Pandemic Internationalism: some thoughts on meeting virtually


On Friday, 26 June the Centre for the Study of Internationalism hosted an online discussion about internationalism. Here are a few thoughts about the outcome…


On Friday, 26 June – the hottest day of the year in London so far – the Centre for the Study of Internationalism hosted an online discussion about internationalism. For some time we had been planning to host a ‘What is internationalism in 2020?’ workshop in spring 2020. When Covid put a stop to that we wondered whether it would be feasible to run something online instead – something less structured and curated perhaps, but something that could serve to bring different Centre members and researchers together nonetheless. Well, we did run it. Here are a few thoughts about the outcome.

Zoom, zoom, zoom

We’ve all spent far too much time in online meetings by now and are acutely aware of their shortcomings. Patchy internet connections cut out at vital points in the discussion. Laptops, often acquired some time ago with no pandemic in mind, are overheating from the effort of running Zoom along with too many programmes and a gazillion browser tabs, and churn away like helicopters. Unreliable audio obscures crucial points of conversation, and video connections freeze faces mid-sentence. The ‘microphone off’ policy removes chatter, heckles and cheers, and makes collective atmospheres much harder to discern. Many of us forget to turn it back on before launching into whatever we have to say. The lack of informal pre- and post-meeting chats can make even gatherings with cherished and long-familiar colleagues seem artificial and strange, and makes it difficult to get a sense of people we’ve never met. Perhaps most problematic is that Zoom or Teams meetings demand a new level of multi-tasking from everyone taking part – requiring us to simultaneously listen, speak, skim chats bars, read and take notes, and respond to provocations or raised hands, all while hoping the internet doesn’t give out or the children downstairs are going mental.

But meeting digitally is not without its merits. As we discovered, a Zoom discussion made it possible for people to take part who would not have been able to travel to London for a physical meeting, even in normal circumstances. As it was, participants were spread out across five continents and many more time zones, and quite naturally took part, stopped to run essential errands, and came back online. The number of participants was never static, as internet connections were lost and regained and family obligations dealt with. At any moment between 50 and 35 people were signed in, and the discussion was never short of people wanting to contribute.

What is internationalism today?

In preparation for the event we asked 20 scholars to think about a list of questions and to send us short video responses. The questions we asked were these:

  • What does internationalism mean today?
  • How can the study of internationalism make sense of our world today?
  • What roles is the study of internationalism likely to play in academic discourse in the next 5, 10, 20 years?

Their responses are posted here and constituted the starting point of the conversation that followed.

Recreating the discussion here in any detail is impossible: it was lively, intense and wide-ranging, and we didn’t take very good notes (too much multi-tasking! Next time we might try recording the event). Broadly speaking, it began with questions around definitions and demarcations of different internationalisms, and ended with thoughts about future possibilities. Represented were historians, social and political scientists, as well as one lawyer (thanks for coming, Bill!), though the Centre at large also draws on lawyers, linguists, geographers, artists and others. As we saw during the conversation, in practice different academic disciplines tend to attach quite different meanings to terms such as transnationalism and globalisation, and disciplinary conventions and preconceptions can obscure any common ground. However, we also saw that concrete questions regularly brought it back into focus.

One such question was a shared puzzlement about the absence of clear international responses to the pandemic. The pandemic highlighted to many of us both just how little multilateral action is currently favoured by states across the world, but also how much of the successful management of the coronoavirus requires a degree of international cooperation, particularly but not only in the efforts to develop a vaccine. Others argued that the pandemic had done a lot to expose long-existing tensions between universalising and particularist tendencies in internationalist projects, and as such has foregrounded global and local patterns of inequality. The World Health Organisation’s operation, another focus of the discussion, exhibits both universal and particular tendencies: it necessarily represents a set of national responses, and global health priorities are perceived very differently in different parts of the world.

Questions about the infrastructure of internationalism (in the past and particularly in the present) came up in various guises, as we considered what, if anything, is really lost with the loss of tourism, travel and study abroad opportunities, and what, if anything, can be gained in the era of digital connections. One answer that began to emerge was that internationalism does not depend on the cross-border mobility of individuals, not least because both old medias (such as letter writing and print journalism) and new medias (such as Twitter and video conferencing) enable the transnational exchange of ideas. However, some participants pointed out that ‘exchange’ alone does not turn a potentially transnational phenomenon, such as the Black Lives Matter protest, into an organised international one.

The discussion also brought to light different ways of thinking about the past of internationalism and international collaboration. Historians are often asked to look for historical precedents so as to identify and shape the paths taken in the future. But an identification of precedents can be as misleading as it can be enlightening. Heidi Tworek argued that we’d all do well to think more about the history of the structures around us and less about precedent and analogy. Whether history as a discipline is better equipped to grapple with questions around internationalism than the social or political sciences remains to be seen. Some of our participants thought so, but not everyone agreed.

Pandemic internationalism

Apart from enabling people to take part in the conversation who might not have been able to do so otherwise, online meetings also have done a lot to humanise professional encounters, and to cement them in the settings of our households. When everyone’s walls and bookshelves are on display, and interrupting children and pets are an unavoidable occurrence, the notion of an academic ivory tower seems wildly inappropriate. Jessica’s neighbours had set up an enormous splash pool in their back garden and were relishing noisily in every splash, while we grappled with concepts of ‘lived internationalism’ and the limits of global citizenship.

This new setting is particularly relevant because many of us are thinking about the relevance of our scholarship in the light of current events – the Covid pandemic, but also riots about race and history, climate protests, threats of global recession, the failure of regional projects, upcoming elections, and much more – and about how our research can help to explain them, or can foreground issues we might not otherwise have taken seriously. Friday’s discussion grappled with the notion of scholar-activists, who have to come to terms with the political implications of our own actions and choices.

Ultimately, we could only skim the surface of questions about the failures of international projects. What shapes and sizes do these failures come in? What is the benchmark of success? Does the pandemic preface an inevitable period of deglobalisation and the rolling back of the history of internationalisation of the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries? These questions might offer a useful starting point for the Centre’s next online discussion, to be held in the autumn. Until then, stay safe everyone – we will be back.

Questions submitted in advance:

  • Naseer Ahmad: How is WHO’s and broadly UN’s role going to change in the future due to the issues that Covid-19 has brought in the spotlight? It seems clear that the world was not doing enough for a collective response to a tragedy like this virus.
  • Tom Furse: Why should it be that global actors and nation states reference some pandemics/ epidemics, like the 1918 Influenza or SARs but seem to forget/ diminish the international effects of others, syphilis, cholera, and perhaps AIDs in the 1980s? It presents a kind of hierarchy of contagious diseases, not necessarily through severity, but through distortions of institutional memory. How do the participants think memory and notoriety of pandemics affect international cooperation?
  • Lynton Lees: When talking about the COVID-19 pandemic we have often replicated many of our pre-existing ways of thinking about internationalism past and present: oriented around the cross-border migration both of people and of ideas (and the technologies that facilitate that migration), for instance, or a focus on international institutions and on experts. We have also seen the power of the nation state strongly re-asserted, in the form of strict travel restrictions and policing of border entry, and clashes between national governments and the international scientific community. Has the experience of this pandemic merely replicated these pre-existing tensions in the study of internationalism, or given us opportunities to think our way out of them?
  • Jacob Anderson: To what degree will the pandemic be a universal experience that can be leveraged for greater understanding between nations and people’s, and to what degree is it a pressure point that can be used to create fear and distrust? Both seem to be happening, is there one that is more likely to be the long-term impact?
  • Dina Gusejnova: What insights do you draw as historians from the influence of this pandemic on the “structural transformations of the public sphere” around the world (in a non-Habermasian sense)?

Publications referred to in the discussion: