Vaccine diplomacy—the best first move for the Biden administration to reset relationships

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Mapping first steps

As the Biden transition team plots out how best to rebuild the alliances and international cooperation mechanisms that were so badly eroded during the Trump presidency, one early proposal floated by some of Biden’s key advisors seems likely to rise to the fore, and could even serve as the centerpiece of a new “Biden Doctrine” in the first 100 days.

According to Jake Sullivan, a top Obama era official routinely mentioned as a possible National Security Advisor, Biden should, “put values and democracy back at the center of US foreign policy… Rally[ing] like-minded free democratic nations in common purpose to both push back against authoritarian competitors and also construct and build the kind of long-term durable solutions for the challenges that afflict us all.”

Concretely, this may manifest itself in a US-convened global “summit of democracies” possibly based on the D-10 model, the world’s 10 largest democracies, a concept the Atlantic Council has advanced through the work of its Scowcroft Center.

Differences between ‘democratic’ partners could derail good-faith efforts

Such a lofty effort, however, is fraught with immediate challenges that might prompt further recrimination and retrenchment by some states, quickly souring the reset opportunity Biden holds after four chaotic, hyper-transactional Trump years.

Would Modi’s India, deemed increasingly authoritarian by some sides and relegated to Observer status in the D-10 model, be welcomed to attend? What about NATO allies Poland and Turkey or Brazil, all three of which are similarly criticized as bending increasingly towards authoritarianism? How would their inclusion and symmetry with other democracies affect the search for “durable solutions”? China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia have also all been mentioned as key states that the new Biden administration must deal with via a fundamentally different strategic approach than Trump: How will this crucial task be served by taking a first step that leaves them outside of, and effectively in opposition to, a new alliance helmed by the US?

Of course, there is also a longstanding, vigorous debate about whether and how national democratic practices, institutions and claims should be mapped onto—and asserted into—international relations in the first place. But no matter how one comes down on this issue, or how the invitation/exclusion list is eventually theorized and communicated, having the new Biden administration open its reset with the world through a “summit of democracies” is problematic because it would mean forgoing a far less risky and complicated way for America to kick off the post-trump presidency era of effective multilateral cooperation: vaccine diplomacy.

A better way to reset international cooperation

Take Iran and Saudi Arabia for example. Biden and his top aides have reiterated that they want to see a return to the nuclear deal as well as the convening of a regional security dialogue, principally between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These two top-priority efforts—enormously difficult to initiate, much less see through to a successful conclusion—will likely only be hampered further as a result of an early out of the gate “summit of democracies” that both states will invariably view as hostile. Instead, President Biden could lay the relatively uncontroversial goodwill foundations for a wider deal—which he has said is necessary beyond the 2015 JCPOA—by immediately rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO) and then jump-starting a “warp speed” UN-led vaccine and therapeutics distribution effort in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that has as its centrepiece direct Iranian-Saudi coordination and cooperation on a range of pressing needs, including:

  • The efficient and equitable region-wide coordination of vaccine/therapeutics distribution;
  • The facilitation of safe passage for medical equipment, supplies and personnel to conflict areas in the region, especially Syria, Libya and Yemen;
  • The sharing of information to allow an objective assessment of medical needs and vaccination/therapeutic programs throughout MENA;
  • The enhancement of coordination between national health organisations and institutions across borders;
  • Increasing the distribution of medical and technical equipment, and other necessary materials;
  • Addressing the needs of the millions of migrants, refugees and detainees, including those held in camps and detention centres across the MENA.

The beginnings of this approach were already tentatively tested a few months before the US election when the foreign ministers of longstanding regional foes Iran and the United Arab Emirates—the principal Gulf ally of Saudi Arabia—held rare talks centred on COVID. At the time, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian foreign minister, said that the two sides had, “agreed to continue dialogue on the theme of hope—especially as the region faces tough challenges, and tougher choices ahead.”

Given the frozen anticipation ahead of the 3 November poll however, not much seems to have actually moved beyond the initial summer meeting. Now, with a new administration and COVID continuing to devastate MENA—especially sanction-strapped Iran, but also nearly all of the MENA countries—the development of at least two highly effective US made vaccines and several therapeutics has the potential to unstick relations, de-escalate (at least momentarily) several conflicts and reinvigorate some of the multilateral frameworks which will be vital for future stability and progress.

Indeed, facilitating the importation of vital medical supplies to Iranian citizens after years of Trump’s failed “maximum pressure” campaign could help significantly mitigate new Iranian demands for compensation and provide a solid impetus for joining the wider talks that Biden has said he wants to see in the short term. Politically back home, this kind of explicitly humanitarian gesture will also be hard for the wounded maximum pressure crowd to effectively run interference against. And in MENA itself, helping to foment coordination and cooperation between the two main regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose enmity has brought widespread instability and suffering, should greatly assist in the heavy task of laying the foundations for a new regional security architecture.

Well beyond just MENA, an aggressive opening salvo of Vaccine Diplomacy (which, it should be noted, China is already pursuing via a new WHO initiative that Trump has refused to join) should also help lubricate and partially pacify the half-dozen, high-priority resets around the world that are crucial for stopping the bleeding recklessly exacted by Trump. Most importantly and immediately though, since a Biden Administration’s Vaccine Diplomacy would presumably be founded on an efficient and equitable distribution of medicines on a global scale, this approach will quite literally help stem the bleeding and suffering of so many affected by the pandemic.

A diplomatic strategy that starts with ending the pandemic both at home and abroad

Finally, to return to where we started, vaccine diplomacy may even represent the best pathway for eventually launching the “summit of democracies” that Team Biden seems to be considering in the near-term. As Katherine O’Brien, director of the WHO’s immunization department, recently told the Washington Post, “the discovery of a highly effective vaccine [is] like building a base camp on Mount Everest. ‘The climb to the peak is really about delivering the vaccines.’”

If President-elect Biden sincerely wants to mobilise democracy, perhaps then the best sequencing—the best way to start up towards this particular peak after all of the damage to democracy done by our own President as well as some of our own practices over the years—is to first focus on ending the pandemic at home and abroad as one coherent strategy of a now resurgent democracy. Thankfully, it seems we finally have the scientific tools for accomplishing this last, difficult leg that by its nature works best when there is robust cooperation across boundaries. If the political will follows, genuine peace-making might finally become more plausible than it has been for the last four years, in the process dealing yet another blow to Trumpism and its extreme version of destructive nationalism.


Nicholas Noe was a 2020 Policy Leader Fellow at the School for Transnational Governance, European University Institute. He is also a political advisor at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, although he recently took leave in order to volunteer on the Biden-Harris Campaign in Michigan. The views expressed here are his own. @NoeNicholas