A Realist Take on Vaccination Mandates

By Jesse Rodriguez

Cdmr. James Fish (USS Gerald R. Ford) receives a COVID-19 vaccine in April 2021
Image Credit: Jackson Adkins/DVIDS

Recently, it was announced that the U.S. Senate would have enough votes to overturn the Biden administration’s proposal for a “vaccine or testing” mandate for businesses of 100 or more employees. 

The resolution has seemingly received bipartisan support, with Indiana Senator Mike Braun describing the mandate as “overreach” by the president. While President Biden may resort to a different avenue, the emergence of the new Omicron variant and recent spike in cases both  domestically and abroad means time is of the essence. 

Taking a page from realist international relations theory, the United States would benefit from approaching the COVID-19 pandemic the way a state leader would approach the anarchic international system: survival comes first and everything else is second.  

Neorealist scholars and analysts often cite security as a state’s top priority, as it is the only way to guarantee the state’s survival in an anarchic system. 

To achieve security, states seek to possess enough military power to combat emerging threats such as rising great powers. Enough military power, however, can only be achieved by possessing enough latent power; a combination of a large population and prosperous economy. 

As the death toll continues to rise around the world, including inside the United States, viewing the issue through the lens of latent power might alter the perspective of American policymakers. 

While realist theory is often used in the context of war, modern-day international security issues span much further than the battlefield. The effects of COVID-19 have impacted both the American population and the economy.  

This comes as Washington’s grip on the current U.S-led international order is threatened as tensions continue to rise with Russia and China over disputes in Ukraine and Taiwan respectively. 

Allowing a security threat to linger in the form of a deadly pandemic would not be wise for American interests domestically or abroad. In fact, the Biden proposal for “vaccine or testing” is in line with neorealist theory by stating a state must balance against a threat to ensure its own survival.     

Latent power requires a large (and healthy) population. The emergence of the COVID-19 virus in 2019 has resulted in 49,537,149 cases and 793,188 deaths in the United States as of December 8, 2021. 

Throughout the debate on Capitol Hill, the public has mostly disagreed with the Senate’s decision. Data analytics firm Morning Consult released a poll showing 68% of Americans are in favor of a mandate. A joint survey conducted by Northwestern, Northeastern, Harvard, and Rutgers University in October stated public support for “federal, state, and local” mandates sat at 65% approval.  

America’s large population should also translate into a prosperous economy to equal latent power. 

The U.S saw a decrease of 31.4% of its GDP during the second quarter of 2020, the “highest recorded single quarterly decline” in real GDP. Additionally, the peak unemployment rate of 14.7% was the highest record monthly rate in the post-World War II era. 

The global economy has suffered as a whole because of COVID-19, with global trade estimated to have fallen by 5.3% in 2020. Estimates indicate that “65 million to 75 million” people may now be living in extreme poverty after 2020, citing factors such as derailed careers, increased social unrest, and having their lives upended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

If any state, including the United States, continues to lose its population and prosperity at this rate, its strength in the international system will fall. Realist theory suggests a state leader will prioritize the survival of their state over any other influential factor, including domestic politics and civil liberties.  

Civil liberty advocates have called a vaccine mandate a “gross violation of liberty” in the past, with the importance of upholding individual liberties, especially in a democracy such as that of the United States, being undeniable. 

As a result, it is reasonable to interpret President Biden’s proposal as a desperate measure, but realist theory suggests these are desperate times. 

In fact, there is a case to be made that continued government lockdowns meant to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus are a stronger violation of liberty than a temporary mandate calling for testing in the workplace. If so, libertarians might be interested in embracing the realist approach to dealing with the pandemic sooner.    

The COVID-19 virus presents a threat unlike any other in this lifetime. This virus knows no borders or sovereignty, it fears no nuclear weapons or mutually assured destruction, and has no interests in domestic, partisan feuds or antics. 

A global response led by the United States would have major implications in how soon the COVID-19 pandemic becomes endemic. 

If Washington must view the medical and scientific resources of the United States as the “military power” result of American latent power. The United States possesses the ability to effectively balance with enough capability to neutralize the threat as it would in a great power war.  

The U.S. holds the primary resource needed for winning this war, as individuals with either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine have experienced a “94% reduction in risk of being hospitalized.”

America’s foreign policy agenda, coupled with neorealist thought, ostensibly places President Biden’s proposal in the middle of the two extremes, at least until the pandemic reaches the endemic phase. 

Individuals who are not vaccinated would not be forced into a vaccination, instead being subjected to testing in order to ensure safety in the workplace. 

The U.S. must avoid the continued loss of human life and economic hardship domestically by implementing a “survival first” approach. Abroad, the U.S. could once again position itself as the icebreaker in its own world order, leading by example and encouraging other states to participate in a “vax or test” strategy. 

American citizens and policymakers should not be willing to sit by and watch their lead slowly evaporate. Realism teaches that preparation is key but timing is everything. 

The U.S. public, along with policymakers, should expand its interest in the Biden administration’s proposal, not only because it will save lives, but because of the implications it could have on the U.S. standing in the international community. Now is a fair time to question how much civil liberties will matter in the growing absence of survival.  

Jesse Rodriguez is an undergraduate student at George Mason University majoring in Criminology, Law & Society and double minoring in Intelligence Studies and International Security. He is also an Associate Member at the University of Oxford for Hilary Term 2022. 

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