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  • Olga Krasnyak

From vaccine nationalism to vaccine diplomacy


The worldwide reports on COVID-19 infection and death numbers are being slowly replaced with global vaccination counts. This rather optimistic shift, however, masks the unpleasant reality of problems with vaccine availability and vaccine nationalism.

Currently, just a handful of COVID-19 vaccines have been developed, mostly by a few medically advanced countries, and production, distribution, and delivery are falling well behind demand.

This has led to a rise in vaccine nationalism, where countries are reluctant to share their stocks of the jab with others until inoculation against the virus is complete in their own country. This comes as no surprise. After all, health security is a high priority for all states.

The United States, for instance, hasn’t made any commitments to share vaccines, even with its long-term allies, before vaccination of the American people is complete, while Italy is blocking the export of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccine assigned to Australia due to a shortage of supply in the European Union.

This puts scientifically underdeveloped countries are in a tough spot, as they can’t afford to develop a national vaccine or buy existing vaccines in the foreseeable future due to high demand.

If this tendency continues, health security on the global scale is in serious danger. The question here is this: how can states navigate the international system to ultimately eradicate the virus in the world, and how can they do it without compromising their national interests?

Vaccine diplomacy might be the answer.

Diplomacy is a leading force in problem solving, and the vaccine issue falls in the scope of foreign policy. This means approaches to the vaccine should be in the hands of state leaders, policymakers, and diplomats.

In practical terms it is the role of diplomacy to manage vaccine arrangements to contain the virus. Still, the effectiveness of diplomatic work often depends on a state’s foreign policy objectives, and these foreign policy objectives predictably revolve around advancing that state’s national interests.

Importantly though, developed countries also have a responsibility to address global challenges, and meeting this responsibility is in their national interest too.

If they behave with this in mind, prospects of eradicating the virus are not entirely grim.

In even better news, vaccine diplomacy is not new, and has always been at the nexus of national interests and the common good.

At this nexus is a proven and workable scheme. During the decades of the Cold War for instance, the two adversarial superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union put aside tensions for the common good, and cooled bilateral relations in the process, by practicing vaccine diplomacy.

The two superpowers not only successfully helped underdeveloped countries eradicate deadly diseases of smallpox and polio, but also achieved their own foreign policy goals in spreading influence in the unaligned world, generating soft power and confirming their global roles in the process.

While the need to compete with another superpower that characterised Cold War foreign policy no longer strictly applies to the United States nowadays, Russia clearly still feels it can help regain its international influence through the usage of vaccine diplomacy.

Consider that showcasing the competence and good reputation of Russian scientists – specifically in fighting infectious deceases – aligns well with Russia’s foreign policy goals. With this in mind, vaccine diplomacy appears to be an effective tool for Russian national interests.

The evidence in the real world supports this. As such, the Russian vaccine Sputnik V is one of the vaccines facing very high demand, and has been registered in 39 countries, mostly those that were once in the Soviet sphere of influence in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, but it has also been registered to two European Union member states.

Moreover, the European Medical Agency has begun a rolling review of the Sputnik V vaccine and its efficacy, and more negotiations about Sputnik V distribution are on the way for other countries.

Skeptics might doubt Russia’s ‘real’ intentions, but few would question that national interest is of primary importance for a state, and the framework of vaccine diplomacy can explain and help better understand how a state like Russia’s behaviour serves both its own and global interests.

However, the efforts of one country are surely not enough to contain the global pandemic. Russia, nonetheless, continuously promotes collaboration on vaccine development, but it doesn’t appear that this effort is being reciprocated.

Vaccine diplomacy is not limited to a national level. It works well on the multilateral level. The United Nations is also a platform for promoting effective vaccine diplomacy.

In December 2020, it founded the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access facility (COVAX) under the auspices of the World Health Organization. COVAX is a vaccine-sharing scheme that encourages rich countries to donate vaccines to the poor.

The United Nations Security Council also passed a resolution that promotes joint international efforts to combat COVID-19 by assisting with health technology and vaccination in regions of armed conflict and humanitarian emergencies.

These modest but important steps to fight the pandemic cooperatively illustrates how vaccine diplomacy works.

While it seems low on short-term payoff, taking on the eventually rewarding role of a global leader in vaccines is in the national interest of the world’s affluent countries, and without them taking up this role, it is hard to imagine a true end to the pandemic coming any time soon.

As such, condemning vaccine nationalism and promoting vaccine diplomacy should become a major priority among policymakers and leaders in all developed countries, but especially in the world’s most powerful states.

As published at Policy Forum on 17 March 2021.