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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems
Pandemic world order

22nd April 2020

Starting the conversation…

Brendan SimmsDirector of the Centre for Geopolitics

It is a common belief that the international order will be fundamentally changed by the coronavirus crisis, with some fearing the final death of the ‘rules based’ system and others celebrating its revival. If so, it may be useful to look at what impact past epidemics had. We all know, of course, about the destructiveness of the fourteenth century Black Death; of the ravages of the early Modern plagues; and the colossal toll taken by the ‘Spanish Influenza’ towards the end and immediately after the First World War, an epidemic which famously killed more people than the fighting itself.


It is a common belief that the international order will be fundamentally changed by the coronavirus crisis


Yet the connection between medical and the political struggles is not obvious. To be sure, the truce of Esplechin which halted hostilities for a while during the Hundred Years’ War was at least partly a response to the horrors of the Black Death. But during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, which was even more traumatic, the antagonists simply worked around the affected areas. The Spanish flu, finally, does not seem to feature much in discussions of post-1918 turbulence in Europe, or of the early Weimar Republic. The flu does not seem to have been a major argument for the establishment of the League of Nations, in the way that the war obviously was.

So the question arises: did these more modern epidemics really have very little influence on world politics (and if so, what does that tell us?) or have we just failed to recognise that influence? The answer may give an idea of whether we may hope for a Coronavirus ‘truce’ in the Middle East or expect to see a renaissance of the European Integration project. Or not.



Allegra Fryxell, Trebilcock-Newton Research Fellow, Pembroke College,University of Cambridge

The Spanish Flu appears to contradict Jared Diamond’s thesis in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) that diseases decisively shape human history. In the 1920s and after, the pandemic was overshadowed by the casualties and economic challenges of World War One, an imbalance that dominated historiography until the 1990s when it began to be studied in a global context. Nonetheless, the influenza of 1918 does not appear to have had a lasting impact on world order. Its spread was rapid, covering all continents within a matter of months, and its symptoms were universal. The ‘Spanish Lady’ did not discriminate markedly by race or class, yet she did exert fatal effects on young adults (the highest death rates occurred for individuals 20-40 years old). Overlapping with WWI – the ‘first wave’ started in April 1918, followed by a more lethal ‘second wave’ in August-September 1918 before the ‘third wave’ from January to June 1919 – the pandemic was often viewed as part of wartime experience. Moreover, highest mortality rates occurred in geographically and economically marginal communities like the Canadian Inuit or New Zealand Maori; for belligerent states like Britain and France, military casualties often exceeded the number of influenza deaths, although this pattern was reversed in North America. Finally, the Spanish Flu is absent in interwar policy discussions except in matters of public hygiene, where it prompted the creation of national healthcare systems in Weimar Germany and interwar Canada, alongside the U.S. Centre for Disease Control, the International Office of Public Health in Paris (which worked closely with the League of Nations’ International Health Organisation to monitor future influenza outbreaks), and the World Influenza Centre (established in London in 1947). Whilst the Spanish Flu does not appear to have changed the balance of power, demographic effects persisted through the 1930s. An entire generation was often decimated – leaving children to the care of grandparents – and those who recovered frequently suffered from influenza-induced illnesses like encephalitis lethargica, pneumonia, and schizophrenia. These effects and others likely compounded the economic inequality between the West and the Rest, delaying South American, Asian, and African growth after 1919.


Jason Sharman, Sir Patrick Sheehy Professor of International Relations in the Department of Politics and International StudiesUniversity of Cambridge

People have a well known bias towards over-estimating the historical importance of events when they are in the middle of them. Things that seem transformative at the time sometimes barely rate a footnote in later histories. In terms of its direct effects on international order, there is probably a lot less to coronavirus than many suggest. Even with examples like the Spanish Flu, which killed many, many more people than coronavirus is likely to, it’s hard to see significant political consequences, especially at the international level.

However, if the current pandemic is relatively innocuous in comparative historical terms, the likely effects of governments’ responses to the virus do indeed seem to be unprecedented and highly consequential. Specifically, the decision to impose the lock-down has done more harm to most Western countries in a few weeks than any have experienced since the Great Depression, in terms of the drop in GDP, and rises in unemployment and government deficits. Indeed, it may well be that no government policy ever has done so much economic damage so quickly.

How might this relate to the international order? Firstly, because this damage is unevenly distributed: on current indications, China’s economic and especially fiscal position have worsened much less than that of Western countries, most notably the United States. This imbalance may accelerate the trend towards greater Chinese geopolitical assertiveness that has been apparent for the last decade or so. Secondly, the interaction of these economic consequences and government instincts to close borders again accentuates trends to slow or reverse globalization, and to increase frictions between Western countries, including but not limited to those between the United States and its allies.


Beatrice Heuser, Professor of International Relations, University of Glasgow

The present pandemic has little in common with the great pandemics of the past. Some had incomparably higher fatality rates, e.g. the Black Death in 541-544 and 1347-51, which in some areas killed more than a third of the entire population, with enormous socio-economic consequences. But then, such disasters were seen as divine punishment. Today, governments are blamed for their unfolding. Public reactions to the Spanish Flu following the First World War which claimed more lives than the war itself were still largely fatalist. Only more recent pandemics – the ‘Asian Flu’ of 1957-58, the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69, which led to 1-4 million deaths – became politicised, with Western governments accusing Communist governments of mishandling them. The most recent pandemics were smaller. The ‘Swine Flu’ of 2009 left less than half a million dead world-wide. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) of 2002-2003 resulted only in 8,437 cases and 813 deaths in total in 32 countries.

The present pandemic is thus unusually politicised, governments competing to prove their better management of the crisis by sending ‘surplus’ medical equipment to afflicted countries. With great press echo, China thus made such a donation to Italy in March 2020. The effects: 52% of the Italians questioned in an opinion poll conducted by SWG between 20 March and 12 April described the Chinese as their best friends, while 45% described Germany – which had dragged its heels on special EU financial aid for Italy – as enemy. If China with its authoritarian system succeeds in keeping infection rates down and its economy strong, it will emerge stronger from this crisis than most liberal democracies. The crisis is thus likely to accelerate China’s rise as it buys up failing businesses throughout the world. The crisis can thus become a catalyst and tipping point in a changing world order.


Chika Tonooka, Mark Kaplanoff Research Fellow in History, Pembroke CollegeUniversity of Cambridge

Anglophone discussions of world order after WW1 support the notion that modern epidemics had limited influence on world politics, at least in the normative realm. The aftermath of WW1 saw a burgeoning of internationalist conceptions of international order, epitomised by the League of Nations. But the ‘Spanish Influenza’ played a seemingly minor role in these formulations. It only received fleeting mention in H. G. Wells’ Outline of History (1920), his blueprint for a post-national ‘world state’. And in October 1919, when James Bryce stressed humanity’s shared vulnerability, he highlighted the global interconnectedness manifest in war, inflation, and even the ‘contagion’ of ‘strange doctrines’ – but not of epidemics.

Why this lack of emphasis? One answer lies in contemporary understandings of the relationship between war and epidemics. Along with famine, ‘pestilence’ was widely understood – and therefore anticipated – as a classic by-product of warfare. The flu outbreak was thus readily assimilated into the larger crisis of war, with blueprints for world order focussing on tackling the perceived causes of the latter: nationalism, capitalism, etc.

Such framing had a lasting legacy. Although the League included a new Health Organization advancing international public health initiatives, in a world that reduced ‘crisis’ to war vs peace, and the League to (failed) collective security, the broader achievements of League internationalism long went overlooked. What mattered at the time was the demarcation of a single meta-crisis for the age, with all the efforts and defeats that ensued. The failure to disaggregate the Spanish flu as a discrete international crisis was perhaps then a missed opportunity.

Whether and how the present coronavirus crisis reshapes the international order, then, might depend on what broader crises it is assimilated into, or what other crisis narratives it comes to envelop. Crisis of globalisation? Of US-China tensions? Crisis of the global economy, or of domestic economic inequality? Our future rests partly on the outcome of this interpretative struggle, which is unfolding as we speak.


Davide Rodogno, International History Professor, the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva

The Spanish Flu pandemic struck during the last months of the Great War, from April 1918 to June 1919. Its successive waves caused many more deaths than the First World War which had been – by far – the deadliest war ever known: historians estimate that 2-5% of the world’s population died. In mid-April 2020 covid-19 killed nearly 200,000 people on a planet inhabited by 10 billion human beings. From a quantitative point of view, the two pandemics have nothing to do with each other. Moreover, influenza killed mainly young adults, which does not seem to be the case with covid-19. European governments minimized or denied the existence of the epidemic, because the war was not over. This might be one of the reasons why the 1918 flu had little influence on world politics.

If that pandemic had so little influence why should covid-19 leave a more permanent trace on world politics? So far, the response to covid19 has been organized by state authorities. As in 1918 central and local authorities closed down schools, churches, public institutions and their borders to protect national communities against a foreign (sic!) virus. In 1918 wearing a mask was already compulsory; conspiracy theories, racist responses, charlatans, and miracle cures were as rife as today. Then and now the general public was exposed to overabundant, manipulated statistics. The name Spanish flu comes precisely from the fact that the belligerents did not want to share statistics, while Spain, a neutral country, openly published its morbidity figures. Despite the (contested) efforts of the WHO responses to covid19 have mainly been national. Do they signal the failure of international cooperation and of international institutions?

It is too soon to say. In 1918, humanitarian organizations were not designed to deal with pandemics. The International Office of Public Hygiene created in 1907 in Paris supervised the international rules of quarantine in ports but could not do anything about the flu. In the inter-war period, the League of Nations worked on information and standardization of epidemiological data. On the American continent, the Pan-American Health Organization set up a continental governance of health, anticipating the work the WHO has been doing since 1948. This was could be seen as indirect or long-term influence of the Spanish flu on world politics.


Alex Chase-Levenson, Assistant Professor, University of Pennsylvania

Individual pandemics do have a habit of passing into oblivion more quickly than those who live through them might expect. The 1918 influenza has often been referred to as “forgotten,” even though that it’s now very much in the news.

Yet, I would qualify this idea by noting that while individual epidemics have often changed less than we might think, they have tended to be more influential when they represent a recurring problem.

Consider the Mediterranean quarantine system in the early nineteenth century. This system operated as a universal European border, in which local boards of health in different nations worked together to enforce shared standards of prophylaxis as they detained every single ship,
person, or trade good entering Western Europe from North Africa and the Middle East (even in times of good health). This quarantine was justified by the fact that bubonic plague, largely extinct in Western Europe after the 1720s, represented an ongoing (if intermittent) problem in major Ottoman port cities. This imbalance took on cultural, as well as practical, significance, as the presence or absence of plague was used by many European observers as a metric for assessing the Ottoman Empire’s progress or decline.

This quarantine system represents a novel, early example of European integration. Local boards of health were motivated by a shared sense of vulnerability, and they enforced congruity based on a simple premise: adhere to minimum standards or face the imposition of a ruinous quarantine on ships from your own country’s ports. So tight did the links become of what came to be called “the sanitary system of Europe” that, in order to demolish this quarantine system, an innovative series
of international sanitary conferences was held starting in the 1850s. These were among the first of any kind of international scientific congress and the WHO cites them as a direct institutional antecedent.

One-off epidemics might change little; long-term epidemiological divides have clearly led to enduring consequences. After all, we have only to remember how a major, world-historical event like the European colonization of the Americas was primarily enabled by the devastating toll of smallpox on the indigenous peoples on those continents.


Tomoko Akami, Associate Professor (Reader): School of Culture, History & LanguageAustralian National University

Did modern epidemics influence world politics? Yes, in a sense that they prompted one of the first multilateral actions, the International Sanitary Conference (1851-), and this led to the making of global health governing conventions and institutions. ‘Spanish Influenza’ may not have
had much impact on the formation of the League of Nations (100th anniversary, 2020), but typhus in Eastern Europe did. The epidemic contributed to establishing the Health Committee at the League, and with its operational agency, the League’s Health Organization (LNHO), they laid the foundation for the WHO.

What the LNHO did could be relevant to the posed question on pandemic and world politics. First, the LNHO was led by medical and public health experts, and consolidated inter-governmental and non-governmental works of these experts across the regions. Second, although the ‘International’ Sanitary Conference so far had been mainly about protecting Euro-America from ‘Asiatic diseases’, the LNHO became a channel for the experts located in Asia to voice their region-specific concerns and to get them incorporated when revising the International Sanitary Convention. Third, although colonial administrations were largely ignored as non-sovereign units in discussions on ‘hard’ issues, such as disarmament, the LNHO treated the colonial units as legitimate administrative units because: epidemic diseases knew no border, and presented an immediate danger which all administrative units, whether sovereign or not, had to deal with; imperial metropolitan governments had to leave the issue to these units.

The fund of the LNHO, largely provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, was small, and what it achieved was modest, and shared empires’ interests remained a main concern. Its power was limited, and not only pure science or humanitarianism, but also politics were integral to its

Yet, what it showed is that epidemics gave a chance for diverse actors and philanthropic foundations to work together against a global common enemy, based on latest scientific knowledge and technologies. If a pandemic cannot do so now, what would? Maybe an attack from Mars?


Ayşe Zarakol, Reader in International RelationsUniversity of Cambridge

Even if the worst comes to pass, the COVID19 pandemic will be dwarfed by historical pandemics such as the Plague of Justinian or the Black Death. In the past, pandemics were both more common and more devastating. Especially after the fourteenth century, epidemics were a nearly constant fact of life in most parts of the world, in the aftermath of what has been called the Chinggisid Exchange bridging Europe and Asia, and the Colombian Exchange bridging Eurasia, Africa and the Americas. Dynamics that facilitate the interaction and transmission of people and the goods across continents also do the same for disease.

Perhaps because epidemics are so common in the early modern era, in IR we have not properly explored what impact—if any— they have had on international orders. There is a longstanding argument that one of the facilitators of the transition out of feudalism was the steep demographic decline caused by the Black Death. But even this needs to be re-explored: we now know that many European crises had their contemporary corollaries in Asia, but often with different outcomes for the political and economic systems there. Hopefully, the COVID19 pandemic will gives us the impetus to revisit some of these periods across Eurasia with a more comparative perspective.

Also of interest is the relationship between disease management and international institutions. To the extent that our current international order can be traced back to the nineteenth century, we owe something of its existence to the need to manage the various diseases of the nineteenth century without completely disrupting trade. International sanitary conferences make an important part of the fabric of that period, and they have been mostly neglected by IR.

Taking the long view, one could observe that by the nineteenth century, humanity’s relationship with disease had become overwhelmingly institutional in nature rather than structural. Earlier episodes of pandemics had a discernible impact only when their demographic damage was so large as to undermine existing social, economic and political structures. They were not managed but endured like any other disaster. However, we now see diseases as something that can be not only cured but possibly eliminated, and thus their legacy lies primarily in the institutions we install to deal with them. I think COVID19 will fit this rule as well – when all is said and done, its main legacy will be in the new policies we design.