IO COVID-19 Online Supplemental Issue COVID-19 and the Sacrificial International Order

October 27, 2020
By Michael Barnett | International Organization

This essay uses COVID-19 to illuminate the sacrificial practices of the liberal international order as woven through the concepts of humanitarian governance, moral economy, triage, and sacrifice. The concept of a sacrificial international order calls attention to how all international orders have their share of sacrifices—and this includes liberal international orders. International orders can be distinguished by the selection mechanisms used to identify the sacrifices and the meanings attached to them. I call attention to how liberal international orders often rely on markets as a selection mechanism and interpret these deaths as part of progress.

Following critical contributions to the study of neoliberalism that show how markets shape the ethics of “giving life” and “letting die,” I illuminate these processes through four concepts: humanitarian governance and the claim that the highest moral principle is saving lives and relieving suffering; moral economy that regulates who has access to basic subsistence goods during periods of crisis; triage, which considers how to prioritize whose lives are valued; and whether all deaths count as sacrifices or whether they are better understood as “those who can be killed.” I conclude by discussing how COVID-19 conjures hierarchies of humanity ignored by the liberal international order and challenges the discipline to consider the sacrifices in world order.

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