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LONDON — Vaccines are the new diplomacy, but it’s not all that different to the old diplomacy.
Countries around the world have been plunged into tense talks over vaccine supplies that have threatened to boil over into full-blown trade wars, with rich nations squabbling with each other while poorer nations look on, waiting for help.
Western states are hoping to take the moral high ground over China and Russia, which stand accused of handing out jabs in a bid for influence. But all parties are looking to see what they can gain from the fight, with some in Europe and the U.S. recognizing that vaccine donations to developing nations are a downpayment for future geopolitical clout.
If that sounds all too familiar, that’s because it is.
“International diplomacy is a cold-hearted place,” said Jeremy Hunt, a former U.K. foreign secretary who now chairs the House of Commons health committee. “And even when you’re dealing with your closest allies, you need to be able to bring things to the table.”
Hunt said all foreign affairs was “transactional,” adding: “People want to know what you’re going to do to scratch their back if they are going to scratch yours.” In the midst of a pandemic, vaccines are a new diplomatic currency alongside the traditional bargaining chips of aid and military prowess.
Exhibit A: the most explosive tussle (so far) between the EU and U.K. over AstraZeneca jabs recalls the bad blood running through years of Brexit negotiations, but with thousands of lives at stake. The two sides have been locked in a stand-off ahead of a virtual meeting of EU leaders at which they will be anxious to demonstrate some grip on a worsening COVID situation on the Continent.
Despite a slight cooling of tensions in the last 48 hours, robust rhetoric is not entirely out of the picture. U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the FT on Thursday “Our contract trumps theirs. It’s called contract law — it’s very straightforward.”
EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič responded with a dig of his own. “The EU is fulfilling its responsibility and solidarity with others: not only it is a leading financial donor to the COVAX facility [which provides doses to developing countries], it is also a major exporter of vaccines that are distributed through this facility, unlike some others who are not (yet) exporting anything or who are doing it as part of their ‘vaccine diplomacy,’” he told POLITICO.
Meanwhile, vaccines and foreign policy are colliding around the world. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent one of his closest aides to India this week, in part to haggle over vaccines, after the Serum Institute of India cut its immediate shipment of AstraZeneca jabs to London from 10 million to 5 million. Close ties on COVID were forged after the two nations worked together on producing the AstraZeneca jab, but the political demand in Britain to keep its domestic rollout going meant engaging its foreign affairs gears in the hope of unlocking those extra doses.
For now, India is not coming through for Britain, after putting its exports on hold due to domestic demand as infections rise. But the question will be what nations like Britain can offer those like India in exchange for vaccines, and likewise what the EU could offer the U.K. in turn. In Delhi, Hunt said Britain would likely be dangling the prospect of scientific support.
Autocrats step in
It’s that transactional nature of vaccine negotiations that has sparked fears about the exports anti-democratic nations are sending around the globe. China is sending out more than 60 percent of its doses to other countries; likewise Russia with tens of millions of its Sputnik jabs. Hungary was the first nation to break with the EU and order a Sputnik shipment from Russia before the EU had approved its use, causing disquiet in the bloc.
The worry is that those jabs come with strings attached, while the EU’s faltering progress on vaccine roll out only makes them more attractive. When some European countries (including Germany and France) paused the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine over safety fears (later dismissed by the European Medicines Agency) one EU official confided that he was “worried that these problems can boost Sputnik.”
Far right figures such as Italy’s former deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, have pushed the Russian vaccine, arguing that “geopolitics cannot hold the health of Italians and Europeans hostage.” Even Germany has argued that Brussels should add Sputnik to its procurement list, before it has been deemed safe by the the EMA.
But Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, who heads the EU executive’s vaccine task force argues Sputnik is a red herring. “We have absolutely no need of Sputnik V,” he said Sunday. And a separate EU official pointed out that even if the jab is approved as safe, it would be no silver bullet. “[The Russians] don’t have the production capacity for it,” the official said.
And what about those potential strings? Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group, said Russia and China had recognized that vaccines and other kit like PPE “present a unique opportunity to develop meaningful relationships and foster goodwill toward their role as global actors” and that Europe was still to grasp the geopolitical implications.
“The West needs to recognize that, as well as ensuring its own populations are vaccinated as quickly as possible, there is a huge geostrategic imperative to ensuring that we are able to be seen as a dependable and committed partner to the developing world during this crisis,” Gaston said. “Authoritarian states recognise the opportunity they have, with very little investment, to seize the moment and start to build inroads with smaller nations during a time of acute instability and upheaval. The resources we can donate to ensuring that liberal, rule-abiding nations are spearheading the vaccine rollout and economic recovery from the pandemic, will be sound investments towards our future geopolitical advantage.”
Some democracies appear to have cottoned on. Although India has paused vaccine exports for the time being as its domestic COVID situation worsens, it has trumpeted its millions of exports to more than 70 nations across the globe, with inspirational videos about sending a “glimmer of hope” to other countries. “India is deeply honored to be a long-trusted partner in meeting the healthcare needs of the global community,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in January.
In Washington, President Joe Biden has pledged to send millions of AstraZeneca jabs, which are still yet to be approved for use in the U.S., to Canada and Mexico, on the assumption the neighboring states will return the favor in the future. “Those nations with the capacity to produce vaccines hold a huge advantage not only for their internal governance but also for their ability to spread goodwill and soft power to other nations,” said Gaston.
Other rich nations like Israel and the United Arab Emirates have largely kept out of international fights by doing deals with the secure supply and getting on with distributing the jabs among their population.
While some are opening up exports, others are poised to close the door. The EU has been a major coronavirus vaccine exporter, despite the slow roll out across the bloc. But Brussels this week decided it had had enough, and announced its proposal to block shipments for six weeks aimed mainly at the U.K and the U.S.
The move follows a tense diplomatic standoff with the U.K., which has been a recipient of vaccines but has not exported its own. Amid threats and heated rhetoric, both sides launched into diplomatic overdrive, with several arms of the U.K. government sent out to bat, including former EU ambassador Tim Barrow and ex-Brexit negotiator David Frost.
Boris Johnson signaled he could agree to share doses in the interests of wider foreign policy. “There’s no point in one country being immunized on its own. We need the whole planet to be inoculated,” he told a press conference on Tuesday night, in answer to a question from POLITICO.
The diplomatic wrangling between rich nations desperate to inoculate their populations was “inevitable” but “not edifying,” said Lord Ricketts, an ex-British diplomat and former head of the Foreign Office. “I think this is probably the new normal for at least a period,” he said. “But very quickly, we have got to move on from this to the real issue, which is vaccinating the rest of the world which isn’t in this rich world scramble at the moment.”
Indeed, Britain is among nations that have pledged cash to the COVAX scheme to provide vaccines abroad, but has refused to send actual doses until it is satisfied it has surplus jabs.
That has enraged some African leaders, with Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president for example, highly critical. “Rich countries in the world are holding onto these vaccines, and we are saying, ‘release the excess vaccines that you’ve ordered and hoarded,” he said back in January at the online Davos forum.
Ricketts said the U.K. should use the G7 summit in June, which it will be hosting, to show itself as a world leader on vaccinating developing nations. “We want to portray ourselves as a soft-power superpower, as it says in [Britain’s recent foreign policy review], so now we need to be acting as well as saying,” he argued.
The former civil servant said the U.K. should also use its diplomatic leadership and financial leverage to help reform the World Health Organization, to make it better prepared to cope with pandemics in the future.
Others agree that vaccine diplomacy is now a front line foreign policy issue. “Medical diplomacy, like environmental diplomacy is an essential building block of the U.K.’s alliance network,” said Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.
Western nations will need to work together in part to prevent the squabbles becoming a distraction from other pressing issues, Gaston, from the British Foreign Policy Group, argued. She added that breakdowns in existing global alliances could leave power vacuums for others to step into. “We will need to ensure that the chaos and disruption of the pandemic does not leave lasting scars on the liberal alliance, which will make us or our partners in the developing world vulnerable to coercion and influence by autocratic states,” she said.
But there are opportunities for those who successfully navigate the diplomatic minefield of the global vaccine rollout. Hunt, the former foreign secretary, said handing out jabs to developing states would be a defining moment for Britain’s place in the world post-Brexit.
“I hope it will generate a lot of a lot of goodwill,” he said. “But what I really hope is that it is part of a bigger reset in the way the world sees Britain — not as a shrinking imperial power that is retreating from Europe … but as a self-confident rising power that is able to come to the help of the world’s poorest in its moment of need.”
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