All's Fair in Vaccine Diplomacy

Security, Influence, and Strategic Pluralism Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic


Just over a week before Hungary’s most recent, stringent lockdown came into effect, Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced that he had been inoculated with Sinopharm. Hungary had just became the first European Union (EU) member-state to import the Chinese-manufactured vaccine. This step built on the country’s earlier orders of Russian-manufactured doses. Criticism from Brussels has swiftly followed each expansion of this policy. Shortly after the arrival of Sputnik V, a spokesman for the European Commission admonished the decision to leapfrog the European Medicines Agency’s prescribed method of vaccine approval: “[i]f our citizens start questioning the safety of a vaccine, should it not have gone through rigorous scientific assessment to prove its safety and efficacy, it will be much harder to vaccinate a sufficient proportion of the population” (Ellyat, 2021). The familiar mantra extolling scientific rigor as a prerequisite before rollouts bears an implied critique about the dangers of Hungary going its own way.

Worldwide, the phenomenon has been dubbed “vaccine diplomacy.” Governments eager to obtain additional supplies are wielding their political and economic influence across borders to do so. According to a recent article in the Spectator, “[n]ations which are hungry to compete with the West—and especially America—are using their homegrown coronavirus vaccines as a way of gaining influence. They are exchanging their vaccines for loyalty and acts of public obeisance” (Yu, 2021). Prime Minister Orban’s government is not alone in diversifying supplies of vaccine. Other countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and governments in adjoining and distant regions have actively considered the idea or moved quickly to secure doses in addition those available from major western suppliers Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. Are they all, in the words of the Spectator author, falling prey to the “the soft power that Beijing [and Russia have] sought for so long”? (Yu, 2021).

This paper analyzes vaccine diplomacy in broader terms. It assesses the race for inoculation with regard to national security threats, while examining the impetus for bilateral efforts caused by the shortcomings of international institutions seeking to equitably and efficiently dispense doses. This evidence augurs against diplomatic attempts to constrain states eager to hasten mass inoculation within their borders. Rather than guarding against the proliferation of vaccine diplomacy, actors concerned about the creeping influence of vaccine-sending states should accept their gambit as a modus operandi for the time being. The economic recovery of vaccine-accepting states will have a much greater impact on the co-optive power they are susceptible to in the long run.

COVID-19 and “Hard Power”

While considerable attention remains fixed on the “soft power” implications of vaccine diplomacy, the pandemic’s immediate consequences for applying coercive power require attention. Speaking about the future of transatlantic alliances, Strobe Talbott put it succinctly: “although soft power is a necessary component of what it takes to keep the peace, it is insufficient; the hard stuff is required as well” (2002, p. 54). To the extent the pandemic poses concrete threats to national security, vaccine diplomacy is likely viewed as a primary means of loosening strictures for dealing with these new dangers, shaping international responses in the short- and intermediate-term.

In the realm of “hard power,” communicable diseases have long been recognized for their potential to sap military strength, thereby altering the course of history. Thucydides, remarking on the Plague of Athens, observed the discouragement and fatigue visited on the city-state’s people amid Sparta’s assault, their “land being laid waste” (Thucydides II.vii.3-54). Francisco Pizarro’s victory in 1532, which entailed 168 Spaniards pacifying an Incan army of 80,000, followed a ruinous smallpox epidemic that triggered a civil war by dispatching the native emperor and his heir apparent to their graves. The 1918 influenza served as one among several culprits General Erick Von Ludendorf blamed for Germany’s loss in the First World War, its effects undermining morale (Crosby, 1989, p. 27). Similarly, surveys of deaths after the Second World War indicated that malaria caused more U.S. casualties in certain theaters than did combat (Agency for International Development, 1985, p. 4). Susan Peterson, a scholar addressing epidemics in national security, lamented the cyclical historical amnesia that accompanies this primordial force in human events, referring to communicable diseases as the “Forgotten Horseman of the Apocalypse” (2001).

Prescient as these characterizations may be, observers should be wary of deterministic explanations. Guns, Germs, and Steel embodies approaches along these lines. Its world-famous author, Jared Diamond, argued “[a]ll those military histories glorifying great generals oversimplify the ego-deflating truth: the winners of past wars were not always the armies with the best generals and weapons, but were often merely those bearing the nastiest germs to transmit to their enemies” (1997, p. 197). The sin of oversimplification the author adverts undoubtedly may run in the opposite direction. Diseases and their abatement are surely but two among many factors that impact the outcome of conflicts. The current crisis provides scant opportunities for comparison in these terms. Absent since the pandemic have been significant interstate wars, let alone the mobilization of vast armies whose mass contraction could turn the tide of world events.

In reality, the attributes of COVID-19 will likely define its ultimate impact, if any, on constellations of hard power. At first blush, incidents like the scandal regarding the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which involved a public confrontation among the upper echelons of the US Navy and the ship’s captain, suggested early on that military readiness could be severely impacted. Infections aboard the USS San Diego and the USS Philippine Sea—both of which quarantined in the port of Bahrain—indicate this impact has lingered. But these incidents have been exceptions, not the rule, and they do not necessarily demonstrate a broader trend. Instead, troops that might otherwise be obtaining further training have been deployed to support civil authorities. Rather than undertaking military exercises, they are providing medical personnel and infrastructure to overburdened public health agencies. IISS noted in its annual report on global military readiness that defense procurements have been delayed across small and large armed forces worldwide, while certain deployments were extended, postponed, or cancelled altogether to protect against further transmissions (International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2021). These hiccups have not overturned overarching strategic objectives (Janes, 2020). For example, in June 2020, the US Navy managed to send three carrier strike groups to the Asia-Pacific, a maritime assertion not achieved since 2017.

Notwithstanding a lack of data on new variants, by scientific measures, COVID-19 is infectious but it is not highly contagious. The number of people likely to be infected from any one patient suffering from the disease is comparatively low. The biological variables bound up in this variation can be reduced to a single measure: a disease’s “basic reproduction number.” Despite its rapid spread in 2020, COVID-19 has a basic reproduction number of 1.0011–2.7936 (Al-Raeei, 2021). Compared to well-known airborne infectious diseases, such as measles and pertussis, which have basic reproduction numbers of 12-18 and 12-17 respectively, COVID-19 outbreaks should be much easier to contain. The impact on non-pharmaceutical interventions—social distancing, enhanced hygiene, and masks—bear out these underlying features. Although it lacked the scope and significance of the current pandemic, perhaps the closes comparisons lays with the novel A H1N1 which brought grave concerns in 2009. The Department of Defense undertook an aggressive campaign to vaccinate American servicemen because it came to the conclusion, early on, that “Novel A(H1N1) influenza disease is a contagious respiratory illness that would disrupt DoD’s military readiness.”

With regard to national security interests, dissimilarities between COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS make comparisons largely a fool’s errand. The former has a mortality rate much lower than the latter, which had certain well-documented impacts on national security. Unlike COVID-19, HIV/AIDS has an incubation period of ten years or more (not counting the impact of life-saving drug cocktails), making it unlikely to cause significant front-line casualties. Although data exists demonstrating, for example, that HIV/AIDS depleted force strength in many states, its patterns and modes of transmission all differ significantly from COVID-19. At its height, for example, 20–40 percent of armed forces in sub-Saharan countries became HIV-positive, with outliers like Zimbabwe, suffering peaks of 80 percent (Heinecken, 2001, p. 109; Elbe, 2002). Countries like Cuba, which suffered massive rates of infection following the return of troops stationed in Africa, fundamentally changed their strategic decisions, with former colonial powers in Europe swiftly noting the Caribbean country’s fate (Rosen, 1987, p. 66–67).

            Contemporary scholarship gives watchful observers of international relations reason to pause before jumping to conclusions about radical realignments of power. In part, pandemics inspire rhetorical appeals that conflate traditional national security concerns with the very real humanitarian crises spurred by deadly diseases. This tendency vividly emerged with the “human security” turn in diplomatic discussions about HIV/AIDS in the late 1990s. For example, at the UN Security Council’s January 2000, it made history by, for the first time, placing public health front and center on its agenda. Addressing the body, then-Vice President Al Gore argued that HIV/AIDS required a “new, more expansive definition” of security that places emphasis on new infectious diseases (The White House, Office of the Vice President, 2000). Other state organs of national security responded in kind. Similarly, members of academic and civil society communities of states affected by HIV/AIDS adopted complementary narratives, drawing links between the spread of the disease and national security across the global north and south.

Although undoubtedly well-meaning, these rhetorical tactics behoove scrutiny of the merits of their claims. Casting humanitarian crises as national security concerns may serve cleverly masked political purposes. As P.W. Singer noted: “[c]onceptualizing AIDS as a security threat, thus is not just another exercise in expounding on the dangers of the disease…. [I]t strengthens the call for serious action against the menace of AIDS. It is not just a matter of altruism, but simple cold self interest” (Deudney, p. 466–469; O’Brien, 1996, p. 254). Furthermore, the myriad causes of human strife and suffering—environmental degradation, poverty, aging, and for that matter non-communicable diseases like cancer and heart disease—provide states with a ceaseless onslaught of tragedies affecting communities big and small. But not all losses of life and property qualify as national security concerns, nor do they impact a nation’s capacity to muster military strength to combat existing threats. Losing sight of those baseline realities, to obtain commitments from wealthy and more powerful states, is unlikely to alter the course of their conduct in international affairs. Instead, it may only add to the confusion and disagreement that has long mired the global management of COVID-19...

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