International Order Through the Historian’s Eye

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Colin Kahl and Thomas Wright, Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order (St. Martin’s Press, 2021)


There was a problem with the way that history was taught in Britain during the late 19th century. Historians, and by default their students, had tended to ignore analysis of the recent past in favor of more distant periods. It was a trend which to some had begun to have more practical consequences. As the historian Llewellyn Woodward recalled of these years, “The English governing class … went into politics or the civil service or the professions knowing less about the state of the contemporary world than they knew about Ancient Greece and Rome.”

As it did with so many other facets of society, World War I dramatically shifted the focus of European historians. Driven in part by energized and enfranchised publics eager to comprehend international affairs, scholars began to turn their attention to chronicling and analyzing recent events. The first example of this was a six-volume history of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, edited by the diplomatic historian Harold Temperley beginning in 1920. In justifying his work, he wrote that,

The deciding factor … in publishing this history at this early date is the belief that its publication will make people realize the fleeting and now fast vanishing atmosphere in which the Conference lived and moved. New opinions are being formed, new sentiments arising in all kinds of subtle ways, which will soon transform the whole atmosphere. That atmosphere may perhaps be preserved in the pages of a contemporary history written by actors or by observers of the drama.

Looking to our own time, it is hard to see the COVID-19 pandemic as anything other than a profound moment. More so than any event in the preceding decades, citizens of countries throughout the world were affected physically, psychologically, financially, and politically. Individuals living in distant and diverse societies were suddenly and dramatically thrust into new and uncomfortable realities, ones that have had lasting effects on their social and professional lives. It was an experience, not uncommon in human history, in which a common microbe drastically altered the function, health, and wealth of communities across the world, all the while reminding governments of just how interconnected the world has become. Retracing these events and making sense of their future implications is, in many ways, a matter of principal concern for governments and citizens alike. It deals with what the historian David Fidler has referred to as “microbialpolitik” — the way that infectious disease has affected international relations, and the way in which international politics has, in turn, influenced the response to global pandemics.



Lucky for us, we have been graced with one of the first great contemporary histories of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tom Wright of the Brookings Institution and Colin Kahl, now of the Department of Defense, had already distinguished themselves as leading analysts during the early months of the pandemic, but their work published this past summer offers a brilliant account, one that is journalistic in its investigations and academic in its treatment of complex issues related to the structure and functioning of the global economic and political orders. The work is enlightening in many ways, yet it raises a number of considerations. Among them are how individuals actually imagine such a thing as international order and how exactly thinkers approach the task of “ordering” such systems. Perhaps on a deeper level, however, the authors also reflect how one’s approach to history shapes, consciously and unconsciously, one’s vision for the future.

The strength of the book lies in its recording of events, told mostly from a perspective previously unknown, which transpired in the weeks and months after scientists first became concerned with the spread of a novel coronavirus. The way the work traces the reactions and decision-making of key stakeholders — especially China, the World Health Organization, and the United States — as well as the detailed discussion of the economic and social consequences of a rampaging virus is lucid and detailed. Attention is given to a well-known cast of characters, among them former U.S. President Donald Trump, General Secretary Xi Jinping, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. But apart from these personalities, there are also revealing accounts, even down to the individual level, of societies often overlooked by officials and citizens of the West. The Bangladeshi experience, to take one example, is brought to the forefront, as a way of highlighting the extent of what was an extensive humanitarian catastrophe. It should be noted as well that, for readers with a loose grip of economics such as held by this writer, their description of the near financial meltdown makes sense of a complex range of factors while revealing the connective tissue of diverse international ordering systems. Wright and Kahl perform a skilled, if not Herculean, task to weave these disparate issues and experiences into a formidable, and at times gripping, historical account. For this, the authors deserve much praise.

There are, however, certain points worthy of discussion, if for no other reason than the authors have raised important considerations related to the way that scholars conceive of international order and aim to affect its future shape. Added to this interest is that Wright and Kahl are both esteemed commentators — and the latter now a senior official — grappling with future American strategy. It goes without saying that their ideas deserve debate.

The first and arguably most fundamental point concerns Wright and Kahl’s historical precedent, the pandemic of 1918, which appears in the first substantive chapter of the book. It is yet another strength of their approach that the authors are willing and able to incorporate such an important historical moment into their own reflections on the present. The start of chapter two even offers a wonderful reflection: “History unfolds at the intersection of underlying conditions, contingent moments, and human choices,” they write. But in certain respects, Wright and Kahl allow the precedent of 1918 to cast too large and dominating a shadow over their diagnosis and treatment of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They write early on that the “aftershocks” of the Great Influenza “would impact the future of world politics for decades to come.” The 1918 moment thus conveniently leads to the comfortable precedent of the 1930s, the history of which the authors harness to emphasize the profundity of the present moment. The “failure of democratic powers” to stand together and against their common challenges, they allege, was a central precipitant of World War II. The United States in particular is blamed for not “anchoring a new order” prior to 1939. It is this basic historical judgment — that the United States missed an opportunity to unite democratic partners which could have laid the basis for larger ordering systems — which serves as a main organizing principle in both their assessment and treatment of the current problem.

Based on their reading of the period between 1918 and 1939, Wright and Kahl see the present as a decisive moment. They have sounded the death knell of the international order, not only writing that the post-1945 order collapsed, but also referring to our present moment as the “post-covid era.” This opinion is representative not just of the increased attention on a shifting international order, but of executioners itching to drop the analytical guillotine. The reality, however, is that such changes, absent a major great-power war, are often more subtle and more chaotic than the mental imagery of a cohesive, identifiable order might depict. Indeed, it is often not until after events have run their course that the gravity and impact of the shift is understood. And it is at this stage, when the image of a cohesive order takes root in the minds of individuals, that debates about its decline, collapse, or transformation begin to run riot. But if we consider the relationship between global health and international order writ large, it is questionable whether any pandemic, from the Black Death of the 14th century onwards, has ever brought on a “collapse” of the international system. Even the shocking precedent of 1918, as the authors go on to qualify at various points, did not mark such a watershed. This was instead due to a global conflagration which saw unprecedented violence, internal revolutions, and the collapse and gain of key European empires.

Nevertheless, marking as they do the death of the international order allows Wright and Kahl to clear the way for new initiatives. In the final section of the work, they make recommendations as to how the United States and its partners should approach the flux created by changing political, economic, and health conditions. Here are revealed some subtle indications as to how analysts and officials — particularly in Kahl’s case — conceive of actually ordering the international system. They suggest, among other recommendations, shoring up vulnerabilities in the World Health Organization as well as developing a “Global Alliance for Pandemic Preparedness.” It is hard to fault their points here, all of which seem logical enough. But interesting to this reader at least is that at the root of their approach appears to rest a belief that by combining with other like-minded countries, the United States can create a wagon to which other countries might hitch, with the end result being a modern system led by, and working in the interests of, the United States. This represents what scholars like Stewart Patrick have dubbed “coalition” or “club” approaches to ordering on an international scale. It is no doubt a reasonable and logical suggestion, and the potential strategic benefits seem obvious. This “build it and they will come” mentality in part underpinned the early ideas behind the League of Nations and later, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

But the process of ordering can, in many ways, shape the nature of order itself. More exclusive and more democratic groupings — aside from the perils of creating “measures” of democracy — can have the unintended consequence of driving neutral or adversarial governments away. In an age of increased suspicion among non-Western powers as to the purpose that existing international organizations play, health and security systems based on this view may well lead to the very arrangements they initially sought to avoid. Instead, if historical precedents are there for the taking, one might consider the approach of American and British policymakers to the United Nations Organization between 1944 and 1945. Here officials sought to establish but disguise an Anglo-American core at the center of a worldwide, inclusive organization. Though the period from 1946 to 1947 saw the end of cooperation between the West and Moscow, and the United Nations never truly functioned as originally intended, the precedent remains important in terms of how policymakers might conceive of ordering on an international scale. In this case, the crucial takeaway is that a range of countries, and principally the great powers, were included from the start.

Closely related is another idea which seems systemic in the suggestions of Wright and Kahl. The view holds that international institutions reveal their fragility, even fluidity, over time. It is an assumption, if this reader understands it correctly, which is useful to policymakers, in that it values adaptability within institutions. Global pandemics over time, as far back as the aforementioned Black Plague which began in 1347, have led to new institutions related to health, ones which have sought to adapt to the spread of disease in the context of changing political and economic circumstances. In the case of Italian states in the 14th century, it was the “quarantine” system, whereas centuries later, as cholera continued to wreak havoc on populations, the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau and the Office international d’hygiène publique were established. These latter institutions, both created in the first decade of the 20th century, marked the latest iteration of humanity’s response to contagious disease in an increasingly interconnected world. The League of Nations Health Organization and its successor the World Health Organization are products of a similar challenge and response.

This is all to say that, if we step back to take a wider view of the history of global public health, and specifically the work of international health institutions, one notices that as opposed to an anomaly, the disintegration and rebirth of such bodies is a common feature. And it is this point which leads us to two fundamental considerations of modern internationalism and modern world order — specifically, the extent to which organizations must adapt to stay useful, and the interest great powers have, or don’t, in initiating such transformations peacefully. Be they health organizations or wider political, economic, and security frameworks, scholars wielding the analysis and the policymakers holding the pen should be ready and willing to examine the fundamental purpose and nature of such bodies. Sticking to the “carcass” of defunct institutions, to borrow a metaphor from Lord Salisbury, can breed not just complacency but lifelessness. The process of renewal, both on an individual and societal level, can lead to what one might call an animating spirit, and such a pulsating force, whether operating along national or international planes, can serve a valuable if often unrecognizable purpose.

By way of conclusion, we might posit that historical comprehension is essential for modern understanding, both from a philosophical and practical perspective. But the crucial variables, and the one which affects present experience and future visions, are the aperture and shutter speed of the historical lens. Contemporary history of the quality that Wright and Kahl have delivered serves a vital purpose in the life of educated societies. What is more, they have bound contemporary experience to a period of history which remains immensely relevant. Such a view is as informative as it is stimulating. But equally, readers must recognize the shortcomings inherent in both the writing of contemporary history and the reliance on a single historical precedent. The former sometimes overlooks deeper historical currents while the latter can exercise an overly dominant intellectual force on one’s imagination and subsequently, on one’s perception of the present and one’s ideas for the future.



Andrew Ehrhardt is an Ernest May fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. Seaman Apprentice Joshua Sapien)

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