Skip to main content Accessibility help

IO COVID-19 Online Supplemental Issue

As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the health and well-being of people around the globe, its longterm political, social, economic, and security implications are far from clear. Will the pandemic fundamentally alter globalization, democracy, capitalism, multilateralism, the predominance of US power, and other core features of the pre-COVID international system? What do existing theories and frameworks tell us about how states and international actors are reacting to this crisis? How will this pandemic affect institutions, policies, practices, and norms going forward?

It is much too soon to answer these questions with the rigor we typically require in social science journals. Yet international relations scholars have studied the politics of crises and their consequences for a long time. We therefore asked scholars with varied expertise to weigh in on what theory, history, and early data tell us about the politics and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. All contributions are relatively short (fewer than 8,000 words) and they are written to appeal to a broader audience, including students. Draft papers were all reviewed and discussed during an online session which included the supplemental issue authors. The final manuscripts were evaluated by the IO editorial team. Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania graciously sponsored this initiative, and aided in evaluating the papers. Cambridge University Press is providing open access for all of the articles.

The contributions vary both by topic and in the way they see COVID-19’s impact on the international system. To some, the COVID-19 pandemic alone is unlikely to have much of an effect other than to clarify existing trends or patterns. Daniel Drezner argues that COVID-19 may matter on the margins but does not fundamentally alter the distribution of power or interests. The pandemic may have a mediating effect on international outcomes, for example, by affecting the re-election prospects of Donald Trump or by causing an economic crisis. But it is not a watershed event, like World War II or even the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Others similarly view the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of pre-existing patterns. David Stasavage highlights how COVID-19 exposes long-existing differences in how democracies and non-democracies respond to crises, while Jon Pevehouse looks at responses to COVID-19 in the context of growing nationalism and populism around the world. Tana Johnson argues that even if the COVID-19 crisis is extraordinary, it displays quite ordinary challenges concerning interests, expertise, and international organizations. Michael Barnett charges that COVID-19 provides a window into structures and processes that have gone neglected by IR theory, most notably the inequality underpinning what he terms the “sacrificial” nature of the international order.

Some contributors argue that COVID-19 does more than reveal extant trends; it accelerates them. Sheena Chestnut Greitens suggests that the pandemic is likely to speed up the adoption of health surveillance technology both in China and globally, which could contribute to existing trends in democratic backsliding. Michael Kenwick and Beth Simmons present initial evidence that COVID-19 intensifies pre-existing tendencies to strengthen border controls and fortifications. Kim Yi Dionne and Felicity Turkmen argue that pandemics exacerbate the marginalization of already oppressed groups and that the early evidence from the pandemic is consistent with that. Tanisha Fazal’s contribution highlights how COVID-19 strengthens a pre-existing trend away from global, multilateral cooperation, which may undermine the effectiveness of pandemic responses.

In the literature, major crises are sometimes understood as “structural breaks” or “critical junctures” that abruptly change the trajectory of outcomes. The contributors do not explicitly argue that COVID-19 fits this narrative, but some argue that COVID-19 has a transformative effect, for example by changing what matters or how politics is conducted in the first place, which could also affect how we should study international relations. Philip Lipscy argues that the politics of crises is fundamentally different from ordinary politics and thus should be examined in different ways. Kate McNamara and Abraham Newman claim that COVID-19 exposes the way globalization has altered domestic societies in a way that will require International Political Economy scholars to reimagine their analytical frameworks.

These contributions shed light on what political science and international relations theories can tell us about the international politics of COVID-19. Yet these essays also reveal important blind spots in existing theories as well as areas of international affairs that have received insufficient scholarly attention. International relations scholars have always adjusted their empirical inquiries to important events, putting pressure on even resilient theoretical frameworks. We expect COVID-19 to be no different.

- Martha Finnemore, Michael C. Horowitz, Kenneth Scheve, Kenneth Schultz, and Erik Voeten.


IO Twitter