Covid-19 Pandemic: A Setback for Globalization and  the Rejuvenation of Political Realism?


The modern nation-state system came into existence after the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in the year 1648. It shaped and influenced the formation of nation-states in the world for the next few centuries. Territoriality and sovereignty have been the two outstanding features of the nation-state system. The idea of Territoriality has been understood as human beings being organized into exclusive territorial communities which are political in nature and have fixed borders. Sovereignty provides the ruler (the sovereign) with exclusive rights to rule the people that live within its territory. Gradually, these concepts of territoriality and sovereignty started to get challenged by the onset of the process of globalization in the latter half of the 20th century. Globalization made the world interconnected like never before due to the advancement of the means of technology and communication. The idea of a borderless world started to get popularized by the free flow of knowledge, capital and ideas among several nations. Global trade and investment made the countries interdependent on each other and the world became more and more integrated. All these made the nation state an insignificant actor in international politics.

Theoretical Perspective

The liberal international world order started to dominate after the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Proponents of this world order claimed that open markets and free trade would now make conflicts redundant among nations. Theoretically speaking, the liberal theory of international relations started to gain momentum and the theory of realism that became popular during the Cold War was in decline. Realism was considered to be a pessimistic theory that talked about anarchy, conflict and never gave importance to the ideas of cooperation and integration. Nation-state, which is considered to be the primary actor by the  realist school of thought, was now superseded by non-state actors of liberalism. The basic premise on which realism is based is that states should rely only on themselves for their survival in this anarchic world and follow a self-help policy. This thought was discarded by the neo-liberals in the 1990s and it was considered that realism was a theory of the bygone eras because it failed to explain the ‘complex interdependence’ that existed between the nation-states due to globalization. In the next few paragraphs I would like to argue that the Covid 19 pandemic has somewhat changed the scenario and political realism is on the path of revival once again but I would conclude by stating that it won’t prove to be the end of the globalization era.

Anti-Globalization Trend and the Revival of Realism 

Realism started to make a comeback even before the Covid 19 crisis appeared. The policies of many nations of the European Union (EU), especially Britain, portrayed the notions of self-help and self-preservation as they now started to point out the disparities that became prevalent in the arrangements of regional and global cooperation. The US under the leadership of President Donald Trump, has sought for an America first policy. This is the reason for which it started to review its trade policies with various countries and also pulled itself out of agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership in 2017. Trump is of the opinion that the US was at the receiving end of such agreements and it resulted in the loss of jobs and an increasing rate of unemployment in his country. The rise of right wing nationalism in the previous decade has been responsible for the trend of looking inwards by countries across the world. This has gone against the tenets of the liberal international order and has made the nation-state more and more stronger.

The Covid-19 pandemic has entrenched the view that it is ultimately the nation-state that becomes most important during a crisis. While the free flow of goods, unhindered trade policies and regional agreements represent the noble aspects of liberal internationalism, it’s darker side has now come to the forefront due to the spread of an unprecedented pandemic like Covid 19. Globalization can allow the rapid spread of diseases that originate in one country and in the longer run move on to affect millions in the world. This means that the country which is least integrated or the ‘weakest link’ as called by the theorists of globalization, has the least chances of being affected by such deadly viruses. Countries have restricted the movement of people around the world and the borders have become rigid and militarized. There are calls from various countries to boycott products manufactured in China, as the country has been alleged to precipitate the global health crisis.

The negative effects generated by this pandemic on the global economy has driven many countries to the path of self-dependence and their emphasis is now on strengthening the domestic manufacturing and production centers. The pandemic has proved to some extent that nation-states are the most trusted actors when it comes to resisting such global emergencies. Governments have implemented the techniques of surveillance to keep a note on the travel activities of its citizens, they have issued various advisories that have regulated the lives of individuals residing within its territory.  Proponents of liberal international order would suggest that cooperation becomes the most important factor when the world faces a global crisis like Covid-19 but this argument has been nullified by the ongoing Chinese expansionist designs. Instead of cooperation, we have witnessed that at this moment,  many countries are at loggerheads with China in South-East Asia and Beijing is also engaged in a border crisis with India in the Himalyan mountains. The politics surrounding the donation given to the World Health Organization (WHO) by US and China proved the fact that even a global threat is unable to bring the nations closer to each other.

Globalization: A Doomed Aspect?

Covid-19 has sparked off a debate that whether the aspect of globalization is set to be doomed in the Post-Covid world era or will it survive the onslaughts of protectionist policies that are being undertaken by nation-states. I am of the opinion that even though the trends are in favour of a revival of political realism, liberal internationalism cannot be done away with so easily as its roots are quite deep. Conditions of globalization might be fragile at the moment but it won’t be a permanent feature. Countries will have to find out new methods of cooperation that are more egalitarian and it is possible only in the presence of global institutions. It is true that the pandemic has put more power in the hands of the governments but at the same time the need for global supplies of medicine and other pharmaceutical equipment make the contribution of non-state actors important. China being the global manufacturing hub, cannot be boycotted so easily as the stakes are quite high. Developing countries like India are not in a favourable position to close the doors for foreign investments because before doing so, it needs to uplift its  domestic manufacturing sectors that are quite weak. Therefore, in spite of the revival of political realism and the empowerment of nation-states, the future of globalization is not that bleak as it is now being propagated. Moreover, in the process of looking inward, we cannot afford to submit ourselves to the narrow projects of right-wing nationalist governments that are cropping in various corners of the world. Let us not be reactionary and let us not imprison ourselves in a closed world of our own after this pandemic. The free flow of ideas, culture, capital and knowledge should continue to flow without any barriers.         

Dhritiman Mukherjee (M.Phil.), Ph.D. Research Scholar, Department of Political Science, Presidency University, Kolkata




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