COVID-19 vaccine lessons for American diplomacy after Trump

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Biological science and diplomacy seem to have little in common, but America’s rapid production of two COVID-19 vaccines has lessons for shaping and resourcing American diplomacy for the Biden administration and the Congress. Recognizing and applying these lessons will be vital to American diplomatic success in dealing with challenging transnational issues, such as climate change and global competitors, such as China.

The first vaccine lesson for diplomacy is there is no such thing as an overnight or singular success. Early work on the mRNA science behind the first two U.S. produced COVID-19 vaccines dates from the 1990s and took decades of work by multiple scientists for it to be used successfully to support human vaccinations. The first two U.S. COVID-19 vaccines also incorporated the work of two other strands of scientific research (viral proteins and the lipid nanoparticle). So, the “miracle” of the rapidly produced U.S. vaccines came through decades of work and the collaboration of many scientists, engineers and companies.

In contrast, America’s diplomacy in recent decades has too often been shaped by policy and political processes concerned about the never-ending news cycle, positioning for an upcoming election, or, more recently, presidential tweets. This produces short-term actions, not the long-term engagement needed to produce sustainable success. The Trump administration compounded this problem by attacking U.S. allies and walking away from diplomatic agreements the U.S. had earlier urged allies to support. “America First” became America alone.

The Biden administration’s diplomacy needs to avoid the “in-box trap;” that is, it cannot let the need to address urgent short-term issues in its first few months in office get in the way of establishing a process with deadlines to produce longer-term strategies and action plans to deal with China, climate change, Russia, Iran and other hard problems.

It must also rebuild America’s relationship of trust and confidence with its allies, who are essential to long-term American diplomatic success — and are assets neither Russia nor China has. 

Congress should be part of the process of developing sound long-term diplomatic strategies. This can be done through consultations with the administration and substantive hearings that air a variety of expert views and that can help build broad support for America’s foreign policy goals and the path to achieving them.

The second vaccine lesson for American diplomacy is that success requires investment. U.S. government and private sector investments supported the decades of research that ultimately led to the rapid production of effective COVID-19 vaccines. A brilliant idea or strategy means nothing without funding.

American diplomacy has long been underfunded, but the Trump administration tried to starve it, proposing draconian budget cuts of up to 37 percent. The total foreign affairs budget is about 1 percent of the total federal budget; the defense budget is about 16 percent. On a per capita basis, the U.S. spends significantly less on foreign aid, a key tool in dealing with transnational issues and stemming the global (and hemispheric) flow of migration, than other developed countries.

Congress, on a bipartisan basis, rejected Trump’s repeated efforts to slash America’s international affairs budget. Now Congress and the Biden administration need to give the State Department, which is chronically short of staff at a time when China’s global diplomatic presence is now larger than America’s, the financial and human resources it needs to promote and protect America’s interests and values abroad. If America does not budget for diplomatic success, it will not achieve it.

The third vaccine lesson for American diplomacy is that diversity matters. Dr. Katalin Karikó, an immigrant woman, was key scientist behind America’s development of mRNA for human vaccines. America’s diversity should be a strength for its diplomacy in dealing with a diverse world. Instead, as the GAO has reported, the State Department is becoming less, not more diverse. The Biden administration — with Congressional support — needs to dramatically improve the State Department’s actions to diversify America’s diplomatic corps.

Perhaps the final vaccine lesson for American diplomacy is that science produces success by taking a fact-based approach to solving problems. What matters is what works, not myths or partisan affiliations. It was said of American diplomacy in the mid-20th Century that politics stopped at the water’s edge. That has clearly not been the case so far in the 21st Century.

Long-term challenges to America’s national security cannot be dealt with successfully if American foreign policy is riven by partisanship. Managing constructively U.S. relations with China will take a long-term strategy that can only be sustained if it has bipartisan support. The same is true of Russia, Iran, North Korea, and nuclear arms control.

Climate change is a prime example of a major national security and domestic economic challenge where partisanship currently is overriding both scientific evidence and lived experience. America’s political leadership will fail the American people if it does not soon develop a bipartisan and science-based approach to dealing with climate change. President-elect Biden has said dealing with climate change is a priority and he wants to work with everyone to tackle it. Business is already responding positively; Republicans have not, but must do so if they care about America’s future.

America faces hard and complex foreign policy challenges in the decade ahead, but the Biden administration and Congress can tackle them successfully — if they follow the lessons learned from America’s success in producing two COVID-19 vaccines.

Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA in the George W. Bush administration and as a senior intelligence official in the Obama Administration. He was founding director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (2005-2009). He was involved in international environmental issues and negotiations in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Tags American diplomacy China Climate change COVID-19 vaccine Diplomacy Diversity Iran Joe Biden NATO allies Presidency of Donald Trump Russia Science diplomacy U.S. Department of State United States Foreign Service Vaccine

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