The case against vaccine diplomacy

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Apr 30 2021

This week Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey called on the Biden administration to send vaccines to India, where covid cases have been spiking. “This is India’s moment of need,” he said.

So far so good. But then Kim started talking the language of “vaccine diplomacy.” He warned that China and Russia “have been using their vaccines to gather favor globally.” India, he noted, is an ally, and “America’s strategic strengths (especially in relation to China) are our allies and partners.”

Vaccine diplomacy has become the standard Blob framing of the case for sending vaccines abroad. “The United States can’t ignore China’s vaccine diplomacy in Latin America,” warns a headline above a piece by Washington Post writer and ardent neo-Cold Warrior Josh Rogin. A news flash from NBC: “Russia and China are beating the U.S. at vaccine diplomacy, experts say.”

The vaccine diplomacy mindset has its virtues. Sending vaccines abroad for reasons of realpolitik beats not sending them at all. Joe Biden’s pledge this week to release 60 million surplus AstraZeneca doses is an improvement over America’s previous policy of hoarding ever-growing vaccine stockpiles—aka, “vaccine nationalism.” If whispering “soft power” in Biden’s ear is what did the trick, that’s better than the trick not getting done. 

Still, this narrow choice between isolationist vaccine nationalism and competitive vaccine diplomacy misses a fundamental point: Viruses don't care about geopolitics. For that reason, a vaccine distribution strategy aimed at fighting an imagined cold war will look very different from a vaccine distribution strategy aimed at fighting a real global pandemic.    

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For starters, the second kind of strategy has this as a key premise: We all benefit every time anyone anywhere gets inoculated, no matter where the shot comes from. So if Russia or China gives vaccines to Brazil, that’s a good thing! Yet the Trump administration tried to discourage the Brazilian government from accepting the Russian Sputnik vaccine! (Even today, as the virus festers in Brazil and the country’s death toll rises rapidly, Rogin laments that Brazil’s government, to smooth the flow of vaccines from China, is letting Huawei bid on the contract to build its 5G network. Rogin never explains why Americans should prefer new variants of covid entering the US to Huawei entering Brazil’s telecom market.) 

We’re hopeful that, in this realm as in others, the Biden administration won’t be as crude as the Trump administration. Still, there are already signs that Biden will subordinate the global struggle against covid to the global struggle with authoritarianism that his foreign policy team has adopted as its lodestar. Earlier this week, Samantha Power—newly confirmed as head of the US Agency for International Development—endorsed a tweet arguing that India’s being an “ally and democracy” strengthens the case for channeling vaccines in its direction.

Samantha Power made her name in the Obama administration as a humanitarian—indeed, so determined a humanitarian that she advocated military interventions to alleviate human suffering. Well, a true humanitarian should want to minimize the global death toll from covid. And if that’s your goal, then global vaccine distribution should be governed by public health considerations, not diplomatic ones. It’s possible that, at the moment, these two considerations would both arrive at the conclusion that India is where the vaccines should go. But if so that’s a happy coincidence. It won’t reliably be the case that the countries where vaccines would get the most bang per buck, in terms of lives saved globally in the long run, are countries that happen to be on Team USA.

And this point holds, by the way, even if you switch from a global humanitarian outlook to an America First outlook. It won’t reliably be the case that the countries where vaccines would get the most bang per buck, in terms of lives saved in the United States in the long run, are countries that happen to be on Team USA.

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In the end, vaccine diplomacy and vaccine nationalism have a lot in common. Both conceive of a non-zero-sum problem in zero-sum terms.

This zero-sum framing so pervades media coverage that you barely notice it. This week the New York Times posted a podcast episode entitled “Why Russia Is Exporting So Much Vaccine.” (Spoiler: It’s not because Putin’s a nice guy.) In it reporter Andrew Kramer says that Russia’s vaccine diplomacy is part of a strategy to shore up support among the “bad boys club”—meaning Cuba, Iran, Syria and other Russian allies—and gain influence in the “battleground countries” teetering between Russia and the West. 

That characterization may indeed capture the strategic logic of Russia—which can itself be rightly accused of subordinating global health considerations to geostrategic aims. But the menacing tone of Kramer’s report encourages the US to respond in like terms—to distribute its vaccines along cold war lines rather than public health lines. 

Kramer states matter-of-factly that, as a result of nefarious Russian actions over the past few years, there is now “no question of collaboration” between Moscow and the West. Is that true? Is it literally inconceivable that Biden could call a global summit of vaccine manufacturing countries, including Russia and China, and try to coordinate distribution along public health lines? (And maybe even think about suspending or modifying patent protections in certain countries to help scale up vaccine manufacturing? Oh wait, we’re getting carried away. Apologies.)

Even Cold Warrior extraordinaire Ronald Reagan managed to set aside his hatred for the “Evil Empire” to negotiate arms control treaties with the Soviet Union. It would be a shame if future historians concluded that Reagan was better at recognizing non-zero-sum situations than Joe Biden.

And if that’s not enough to incentivize Biden, how about this: Calling a global vaccine summit would win America favor around the world. It would be a deft exercise of soft power. It would be… good vaccine diplomacy. And we mean that in a nice way!

This piece originally appeared in The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and consider subscribing.

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(Photo credit: Spencerbdavis, CC by 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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