Realpolitik & Cooperation in the Age of COVID-19

How can the world escape captivity?

György Spiró’s novel Captivity follows the travels of a Jewish boy, Uri, who grew up on the outskirts of Rome. In the first book, Uri arrives in Jerusalem; in the second book, he is imprisoned with a cellmate who is a preacher in his thirties and considered a prophet by his followers. Uri continues to Alexandria, while the preacher disappears from the novel. It is only in the fourth book that the story reveals that the preacher is none other than Jesus Christ, whose historical-civilizational significance was not appreciated in his time. Likewise, the novel slips through the encounter with him almost imperceptibly. One of the lessons of Captivity is that it is inherent in human existence that we do not always notice the significant, epoch-making actors and events in our own lives, in our own age, or our own environment. Recognizing these would require time, or so-called “critical distance.”

In the following, I will take stock of the lessons and conclusions I have drawn from the global crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, focusing on the main actors of international politics and the world order. Drawing from international relations theory, I make the somewhat surprising claim that a Realpolitik lens would suggest self-interested cooperation among countries in the age of COVID-19. The countries of the world would fare better at managing the coronavirus pandemic if they were to cooperate—cooperation is in their national interest.

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But first, a disclaimer. The lesson of Captivity is that we, as human beings find it challenging to see the most critical processes in the present, and we can rarely predict what the future may bring. As we are currently in the middle of this pandemic crisis (or perhaps only at the beginning), we cannot see clearly in the captivity of our current situation, from the captivity of our contemporary perspective. Nevertheless, I will attempt to draw out the most important lessons, while remaining cautious about predicting significant trends in the future.

What is Realpolitik?

Although Realpolitik was conceived by Prussian journalist-politician Ludwig von Rochau for domestic politics in the 19thcentury, it has since become a prominent concept in the theory and practice of international politics. Henry Kissinger defines Realpolitik as “foreign policy based on calculations of power and the national interest.”1 According to Kenneth Waltz, Realpolitik “indicates the methods by which foreign policy is conducted and provides a rationale for them.” Waltz lists the elements of Realpolitik as follows: “the state’s interest provides the spring of action; the necessities of policy arise from the unregulated competition of states; calculation based on these necessities can discover the policies that will best serve a state’s interests; success is the ultimate test of policy, and success is defined as preserving and strengthening the state.”2 The 20th century theorists of Realpolitik argue that such a concept (not necessarily under the same name) has been an ever-present thread running through the history of thinking about international relations. Kissinger associates Realpolitik with Napoleon III and Bismarck, while Waltz traces the concept back to Machiavelli in the Italian Renaissance and Thucydides in ancient Greece. Realpolitik is as old as humankind.

International Cooperation based on Self-Interest

Overall, the response of countries and governments around the world to the COVID-19 epidemic has been a significant failure, and this has been primarily a failure of global governance. The virus has spread globally, but in its management,  we barely find any traces of international cooperation. It has been handled entirely on the level of the nation-state. This is not surprising to those who look at the world through a Realpolitik lens.

International politics is characterized by anarchy, as there is no world government. Nation-states consider their interests first and shape their foreign policies accordingly. That is why it is telling that even Henry Kissinger, a diplomat-scholar often associated with Realpolitik, advocates for international cooperation on COVID-19 in his recent Wall Street Journal article. I agree there is a role for global governance in stopping this pandemic. Nation-states cannot do it on their own. Let’s see why.

The European Union

The European Union (EU) as a community and as an institution was virtually invisible in the period following the outbreak. Italy, the first and most dramatically affected member state in the EU, received assistance from China sooner than from the EU. It is no coincidence that the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had to apologize to the Italians for the EU’s delayed reaction. The EU’s image and the popularity of the pro-federalist position are significantly undermined by the fact that each EU member state has responded to the epidemic on a national level. In contrast, action at the EU level has been almost wholly absent.

Even the fact that the EU eventually provided substantial funding to help member states take action improved the EU’s image only slightly. It is also clear that a strictly national approach combined with a failure to share best practices has resulted in very different levels of effectiveness in slowing the spread of the disease in each member state. Consequently, the problems each member state now faces are very different, hence the possibility of EU-level cooperation and solutions is next to nothing.


Undoubtedly, China is primarily responsible for the outbreak and global spread of the epidemic. The Chinese Communist leadership practiced one of the worst traditions of their Soviet predecessors, the so-called “Chernobyl method,” at the beginning of the epidemic: denial and silencing. The existence of the outbreak was denied, and doctors who sounded the alarm were silenced and arrested. Then by mid-January, the Communist leadership realized that the coronavirus was a real problem and needed practical solutions. Subsequently, the government introduced strict measures in Wuhan and a few other parts of China, from curfews to mandatory mask-wearing to quarantining of those suspected of illness. All these measures were enforced by the iron fist of the Chinese police state. With these measures, the spread of the coronavirus in China was slowed down and then halted by March.

However, in the meantime, from November to January, the virus had already spread to most of the world. If China had not denied the existence of the epidemic and had closed its borders late last year, it could have spared the world its current level of suffering. In parallel with the rigorous management of the epidemic, China has also been working since the beginning of the year to spread misinformation about the American origins of COVID-19, and to portray itself as a “benevolent superpower” by sending masks and ventilators to many countries around the world. China is once again playing the game of international politics very shrewdly (applying a distorted sense of Realpolitik), and this time it is trying to strengthen its international image, its soft power, which has always been a weak point.

The United States

The number of Americans infected with the coronavirus is now over 1.7 million. This shows that American society has so far failed to deal with the coronavirus epidemic. I’ve identified five reasons for this, which fall into two groups: governance-related and socio-cultural factors.

The first group of reasons includes the fragmented nature of the U.S. government system and the public health management failures of the federal and state governments. (1) Unified action against a nationwide epidemic has been made impossible by the federal structure of the U.S. government, which has produced a fragmentation of authority and capabilities. While the federal government has deep financial pockets, it lacks many public-health authorities. At the same time, the state governments lack financial leverage and have limited legal authorities of their own. (2) President Donald J. Trump and his administration delayed by several months the necessary preparations for the epidemic despite having the world’s most extensive intelligence apparatus. Many constituent agencies were alerting the White House to the news of the coronavirus as early as November 2019. (3) State (and local) governments also woke up too late to the threat of the coronavirus (especially in the state of New York and in New York City, from where the virus spread all over the country). As I mentioned, state governments lack the financial resources to deal with such an epidemic, so they need the help of the federal government. The Trump administration has not responded to state requests for assistance very effectively either, and for weeks the president himself has been embroiled in a highly partisan war of words with the mostly Democratic governors of the most heavily infected states.

However, the delayed responses of political leaders alone do not fully explain the current catastrophe situation in the United States. There are also very deep-rooted socio-cultural reasons for the failure to manage the coronavirus. (4) American society has traditionally exhibited a high degree of individualism and a strong attachment to individual freedoms, and the role of the “state” is consequently limited. While in much of the world, a full lockdown has been imposed by central governments and enforced by police, in the United States, most “lockdowns” have been nothing more than a stay-at-home advisory from state governors. The federal government formulated even more restrained advice. (5) Finally, an essential socio-economic reason behind the extent of the outbreak in the United States is the privately operated and fragmented health care system—some of the demographic groups most exposed to the coronavirus do not even have access to adequate healthcare.

U.S.-China Competition

The dominant geopolitical competition of the 21st century is unfolding between the United States and China. As a result, there is much discussion about which great power the current situation will propel forward and which will fall far behind. The jury is still out. Both great powers have been hit hard by the virus, but it currently appears that America has taken the harder blow. However, we must be careful with such a comparison because we do not exactly know what is going on in China, as the Chinese Communist leadership does not provide real data about either the epidemic or the economy. Joseph Nye shares this view in his recent Foreign Policy article; despite significant speculation to this effect, the coronavirus will not decide the competition between the United States and China, since more important factors play a role in it. His article fits into the debate of recent years among U.S. political scientists and historians about U.S.-China competition, in which Graham Allison and others warn that China, building on its significant resources (cheap labor, global trade network, fast-paced economic and technological development), will soon overtake the United States economically and push it off the top of the international system. On the other hand, Nye, Michael Beckley, and others emphasize that the United States has important structural advantages (geographic location, democratic political system, R&D capabilities, soft power, etc.) over China, and, on the other hand, the Asian superpower has many internal problems and weaknesses (demographic crisis, corruption, social inequality, regional disparities).

I share the latter point of view, but with one qualification. The United States starts from a good position in its competition with China, but its abovementioned domestic problems (fragmented government structure, polarization, weak healthcare system, growing social inequality) pose serious risks for the United States in this rivalry. The United States can compete with China and maintain its position of international leadership only if it remedies these deep domestic structural problems in the years to come. It is certainly relevant to the competition that China—having managed to control the epidemic domestically—has been building a new international role for itself, extending aid to many countries in fighting the pandemic. At the same time, the United States is currently hardly able to deal with its internal problems managing the pandemic, and cannot play any real international role in the fight against the coronavirus. What is more, the Trump administration has even withdrawn its support from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Global Economy

The global economy is facing an unprecedented recession. As part of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, most countries in the world have shut down significant portions of their economies. Prolonging this situation for months is leading to a severe economic downturn. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the recession has been brewing for quite some time. China’s economic growth – even based on unreliable official data – plummeted to around 3 percent in the last quarter of 2019, an incredible dive compared to the 7 percent expected by Beijing or to China’s average growth in recent decades. As a result of COVID-19, China’s economy suffered a 6.8 percent contraction in the first quarter of 2020; for the first time since 1976, the Chinese economy has shrunk and not expanded. The economic downturn in the European Union had also begun earlier. In the last quarter of 2019, the EU achieved 0 (zero) percent growth. Therefore, the economic crisis may have happened even without the coronavirus pandemic.

The United States recently joined China and the EU among the crisis hubs. The number of unemployed in America has risen to 43 million in the last ten weeks. The U.S. GDP posted a 4.8 percent decline in the first quarter of this year, and analysts expect an almost unprecedented 30 percent (!) contraction in the second quarter. World oil prices reached historic lows in April. We have to gradually reopen the economy everywhere as soon as the public health situation allows. However, I would caution against the overly optimistic view that reopening the economy now will avert the economic downturn. Even if the economy was reopened today, the virus is here to stay (until there is a vaccine), and many people will be afraid to resume their previous lifestyles completely; therefore, economic recovery will remain limited. And the coronavirus has already done much damage to our economies. The long-feared global economic recession is no longer on its way. It has already begun.

World Order

In the United States and elsewhere around the world, there has been a serious debate for some years now about how the world order is changing, what has characterized the international order so far, and what can replace it in the future. The abovementioned two articles, by Henry Kissinger and Joseph Nye, are also part of the continuation of these debates. Kissinger’s article is titled “The Coronavirus Will Forever Alter the World Order,” while Nye’s article counters with, “No, the Coronavirus Will Not Change the Global Order.” Indeed, the coronavirus has not changed the world order (yet), but the world order is changing.

There are several ways we can talk about the world order. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-1991, the international system changed from bipolar to unipolar. With the rise of China, however, a bipolar international system has re-emerged. This system, nonetheless, also bears some semblance to multipolar systems, as there are currently no two allied blocs behind the two superpowers like there were during the Cold War, and even America’s allies are busy building ties with China.

The United States established the current so-called liberal international order after World War II. After decades of successfully deepening and expanding this order, America has been gradually withdrawing from its leadership role under the administrations of Barack Obama and especially Trump. Kissinger writes in his article that to overcome the health and economic effects of COVID-19 and to defend the values ​​of the liberal international order, the world needs international cooperation, in which Washington must play a leading role. On this point, Joseph Nye formulates an idea similar to Kissinger’s: “Both for self-interested and humanitarian reasons, the United States should lead the G-20 in generous contributions to a major new COVID-19 fund that is open to all countries.” I agree with these suggestions because they combine Realpolitik and cooperation. Unfortunately, it seems there is little chance of the current U.S. administration leading such initiatives. Instead, it is imaginable that China will play such a role. It would certainly strengthen China’s position in the currently emerging new world order.

What the different international actors do not realize is that more cooperation would have helped avert the current pandemic or at least mitigate its spread and consequences. Theorists in international relations have long sparred over whether states are inherently more or less prone to cooperate. Realpolitik argues that cooperation is the exception, not the rule. A country will work with another country only if it is in its national interest. In this case, ironically, a Realpolitik lens would tell us that it is in countries’ national interests that they cooperate against the Covid-19 pandemic.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, billions of us have become captives in our own homes. Not only are we physically in captivity, but the economy (national economies and the world economy) has also become a captive of the coronavirus, and it is in this captivity that international politics also finds itself today. Moreover, just as the lesson of the novel Captivity shows us, our governments have been captives of their own circumstances and perspectives, and have not been able to see beyond them and to look at the crisis from a more holistic view. Such a view, in line with Realpolitik, would have shown us the path toward self-interested cooperation.

Once the immediate crisis is over, countries will need to rethink their cooperation in the fight against pandemics. A Realpolitik lens, however, shows that individual countries will only do this when they realize that such cooperation is in their well-conceived self-interest. Let’s hope they realize it. The sooner they do, the sooner our captivity ends.

1 Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 137

2 Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1979), p. 117

Zoltan Feher

Zoltan Feher previously served as Hungary's Acting Ambassador to Turkey and as Joseph Nye's assistant at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, an Adjunct Lecturer at Tufts University in Boston, and a World Politics & Statecraft Fellow with the Smith Richardson Foundation. His current research project focuses on U.S. strategy vis-à-vis China in the past fifty years.

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