequences of securitizing moves, especially the development of extraordinary politics in the longer run.

The securitization of the coronavirus

This is where the theory could help us make sense of the politics of COVID-19. Indeed without a doubt, the coronavirus has been securitized. The presentation of the disease has shifted from a distant health issue, to a fundamental security threat requiring emergency measures bypassing normal politics. Governments and scientists (the securitizing actors) have invested the virus (the referent subject) with the “aura of unprecedented threatening complexion” against a series of different referent objects – people’s lives, the Nation/State, health services, society, etc. – to justify the unprecedented measures evoked above.

On March the 16th, Emmanuel Macron for instance proclaimed France to be “at war” — a classic and powerful securitizing analogy that immediately justifies wartime measures such as curfews or the establishment of a State-led economy. “Never had France had to take such decisions in time of peace”, he added, calling for a “sacred union” and arguing that “all these measures are necessary for our security”, to “protect our fellow citizens and the Nation’s cohesion”.

The very same day, Boris Johnson used the same war rhetoric when talking about the “national fight back” against the virus, warning that it would require “drastic action” and “extreme measures” that “are unprecedented since World War 2”. The disease, he said, “is so dangerous and so infectious that without drastic measures to check its progress it would overwhelm any health system in the world”. “We’re going to win, we’re going to beat it”, he added, as “we have the resolve and the resources to win the fight”.

Across the globe, leaders have similarly used what we called a “security lexicon” to present the virus as a fundamental threat.

So what? Thinking points on the securitization of COVID-19

Isn’t such a framing exactly what’s needed? Perhaps, but as noted above, securitization theory nonetheless identifies a series of potentially problematic effects of such framings. I build on previous studies on the securitization of diseases (for example contributions by Elbe, Sjostedt, McInnes & Rushton, or Watterson & Kamradt-Scott) to sketch below four such effects.

First, securitization is powerful. In the right circumstances, securitizing an issue can prompt a widespread acceptance of measures that would be unthinkable in normal deliberative circumstances. Left-wing people come to endorse repression, liberals suddenly support “Big Government”. I recently ran an experiment with my colleagues Travis Coan and Olivier Sterck, to evaluate the impact of quantitative information on the convincingness of securitizing language. The issue we tried to securitize was tuberculosis, and our results in terms of numbers’ power were unclear. Why? We were simply too successful in securitizing the disease: with or without numbers, almost everyone backed our extraordinary measures, even though they were “blatantly harsh”. We observed that “even left-leaning subjects tended to agree to the idea that TB is a security threat that needs to be addressed by harsh executive security measures targeting immigrants and the poor”. With such enthusiasm for emergency measures, we could hardly detect the effect of numbers…

This leads me to the second point: securitization comes with a danger of creating enemies from categories of people that are framed as threatening. In our study, the securitizing actor suggested that the poor and immigrants were more likely to contract tuberculosis and contaminate others — our extraordinary measures, which included the use of force to test them and criminalization if they were positive, were widely accepted. Even if most official speeches in the context of COVID-19 have not singled out particular groups, xenophobic remarks against people from Asian descent have been widely reported, and Trump’s labelling of the disease as a “foreign” or “Chinese” virus certainly encourage in-/out-groups dynamics. In the longer run, new lines of categorization and marginalization are likely to appear to fill the need for blame and control.

Third, with securitization short-term security measures eclipse long-term alternative ones. When the recent Ebola outbreak spread to Western states such as the US and Spain, the virus was immediately securitized. Quite rightly, assistance to Western Africa was geared towards a strong, immediate response involving the military. Yet the epidemic — and African states’ inability to face it — was also, if not primarily, a development and poverty issue, and policies addressing these underlying, structural factors have been side-lined by the militaristic emergency approach. Relatedly, security professionals are preferred to non-security actors, creating a “militarization of public health”. As Elbe explained for the case of HIV/AIDS, “the language of security simultaneously pushes responses to the disease away from civil society toward military and intelligence organizations with the power to override the civil liberties of persons living with HIV/AIDS”. As he also showed, this logic means that national responses privilege a national conception of security than an international understanding of risk. For COVID-19, it will be crucial to ensure that the security frame does not engulf alternative ones.

Fourth, while securitization is (relatively) easy, de-securitization is hard. Extraordinary measures are a resilient beast, they are hard to dismantle and can be cumulative. They may be scaled down at one point, but rarely to the initial situation. In this regard, the laws and decrees granting almost unlimited powers to governments to “do whatever it takes” to “beat” the pandemic will generate a problematic heritage once the medical situation settles. Some voices have emerged to establish surveillance on these powers, from worries in Belgium that the Prime Minister obtained a “blank cheque” to the EU and Hungarian political opponents worrying that Orban obtained extraordinary powers for an unlimited timespan. These voices, however, are still marginal. In particular, the request by states and the EU to obtain mobile operators’ data to track movement, inspired by South Korea’s “tech” response, may set a perilous precedent. 

All in all, what the securitization of COVID-19 thus indicates, is that real political struggles will only begin when the pandemic wanes — and this will happen in the difficult context of a global economic recession…

Post-scriptum on the COVID-ization of Securitization theory

I am tempted to use this post to add some, more theoretical, afterthoughts. I would like to suggest that just like our societies are challenged and re-shaped by COVID, similarly Securitization theory is unlikely to be left intact by the virus. Let me briefly enunciate, for the reader to reflect on, three questions that will need to be (re-)asked.

First, this pandemic will inevitably transform the debate on the “normative” character of Securitization theory (see for example Aradau, Floyd, or Roe). For some, Securitization theory is a critical theory aimed at highlighting and denouncing the problematic by-products of securitization highlighted above; securitization is understood to be a negative development. Yet the current pandemic seems to show that securitization may at times be warranted. At the heart of this renewed debate will be the tension, in the theory, between the objective and subjective dimensions of the threat — a tension too often deemed secondary.

Second, the ongoing developments are likely to prompt discussions on the role of legitimacy in securitization processes. The legitimacy of the securitizing actor has traditionally been understood as a “felicity condition” enhancing the change of success — but is it necessarily the case? Divisive leaders like Johnson, presidents with ailing approval ratings such as Macron, or PMs with very low social capital such as Belgium’s Wilmes, have seen their actions supported and their position reinforced across political lines, suggesting that legitimacy can also be an output of securitization.

Third and finally, this situation is also likely to invigorate research on the role of science and technical expertise in securitization. My own study mentioned above is one of the very few that specifically looks into this issue, and could not provide a clear answer. Some key conclusions from research on statistics’ impact on public perceptions of natural threats (e.g. Kahan’s “cultural cognition” project) seem to be proven wrong. Securitization theorists will have to explain how/when/if numbers participate in the construction of an issue as a fundamental threat, with everyone now attuned to concepts such as “exponential growth”, “R0”, or “inflection point”, and anxiously accessing data-heavy platforms such as Worldometer and the WHO’s or Johns Hopkins University’ coronavirus count websites.

This pandemic is not only a severe challenge to our political systems, as explained above, but also a crash-test for our major theories of IR…