Current challenges in International Relations

Addressing the current situation is a great challenge for those of us who are dedicated to International Relations. IR commonly navigates in contexts that mix doses of continuity and constant change, however, it is worth asking ourselves how well prepared are the IR theories to overturn that theoretical arsenal in order to analyze processes such as the current ones. Undoubtedly, the resort to interdisciplinarity can be the starting point, as well as the arrival point, for this questioning. There is a palpable need to reverse priorities regarding the theoretical approaches to which we are accustomed.

In contexts such as those present today, more than an explanation, we need a deep reflection. Therefore, the objective that animates these words is to indicate only some of the features from where we could start.

What can we observe?

Systemic crisis. The pandemic only magnified and/or amplified the transition towards an economic, political, social and environmental recession that had been largely announced for a while. Taking a look back can help us understand the current situation. The 2008 crisis generated anxiety, shook not only the foundations of the deregulated financial world but also those of the political and social world. Once again, the capitalist system showed its cracks and debauchery. Once again, the same system showed signs of its chameleonic impetus, as Fernand Braudel pointed out, to adapt and recompose itself, and continue. In the midst of the crisis, anxiety to find identifications that could give a clue to what was to come led us to review the crisis of the 1930s, but also that of the 1970s. None of which envisioned promising and positive scenarios. The first because after the collapse that caused the Great Depression, the world was submerged in a great and catastrophic war (IIWW), and the other because it ended the so-called post-war agreement that made it possible for States to intervene in the economy for the citizens’ welfare. Even more, while the Western world embarked on the great neoliberal industrialization, the governments of the developing countries plunged into a major crisis, that of the eighties, called the debt crisis. Debt, inflation and unemployment showed what it meant to speak of a “lost decade”.

Only in Europe and as a result of the 2008 crisis were there political changes in 8 of its 17 countries. Needless to say, many find in that tsunami the origins of the fissures between the European Union’s members almost a decade later, once the turbulent waters began to recede. In the Maghreb and then like wildfire in most Middle Eastern countries, the events observed since 2010 (so unscrupulously called the Arab Spring) on ​​the one hand are related to the crisis that leaves no possibility of reply to governments that, stagnant in power for decades, were swept away as a result of large popular mobilizations demanding changes. And, on the other, because the crisis generated new demands -and partly because those who supported them from outside changed their priorities. By then, the discussions about how the world power structure was modified was giving way to conceptualizations such as uni-multipolarity, interpolarity, apolarity, nonpolarity, heteropolarity, the no man's world, the multiplex world, and the entropy that occupied a large part of discussions in academic settings.

In addition to a financial crisis within the machinery of the capitalist system, we observe the quick translation as well as the direct blow to political systems. The recession did not show respect for these theoretical boundaries, but crossed them. Somehow, what burst into the 1970s as international political economy was the one thing at hand. In Latin America, what we have observed since then is not only framed in the context of deep crisis, which will hit the countries of the region in different ways, but also the sharpest challenge to the democratic system.

The so-called constitutional coups d'état in the words of Mariano Roitman Rosenmann (2013), perhaps and as a convincing example, were reflected in Honduras in 2009 but later also, already as part of a worrying trend -and with nuances- in the secessionist claim of the so-called eastern half-moon in Bolivia (2008), in the destabilizing conjuncture in Ecuador (2010), and also in Paraguay (2012) and in Brazil (2016). Different times, but sharing the fact that they occurred after the 2008 crisis. At that time, the institutional structures created were able to respond and intervene with the purpose of reinforcing, supporting and acting jointly and regionally in the face of such events. By then, UNASUR, ALBA, CELAC, brought together expectations of regional action, complementarity, solidarity, integration and governments that shared those expectations.

Meanwhile, worldwide, the creation of a group that brought together 20 countries, between industrialized and the so-called emerging, was beginning. The initial idea dates from 1999 and consisted on governing finances and the economy, or at least agreeing on different aspects that would make it possible. Its innovation in the 2008, in this second foundational stage, was that it was going to bring together Heads of State and/or government who from then on would meet once a year in one of the member countries in the so-called leaders’ summit. Of course, the G20 agenda was expanded to generate sub-groups that involved civil society and with this addition, a diversity of issues, presenting itself as the main forum for global deliberation on political and economic issues, promising to take charge of addressing global problems.

That was the state of the world that hit a pandemic. It was the world that we lived in and that voraciously consumed and commercialized life, work and nature.

Irresponsible Globalization. Much of the circulating literature and virtual debates since the beginning of the pandemic have addressed the issue of globalization in at least two senses. Those who point out that it continues to be an irreversible process associated with value chains, offshoring processes and the later and more recent re-shoring processes by large transnational companies, and those who point to the necessary de-globalization. The globalization debate background is long overdue. The concept itself was coined in the 1990s and addressed to at least three issues: hyper-globalizers, skeptics, and transformationalists (Held et al. 1999). Perhaps the point is that both views refer to the more commercial side of the so-called globalization. The pandemic raised the question of what kind of globalization we want, and not just the one that keeps up with the value chains’ expectations. The pandemic gave rise to conceiving globalization as a process that made inequalities visible as never before. Today's debates challenge us: Will we continue to consume products, goods and discourses uncritically?

Systemic governance deficits and unstable institutions. The concept of governance that fitted almost perfectly with the neoliberal model began to be more and more powerful in the 1990s. A neoliberal state that in Cox's words (op.cit in Sanahuja, 2015) became a subject and object of the globalization process. A State that had to adapt national institutions, societies and economies to the global capitalist economy’s demands. This global economic governance at the service of neoliberalism reduced the space of politics and regulates increasingly broader areas of economic and social life (Sanahuja, 2015). Wolfgang Streeck (Streeck, 2016) pointed out critically that globalization as a discourse gave rise to a unique new thought in which adaptation to markets was good for everyone and that under this model democracy could only seem outdated, too slow, too collectivist and conservative compared to agile individuals who respond to market signals. What was needed, says Streeck, was a new, more flexible regime, for which an attractive name was found: global governance. In contexts like the current ones, all of this was put to the test. The concrete claim came along with the possibilities, preparation and willingness of commitment of international organizations such as the WHO and even groups such as the G20, to govern the pandemic for the benefit of all. The 2020 leaders' meeting in Saudi Arabia in November 2020 concluded without any substantial progress. Three issues were crucial: the health issue unleashed by Covid-19, climate change, and the poor countries’ debt. None of the three issues found significant results, evidencing the ineffectiveness of the so-called global governance. In addition to glimpsing the prominence that pharmaceutical companies acquire as important international players, what we observe more than a year after the start of the pandemic are the deep marks of a power distribution that is measured no longer by military force but exclusively by money. Therefore, the idea of ​​governance seemed more intended to create a reality rather than to reflect it through concrete facts.

International Organizations are bureaucratized structures which in various circumstances demonstrate through their standardized procedures a certain slowness to give concrete answers. Beyond the criticism that the WHO received for its late response, at the end of April 2020 it created the COVAX. COVAX is the Global Access Fund for Covid-19 vaccines and is part of the Covid-19 Tools Access Accelerator (or ACT Accelerator) that the WHO created in response to the pandemic. COVAX is led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. It was created with the purpose of coordinating purchases worldwide, and once vaccines were available, accelerating access and distribution among the 172 countries that signed an equitable distribution "regardless of wealth". As the process got under way, many rich countries negotiated their own agreements with laboratories to inoculate their own population, for which, to date, 90% of vaccines are in the hands of the richest nations that can pay for them. Even recognizing that by participating in the program they collaborate with it, inequality was once again present, this time accompanied by pettiness as some governments negotiated the provision of amounts higher than what they actually needed.

In Latin America, the disarticulation of those mentioned institutions led to the absence of regional responses that would make possible a joint management of the health crisis. This disarticulation also contributed to the fact that little could be done in the face of events immediately prior to the pandemic situation that showed popular mobilizations in at least three countries in the region: Chile, Peru and Colombia. A separate chapter in the pre-pandemic history is constituted by Venezuela, which somehow made visible once again the regional fracture and the ineffectiveness of those institutions that were left standing. Faced with the WHO proposal, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela were among the countries that quickly came out in favor of COVAX. On January 31, 2021, PAHO notified 36 countries of the region that participate in the Fund about the estimated number of vaccines they would receive between mid-February and throughout the second semester of 2021. In the region, PAHO and UNICEF are in charge of carrying out the procurement of vaccines on behalf of COVAX.

Even with proposals to provide global answers to global problems, nothing would show how countries actually solve the dilemma “Do I help other countries to prevent the spread and perpetuation of the pandemic, or do I inoculate my own population? Are we ready to "save strangers"?

We owe ourselves a deep debate on the abandonment of the collective based on an excessive individualism.


Verónica Pérez Taffi is a PhD. candidate in International Relations (USAL). Master in Strategy and Geopolitics (ESG). Specialist in Management and Leadership of Higher Education (Autonomous University of Nuevo León/Mexico). Degree in International Relations (USAL). University Bachelor of Political Science (USAL). Academic Coordinator (FCS-USAL). President of the Argentine International Relations Studies Association (AERIA). She was a Fellow at the Academy of Korean Studies (South Korea) as a Researcher at the IDICSO/USAL-unit associated with CONICET. Undergraduate and graduate professor at USAL, UNTREF, UNDEF and UP.

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