The pandemic and the limits of realism (Seth A Johnston)

Author: Seth A Johnston | Published 24 June 2020 | Foreign Policy

Realism is sometimes regarded as the foundational international relations theory.  In this thoughtful piece, Johnston notes that realist scholars of international relations see the coronavirus pandemic as helping to validate the realist school of thought – with some good reason for confidence. Responses to the coronavirus pandemic have demonstrated the primacy of sovereign states, rationale for great-power competition, and obstacles to international cooperation—all key tenets of the realist tradition.

But, asks Johnston, has the pandemic also exposed realism’s shortcomings as a source for successful policy?

For example, doesn’t New Zealand’s experience highlight that “while it clearly serves the national interest to best the disease within a state’s borders, the national interest remains unrealized so long as other states have not done the same?… A national triumph for New Zealand, however commendable, remains incomplete so long as the pandemic rages outside its borders.”

Although realism does much to explain states’ initial reactions to the coronavirus pandemic, one should look to other theories for constructive policy ideas about how to do it better.

Realism, Johnson suggests, is better at explaining risks and dangers than offering solutions – its strengths lie in diagnosis rather than treatment or prevention. But to fight the pandemic most effectively, policymakers will have to turn to the other theoretical tradition that has, however reluctantly, informed responses to the other great crises of the past three-quarters of a century.

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