Coronavirus, Penn Pandemic Diary Penn Pandemic Diary, Entry #1: Three Ways COVID-19 Will Affect the Study of International Relations and Security

March 25, 2020
By Erik Lin-Greenberg | Penn Pandemic Diary

In the coming weeks, Perry World House will post regular entries in a “Penn Pandemic Diary” that will record what undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows from around Penn are seeing and feeling during the historic coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. 

Erik Lin-Greenberg is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania.

Like many political scientists who study matters related to international security, my work focuses on what are often known as “hard security” topics, such as the causes and conduct of war. Although a growing number of scholars research “non-traditional” security issues like the implications of migration, climate change, and global health, the field remains dominated by “harder” topics, for lack of a better word. Indeed, the syllabi of most undergraduate and graduate international relations and security studies courses feature concepts like deterrence, crisis signaling, terrorism, and balance of power, while less attention is devoted to non-traditional issues like pandemics.

The ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis will likely refocus international relations research to better incorporate non-traditional threats like pandemics. Below, I outline three ways in which the ongoing health crisis might affect the study of international relations and security.

First, if Twitter is any indication, the COVID-19 crisis has triggered significant interest in pandemics among political scientists. Scholars of international relations and security can leverage their existing expertise to generate new and policy relevant questions for future projects on the security, foreign policy, and international trade implications of global pandemics. For instance, what impacts will pandemics have on military readiness and international security cooperation? Can the uncertainty associated with international health crises create windows of opportunity for states to use force against their rivals? How will pandemics affect deterrence—a state’s ability to dissuade an adversary from taking hostile action? More broadly, does the fallout of COVID-19 offer lessons about the risks of biological warfare? Policymakers have raised these questions and more in recent weeks, and international relations scholars should try to provide answers informed by theory and rigorous research.

Second, funding for social science research on pandemics will almost certainly increase in the coming months and years, providing resources for graduate students and faculty members interested in the topic. Indeed, several institutions have already announced grants that enable social scientists to conduct research on health crises. Just as funding for research on terrorism and counterinsurgency spiked following the 9/11 attacks and Iraq War respectively, additional financial support from both government and private groups will enable pandemic-focused social science research.

Finally, the COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity for a wave of innovative, inter-disciplinary research. Answering many of the questions outlined above may require political scientists to work with experts from outside fields, including public health, medicine, and epidemiology. These partnerships will help generate deeper insights and potentially boost both the policy-relevance and utility of the research—providing a helpful resource to policymakers. More importantly, these relationships might allow researchers to better anticipate and prevent crises like the current pandemic.

In the near term, attention must remain focused on treating COVID-19 patients and preventing the virus’s spread. In the coming months, however, international relations scholars must begin tackling a new set of questions about the implications, mitigation, and consequences of global health emergencies in new ways and with new partners.

The views expressed in the Penn Pandemic Diary are solely the author’s and not those of Penn or Perry World House.