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Taking it Online: Vaccine Diplomacy, Influencing Based on Science?

By: Manasi Moni-Trichur and Mary Wong

May 7, 2021 ~

Vaccine diplomacy is a term that has come into play recently. Outlets such as the New York Times have referred to the vaccine as the “new currency for international diplomacy”. In this month’s blog post, we start to unpack what this new currency means, discuss the importance of the vaccine as a commodity amongst different nations, when the number of vaccines you have translates to global power, and how that translates for countries not competing in the global vaccine race. As countries work to help make their residents healthy, the vaccine is also an opportunity for nations to make a mark not only on the international market, but on other countries as well.

The current thinking is that vaccinating people will allow a nation to get back to normal and the economy to rebound. Additionally, when a wealthy nation offers to support another nation’s vaccination efforts, that nation will be seen in a good light. Countries like the United States, China, and Russia have been producing vaccines rapidly, leading to discussion and speculation about what to do with excess vaccines. Using the vaccine to further a country’s influence may be considered as soft power. Distributing the vaccine isn’t reflective of a country’s military might or a display of economic means (hard power). The vaccine is able to attract other countries into making alliances, therefore allowing them to be on a more positive ground to make deals and decisions and less out of fear. Another reason for wanting more of the vaccine for global distribution could be to change a nation’s image in the international community.

With the excess amounts of vaccine being produced recently, the United States has been more public with the idea of sending vaccines to other countries and offering international assistance. The appointment of a chief to lead vaccine diplomacy efforts to further aid and assistance is such an example. Former USAID chief Gayle Smith has been appointed to handle issues of vaccination domestically and the distribution of American vaccines globally. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, however, that to play America’s part, the government will focus on beating the virus in the United States and then fulfilling other countries’ expectations by distributing outside of the country. This leaves room for other countries to fill the void and there will be much interest in what approaches they take, distributing, or influencing, and based on what criteria?

President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government seem to be looking for ways to be favorably viewed by the international community. According to Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, obtaining many doses of the vaccine for distribution could mean that Russia could be viewed as a more technologically advanced country. 26 countries have already authorized the use of Russia’s Sputnik V Coronavirus vaccine. In China’s case, the vaccine may not help with the image of technological progress; on May 18, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that the vaccine should become a global public good. China ranks as the number one producer of vaccines, promising half a billion doses to around 45 different countries and their distribution of the vaccine for free may influence the international community to reconsider their opinions on China’s human rights violations and their handling of the global spread of Coronavirus. While Russia, China, and the United States are three countries that are in contention for world hegemonic control, the fourth fastest vaccine-producing nation is India. India has stepped up exporting vaccines, contributing around $24 million dollars worth of COVAX. India seems to be using the vaccine as a means to have more entry and activity in the international market. The international community has taken notice of the current ruling party in India and issues revolving the upholding of Indian democracy. For countries like India, the vaccine is an opportunity for them to break out of their shell and present themselves as a developed and capable nation. With other countries relying on India to send them the vaccine, India is starting to be a catalyst of global influence. By distributing the vaccine to 47 different countries, these countries are already looking at India as dependable. India is using the vaccine to increase their rank in global power, gaining more influence in South Asia. This influence starts to become more important when considering it from the lens of India being the most powerful South Asian nation and as a member of the nascent Quad. However, producing the vaccine for international consumption is a high-risk, high reward game for countries like India. With the recent second wave India is facing, the Indian government is facing criticism for the way they’ve handled their domestic affairs. India has been questioned to have focused too much on vaccine diplomacy and not enough on Covid resources domestically. So, where does that leave countries who are dependent on importing the vaccine? Those who don’t have access to the vaccine as of yet will be forced to depend on those who do. In a study by the Harvard International Review, it was determined that most of the African continent, a lot of the Middle East, and majority of Southeast Asia would not achieve widespread coverage of the vaccine until early 2023. If the world is striving for control over the pandemic, countries will be sending vaccines abroad, whether it is to benefit their own power directly or indirectly. The world order is constantly shifting and vaccine diplomacy is another avenue by which world leaders are working with and against each other to gain more power and influence. While it may be just another aspect for contenders of world hegemonic control to consider while building foreign relations, it also acts as an opportunity for countries to rise in the ranks and be a future contender, a chance for global upward mobility.

The capability and incapability of countries to produce the vaccine widens the gap of power and wealth between them. Countries will be dependent on those with more power until the pandemic has subsided and there is no more possibility for a widespread Covid wave. History has proven to us that countries make decisions by prioritizing their own benefits, so is this global cooperation? Is it possible for there to be a global distribution of vaccines without vaccine diplomacy, and is vaccine diplomacy here to stay? Vaccine diplomacy is the start of a world where we find players using new routes to achieve international supremacy while also trying to be a part of a constantly developing international community. For the United States, the Biden Administration has promised to return to science-based policies. It remains to be seen whether this Administration will extend this approach to “vaccine diplomacy” and exercise influence based on science.

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