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The laws of vaccine diplomacy
Written by Alex Massie
1 April 2021
In the parlance of football colour commentators, Europe is having “a mare”. The EU’s vaccination programme is an extraordinary triumph of pettifogging bureaucracy and penny-pinching absurdity getting in the way of what could otherwise be a remarkable, even heroic, story of human ingenuity. It is not a cost-free enterprise either, as lockdowns in France and elsewhere demonstrate. This failure to deliver will cost lives and money which, in turn, will cost more lives.
There is another story, however, beyond the simple fact of Brussels-led incompetence. Just 14% of EU citizens have received even a single dose of any coronavirus vaccine and the EU’s determination to insist this is all fine – indeed, that the EU is actually doing well – reinforces both the sense of its isolation from reality and the longer-term suspicion that the old continent is ill-placed to meet many of the strategic challenges that lie ahead. A jab in the arm, or rather the absence of a jab in the arm, is synecdoche. That is to say, one specific failure represents a more general one.
At times, this risks toppling into absurdity. Contrasting Britain’s vaccination success with the EU’s failures, one EU diplomat told CNN’s Luke McGee: “You might feel happy on your little island when you are all vaccinated, but your island might feel small when you cannot leave it because your neighbours are not vaccinated”. What could be inferred is that it is better to fail inside the club than succeed outside it.
If there was more than a hint of “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die” about this, it nonetheless struck upon a fundamental truth: there is no return to normality, or even any new, reset normality, until such time as vaccines have been distributed to all corners of the earth. The sooner that happens, the less probable it is that new mutations arise. For this really is a race and the contest which counts is not between countries but between humanity and the virus.
While Britain might be winning our own race, viewed on a planet-wide basis it is evident we are, as a species, losing. An analysis for the World Bank reported that although 82% of wealthy countries have at least begun to vaccinate their populations, just three per cent of low-income countries have done so. Middle-income nations are expected to jab their people by the end of next year, but dozens of the world’s poorest countries may not complete their vaccination programmes until 2023 or even 2024.
If that is not a disaster for global public health, it certainly represents a colossal failure. And, in as much as it would create space for the evolution of new versions of the virus that could conceivably prove resistant to existing vaccines, it might very well become a disaster. To put it another way: it is one thing to weather one pandemic but quite another to be expected to survive two.
There is an evident imperative in supporting the poorer portions of the world, then. This is not a question of charity so much as it is of self-interest. The cost of ramping up vaccine production to cover an extra three billion people is vastly lower than the potential cost of leaving large parts of the world unvaccinated.
Vaccines are not just a question of health, however. They are also vials of diplomacy. This is something understood by China (and by Russia) even if it is under-appreciated in the west. The efficacy of China’s vaccine may be in question – one reason Chile, despite vaccinating a high percentage of its citizens, is still seeing cases increase at an alarming rate may be that it has relied on supplies of the Chinese vaccine – but better a moderately-effective vaccine than no vaccine at all.
It should not be difficult to appreciate that poor or middle-income countries which are able to secure vaccine supplies from China (especially at a moderate price) will be more inclined to grant China the benefit of the doubt in the future. Beijing knows full well the value of infrastructure diplomacy. Its investments in Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean are only in part the consequence of its need to find markets or opportunities for Chinese surpluses. They are also political investments, made in the awareness that Antigua & Barbuda has the same number of votes at the United Nations as the United States.
Chinese expansionism cannot be prevented, but it can be checked. Those who doubt the need to view China as a future, or potential future, threat might be advised to look at China’s domestic record and ponder the implications of its exportation elsewhere. There is no need to seek conflict but no excuse either for declining to see the world as it is. Realism is a precautionary principle of its own.
Something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, might be said of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Europe’s bungled vaccine procurement process has created a further opening for Moscow. France has suggested that the Russian Sputnik vaccine might be part of the answer to the EU’s extraordinary vaccine failure. If so, it is an answer that comes with a price measured in something more than just roubles. Just as Germany’s enthusiasm for the Nord-Stream pipeline increases European energy dependence on Russia, so the Sputnik vaccine should be seen as a measure of Russian state policy. Insisting upon a united front – or, indeed, any front at all – against Russian aggression will be made harder, not easier, by this.
For politics – and realpolitik – never takes a holiday and certain trends will be exacerbated by crisis, not put to one side.
That means counter-measures must be taken and that means, as always, that the United States must lead. One consequence of Donald Trump’s years in the White House is that the starting point of American foreign policy shifted further towards an “America First” position and away from longer-standing traditions of multilateral engagement. That shift cannot be reversed overnight. And that helps explain why, even though Joe Biden’s administration intends to re-engage with the world, it cannot do so immediately. Like a heavily-laden tanker, it takes time to turn the ship of American foreign policy around.
And there is, again as part of Trump’s legacy, a pressing domestic political – and public health – imperative to vaccinate every eligible American citizen before sending any surplus supplies overseas. On one level that is hardly surprising and wholly normal; no Western government can offer to vaccinate other countries’ citizens before their own. (China, it might be noted, has the ability to ignore its own domestic need in this fashion.) But if it ever was, this is no longer a zero-sum game: the United States, like the United Kingdom, has excess supply. Indeed, the US has sufficient supplies of vaccines to dose its people twice over.
That is more than sufficient and although Washington has pledged $2bn to the global COVAX programme to help poorer countries, there is still a sense that more could be done and done more quickly. And when the Venn diagram of political interest and altruism is in fact a single circle, there are vanishingly few good reasons for failing to act swiftly and decisively.
Politics cannot be disentangled from any part of the pandemic and since foreign policy deplores a vacuum, the two iron laws of vaccine diplomacy are that the first mover gains a singular advantage and that if western democracies do not take the lead, someone else will.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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