The Unpredictable Way of Pandemics in Global Politics
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
I am not an epidemiologist or a virologist, nor am I a medical scientist of any sort, but my interest in pandemics is based on my understanding that they have emerged as a source of threat to peace and security on different levels: human, national, and international. Pandemics can indeed threaten global peace and security. From my perspective, the way of pandemic is still largely unpredictable.
This does not mean social scientists can’t predict or theorize about some of the effects of epidemics and pandemics on our world, which include the following: the Antoine Plague of 165-180, the Black Death of 1347–1353, avian influenza (i.e., the bird flu, caused by a virus, such as the Spanish Flu of 1918-20 and the Swine Flu of 2009), and corona-viruses (such as SARS of 2003 and COVID-19 of 2020).
Epidemics and pandemics are killers. The Antoine Plague (165-180 AD) killed a third of the Roman Empire’s population. The Plague of Justinian (541 AD), which spread across Asia, North Africa, Arabia and Europe, killed between 25 and 50 million. The Black Death killed approximately 25 million people, almost one-third of Europe’s population. The 1918-1920 Spanish Flu infected 500 million people, about one-third of the world’s population, and killed at least 50 million people. The Swine Flu of 2009 killed between 151,000 and 575,000 people worldwide. Corona-viruses are also killers. The SARS pandemic reportedly infected 8,098 and left 774 people dead, but the COVID-19 has been more devastating: having infected close to 2 million people in a matter of several months and left more than 100,000 dead.
On one level, we can say that pandemics pose a threat to human security: they kill people, but we don’t really know when exactly and from where the next one will strike. So far, Asia has been a region where some big pandemics originated: the Black Death (China and Inner Asia), avian influenza (i.e., the 1957-58 Asian Flu, the 1968-69 Hong Kong Flu, and the 1997 Bird Flu). The last two corona-viruses also broke out in Asia: SARS (China) and COVID-19 (China). But pandemics also have a history of originating in other regions: the Spanish Flu originated in Spain and the 2009 Swine Flu in Mexico. The first ever-recorded pandemic broke out in Athens, an ancient Greek state (known as the Plague of Athens around 430-426 B). The Antoine Plague swept through the Roman Empire. The Plague of Justinian may have started in Egypt. Thus, where the next pandemic will strike is hard to know.
The negative effects of COVID-19 on human security can be be identified when social-economic consequences are further assessed. According to ILO Director-General Guy Ryder who spoke early in April 2020, the economic effects of this pandemic could exceed the global financial crisis in 2008 and could result in a loss of closer to 200 million jobs within the next several months.
On another level, epidemics and pandemics can also threaten national and international security in different ways. Firstly, they may have devastating consequences for states and societies in that they can produce domestic instability, civil war, or even civil-military conflict. Price-Smith (2002), for instance, puts it this way, “the potential for intra-elite violence is increasingly probable and may carry grave political consequences, such as coups, the collapse of government, and planned genocides.”
Secondly, both epidemics and pandemics may also result in disputes between or among states because of potential disagreement over appropriate policy responses. For instance, this new round of China-U.S. tension is related to COVID-19, and some observers think that the pandemic has the potential to cause a military confrontation or even a Cold War between the two world powers.
Thirdly, they may alter the balance of power between competitive states within the international security system and lead to conflict. The diminished size of a population may provide a greater incentive for some state or a social group unaffected by a pandemic to attempt military conquest. The Antoine Plague (165-180 AD), for instance, swept through the Roman Empire and devastated its armies. A recent example of how a pandemic might affect the balance of power is when COVID-19 infected more than 580 sailors of a 4,865-person crew aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a US aircraft carrier deployed to the Pacific Ocean and docked on March 27. Another recent development was when some 50 crew members aboard Charles de Gaulle (France’s only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier) were positive.
Fourthly, epidemics and pandemics may also alter the outcome of international conflict. For instance, Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431 BC – 404 BC), not only because of Sparta’s military might but also because of an epidemic that broke out in Athens around around 430 B.C. and killed between one-third and two-thirds of the Athenian population.
While history can help shed some light on the dangerous effects of pandemics in global politics, it’s important to bear in mind that they remain unpredictable. They are killers for sure and may or may not cause domestic instability and violent conflict when states and societies suffer from economic, financial, and political crises, but a world war or a Cold War is very unlikely nor is it inevitable.
Much still depends on what states and their peoples choose to do. The threat of a great pandemic like COVID-19 may bring them together. Sometimes there is nothing more unifying a popularized world than a common foe, but a dangerous pandemic may also drive them apart as some evidence may suggest, especially when state leaders blame each other or when some of them exploit this global threat to advance their own geo-strategic interests and pursue their own political ambitions.
This is a possible thesis topic!
Share your thoughts with me if you think otherwise. I will share more of my arguments on this topic in my book to be published someday, hopefully sooner rather than later.