Post COVID-19, the world may change concerning International Cooperation

Authored By:

Yashmitha Purushotham(Research Intern)

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has posed various challenges to the countries around the world. Every country is trying to curb the spread of the virus in different ways. Various measures have been taken within the countries - closing the state borders, complete or partial lockdown, change in policies, and asserting their sovereignty. Nationalism is on the rise. However, it is believed that a global problem like pandemic requires a global solution. The tension between isolationism versus internationalism; realism versus idealism; competition versus interdependence can be conceived as existing between politics and policy.

Politics and policy are inextricably linked. In this context, Politics are nation-states, which is local, and about relative gains in the pursuit of power with specific communities. Whereas policy is transnational, strategizing for solving particular problems, global and about absolute gains.

The struggle for power does not necessarily involve disagreements over policy, and policy disagreements are not necessarily resolved by a political contest, but one usually informs the other. These two concepts have to be understood separately for analytical purposes provided they are seen as closely related.

This approach to understanding international affairs is both empirical and theoretical. It has three distinctive characteristics. First, it is actor-centric rather than state-centric as it attends to the many sub-state and non-state actors that shape international negotiations. Second, it examines governance rather than politics as it takes a broader governance perspective that incorporates policy and institutional dimensions. Third, it is pragmatic rather than idealistic as it operates across traditions and examines multiple variables. This holistic approach aims at problem-solving and is well suited to a changing world in which historical patterns of cooperation (and conflict) may no longer hold.

Actors in International affairs

The Government actors, Private actors, Institutions influence international negotiations depending on their available resources and their nature of interests.

The Government actors are considered as representatives of states. Their resources are often defined concerning the wealth and military assets of those states which is significant in international negotiations as wealth enables the state and its representatives to buy influence, military assets enable the state and its representatives to project influence.

The interests of government actors as representatives of states are often within the purview of ‘national interest’. In broad terms, the national interest is the interest of a state in international affairs, but it lacks more specific meaning and content (Burchill 2005).

A deep or bigger picture of government actors’ approach to international negotiations emerges when they are viewed as actors in their own right and interest, rather than mere state representatives. Here, two categories of government actors: politicians and bureaucrats need to be distinguished.

The most significant resource of politicians is their authority to determine the policies of their state. Politicians from a governing party are supreme to those in opposition, and certain officeholders – such as heads of state and ministers, councils – are the best placed as they usually represent states in international negotiations.

Politician's primary interests lay in securing power. Interest in policies and policy-making are secondary as they don’t usually do it for the public but for the sake of retaining their office and the power which comes with it. Politics and policy are deeply intertwined. In any national interest equation involving politicians, political imperatives usually prevail over policy ambition.

There occurs conflict of interests for politicians in international negotiations as their political interests differ from those of their foreign counterparts because they serve different (and often competitive) political communities. This gives rise to a challenging ‘two-level game’, where politicians must negotiate a deal at the international level that also satisfies their respective domestic constituencies (Putnam 1988). Some politicians are exceptionally skilled and experienced at playing such games. They find innovative ways to bring their national interests into alignment and secure cooperation. This often manifests as a form of pure politics that plays well at home even if it frustrates negotiations abroad.

Bureaucrats are the other government actors that influence international negotiations based on the information and expertise available to them. They are policy-oriented. Implementation of policies is a major concern to them.

Bureaucrats are ‘specialists’ in their policy domains whereas politicians are ‘dilettantes’ (Weber 1978). What are the interests of bureaucrats? As Weber (1978) observed, they are focused on the impersonal administration of public policy, applying the most efficient means given certain goals.

Unlike politicians, bureaucrats are focused on tackling the same transnational problems and often are in terms of their foreign counterparts because they share policy interests and can work towards a coordinated policy solution for the nation without any political intervention.

Private actors such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses, think tanks, activists, journalists, academics, and lawyers can also be influential players in the international realm. Their interests are diverse – financial, social, personal, etc., and have ample resources, which includes money, votes, information, expertise, and organizational capacity. They approach negotiations in different ways depending on their available resources. It can range between directly lobbying the government, running media campaigns, holding protests, conducting research, preparing policy papers, or take legal action. Private actors often have a greater impact on international negotiations when they work together, and in concert with government actors, to form ‘webs of influence’ (Braithwaite &Drahos 2000).

Institutions define the way different actors engage in international negotiations. Some institutions open up possibilities for actors to exert influence, others close them off. There are many institutions – both domestic and international – that shape the interactions of government and private actors across borders.

International organizations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization (WTO), theWorld Health Organisation (WHO) can facilitate international cooperation by creating conditions for orderly negotiations, establishing legitimate standards of behaviour, improving information exchange to reduce uncertainty, facilitating linkages, and providing ways to monitor compliance (Keohane 1984).

Mechanisms of international cooperation

International cooperation requires policy coordination among states, which involves two primary mechanisms: politicization and reciprocity.

The impact of politicization on international cooperation is most apparent at its end. The extreme form of politicization is securitization, which is the act of framing an issue as an existential threat requiring an extraordinary response urgently and may involve special measures. Every actor has various reasons to securitize an issue. An issue may be securitized because of a genuine belief that it represents an existential threat; politicians may securitize an issue to gain popularity that would support his electorate, bureaucrats may securitize to obtain additional resources to tackle the issue.

In a transnational context, governments may be compelled to pursue cooperation with other affected states as part of their response. Levels of politicization of transnational problems may differ depending on their political will, as it is hard for them to align their interests. Moreover, the very act of politicization can inhibit international cooperation by engaging politicians and other politically-minded actors seeking to gain from a political contest with other states. It enlivens the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality discussed above criticize an issue to elevate it within political debates.

Importantly, while the politicization of transnational problems generates the political will necessary to drive international cooperation from within states, this does not mean that cooperation will necessarily be realized between them. Levels of politicization may differ across different states, making it harder for them to align their interests. Moreover, the very act of politicization can inhibit international cooperation by engaging politicians, and other like-minded persons seeking to gain from a political contest with other states

To understand how government actors from different states agree to cooperate, it is necessary to understand the operation of a further mechanism: reciprocity. Axelrod, using a computer simulation demonstrated that cooperation could emerge and persist among self-interested actors who adopt a strategy of reciprocal exchange – meeting good with good and ill with ill, where those actors are likely to have an ongoing relationship. It makes reciprocity an effective strategy as it is a ‘shadow of the future’ and is a type of specific reciprocity. It is usually adopted in bilateral trade.

Another type is of diffuse reciprocity, where the scope for cooperation widens but so does the risk of exploitation. Robert Keohane (1986)defines diffuse reciprocity as an ongoing series of sequential actions that may continue indefinitely, never balancing but continuing to entail mutual concessions within the context of shared commitments and values. Specific reciprocity is far more common in international relations than diffuse reciprocity.

Moving the level of analysis from the state to its representatives provides further insights into how reciprocity is practised in international relations. Politicians are more likely to favour specific reciprocity, given they have similar interests with their counterparts. Bureaucrats are more likely to favour diffuse reciprocity, given the objectives and identities they share with their international counterparts deriving from their professional subcultures. Successful specific reciprocity may evolve into diffuse reciprocity, and a failure of diffuse reciprocity may lead actors to revert to specific reciprocity.

Driving international cooperation

The politics-policy framing offers a novel way of navigating whatever form of international order (or disorder) emerges following the COVID-19 pandemic. The framing enables these opposing positions between nationalism and cosmopolitanism to be reconciled.

On the one side is the political agenda, on the other side is policy ambition, and in the middle is the messy business of international negotiations. The outcome of these negotiations depends on the mix of actors involved, their institutional context, and the way they engage with the mechanisms of international cooperation.

The analogy can be summarized as the actors have a direct or indirect role to play in influencing international cooperation. As the representatives of their states, they are given the authority to determine public policy. Bureaucrats are the experts and have a more direct influence on international negotiations. Private actors provide indirect influence as the interventions of private actors are not always welcomed, they only play a critical role in shaping the decisions of the government actors in the front. Institutions define what is permissible while negotiating or discussing international cooperation.

The politicization of a transnational problem generates the political will required to pursue international cooperation. The greater the politicization, the greater the political will. At the same time, politicization can inhibit international cooperation. This is the paradox of politicization; it both compels and curtails cooperation between states. Reciprocity propels international cooperation by translating the political will generated by politicization into cooperative action.

Based on this analysis, (i) Quiet diplomacy; (ii) Engaging with private actors; (iii) Investing in bureaucratic networks; (iv) Enhancing knowledge; (v) Political buy-in; (vi) Building policy consensus are the various strategies identified for driving international cooperation. These strategies are context dependant as an effective strategy in one situation may not be effective in another.


Putnam, Robert D. 1988. “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games.” International Organization 42(3): 427–460.

Weber, Max. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds H. H. Gerth& C. W. Mills. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Braithwaite, John, and Peter Drahos. 2000. Global Business Regulation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keohane, Robert O. 1984. After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Keohane, Robert O. 1986. “Reciprocity in International Relations.” International Organization 40(1): 1–27.

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