Is vaccine diplomacy the new ‘soft diplomacy’?


As the United States races to get its citizens vaccinated, there is a parallel vaccine marathon going on in the world in which nations are bartering, trading, giving away and using vaccine doses for more than just public health.

The COVID-19 vaccine is the new highly sought-after currency used in exchange for people or things, like a modern day version of trading beads.

According to the New York Times, Israel has agreed to finance an undisclosed number of coronavirus vaccines for its enemy Syria, using Russia as a third party cut-out. Under the reported deal, Israel will pay Moscow to send Russian-made Sputnik vaccines to the regime of Bashar al-Assad of Syria in return for the release of a 23-year-old Israeli woman detained since Feb. 2 for entering Syria. 

Inevitably, goods of high value get sold, traded and bartered especially in desperate times when everyone needs the same thing and supplies are limited. 

Think about it: For more than 100 years, oil has been a uniquely important commodity in world affairs. Petroleum is a vital raw material for modern warfare and economic development. But its uneven distribution around the world means that some nations are oil‐rich and others are oil‐poor. As a result, petroleum has often been the focus of international diplomacy as nations seek to secure oil supplies through trade, diplomacy or armed conquest, and to control other nations’ access to oil through trade deals and economic sanctions.

We saw this phenomenon happen with weapons. If it sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, recall the 1986 Iran-Contra Affair — a secret U.S. arms deal that traded missiles and other arms to free some Americans held hostage by terrorists in Lebanon, but also used funds from the arms deal to support armed conflict in Nicaragua. The controversial arms deal – and the ensuing political scandal – threatened to bring down the presidency of Ronald Reagan. At the center of the scheme was Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, of the National Security Council, who later came forward to acknowledge that he had diverted the missing funds to the Contras in Nicaragua, which used them to acquire weapons.

Vaccine diplomacy may be the latest iteration of the global marketplace, but, hopefully, it does not have to be done illegally or under the cover of darkness. On the positive side, sharing vaccines is an important part of “soft diplomacy.” President Biden just announced that the United States is committing $4 billion to COVAX, an organization ensuring equal distribution of vaccines around the world. Americans will be helping the vaccine alliance get COVID-19 vaccines to 93 low-and middle- income countries. 

The funding for the program – which is co-run by the World Health Organization – includes an initial contribution of $2 billion that Congress appropriated in December and another $2 billion through 2021 and 2022. The first $500 million of that pledge will be available soon to help spur other donations, an official said.

What America is “buying” is goodwill and a “welcome back” pass to the international community of nations, which had largely written off the U.S. under President Trump as an “America First” county. It appears we are re-joining the international ranks as a global leader willing to contribute to peace, stability and health. 

But not all vaccine diplomacy is altruistic. India is giving away vaccines to nearby countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka. There you can infer that India is using the vaccine as a way of countering China’s influence in the region. The Indian government has tried to score publicity points for doses shipped to places such as Brazil and Morocco.

China has been in the vaccine delivery political game for months. You can find a cavernous new airport cargo terminal in Ethiopia’s capital — the center of a vast supply network China is assembling to speed delivery of its coronavirus vaccines and deepen its influence across the developing world. At one end is a soccer-field-sized freezer to store vials from Chinese state-controlled drug companies. At the other is a control room with a wall of computer monitors where Chinese and Ethiopian technicians will track the temperatures of every batch.

Vaccine diplomacy is likely to grow more complex. On the one hand, you want to make sure your own citizens have access before releasing funds or doses overseas. On the other hand, the virus and its variants are so transmissible that only after the world is collectively safe can we put the pandemic behind us. There are a few countries that have managed to wall themselves off, such as New Zealand, but cases have developed even in those places.

COVID-19 presents a rare opportunity to return to “soft diplomacy” and seeing the world as a global community with shared problems and shared solutions; where you may need help from a neighbor on one day and find yourself in a position to lend a hand the next. None of us can know what crisis lies ahead. Let’s hope vaccine diplomacy is used with the best intentions and the best outcomes. 

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Tags China Clinical trials coronavirus Covax COVID-19 vaccine COVID-19 vaccines Deployment of COVID-19 vaccines Donald Trump Ethiopia Israel Joe Biden Medical research Medicine Oliver North Vaccine World Health Organization

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