Realist IR Theory: Back in Vogue?

It has been years now since you finished school and sadly, it has also been years since much of what was learnt within those walls you have no longer used. You can no longer remember the periodic table, how tectonic plates work and attempting to play the flute is but a faint memory in your adult mind. Indeed, the same can be applied to studies at higher academic levels.

As a discipline, International Relations incorporates a wide variety of areas and objects of study, theories and approaches. In the face of so much diversity however, one thing we can all agree on is just how abstract some theories can be. They touch upon transcendent themes, difficult to visualize and apply in our everyday life. Just like y = mx + c, we encounter once again a notion that, whilst it is theoretically understandable, we cannot help but ask ourselves: “Will I ever use this in real life?”.

As with any event of international scope and relevance, the Covid-19 pandemic has swiftly joined the ranks of IR as a potential area of study, with a number of academics currently researching and speculating on the relevance and applicability of theories from our field on the current state of global affairs, especially in the case of realism. In other words, Covid-19 has opened the door to challenge the view of the field of IR as an exclusively academic one. Certainly, it is clear that nor post-structuralism or liberalism will help elucidate us on a grounded epidemiological solution to end the spread of this pandemic and neither will it bring scientists a step closer to producing a reliable vaccine. Yet, if the state of affairs indeed fits a theoretical model like realism, predictions on state actions in terms of policy could be made.

Patterns seem to be clear and actions mimic all-too-familiar realism. With the outbreak of the virus, our globalised world has taken a U-turn, with governments rushing to address the situation by means of both national and international mobility restrictions and border controls, imposing their sovereignty in the international arena. Trump’s Europe travel ban this past March or the on-going regional lockdowns within Spain are just a few examples.

Whilst international cooperation continues in some way or another, realist theory is quick to acknowledge this, however not without mentioning the instability of it.  The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals this hesitation to cooperate in the face of the self-interested idea that cooperation might benefit others more than it will benefit itself. Likewise, the pandemic also brings to light that states, despite the value of other actors such as non-governmental organisations like the EU or the WHO, multinational corporations like pharmaceuticals or markets, continue to be dominating the realm of international governance and politics.

And so… Is realism then, applicable to Covid-19  and vice versa? Of course, research is being conducted in the midst of the event and much of what is being discovered might very well end up being incorrect but, for the time being, efforts undertaken on the subject suggest its feasibility. If this is the case, realism might be the one to show the relevance of IR research outside theory and academia, increasing the discipline’s jurisdiction to practical matters. Last but certainly not least, IR theories will have transcended the tragedy of long forgotten trigonometry and flute lessons, you will be able to use this in real life.

Recommended Further Readings:

https://www.e-ir.info/2020/04/11/opinion-realism-and-the-coronavirus-crisis/

https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/24/coronavirus-pandemic-realism-limited-international-relations-theory/

https://www.euractiv.com/section/future-eu/opinion/how-coronavirus-brought-realism-back/

Featured Image:

Inside Self-Storage (ISS). ISS Releases Free Digital Issue Focused on COVID-19 Strategies for Self-Storage. July 07, 2020. Accessed  November 09, 2020. https://www.insideselfstorage.com/iss-brand/iss-releases-free-digital-issue-focused-covid-19-strategies-self-storage

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