Speaking to the Munich Security Conference in February, President Biden proclaimed that “America is back,” a message he reiterated over the weekend at the G7 meeting in Cornwall. It’s a pleasing sentiment, but our allies as well as our adversaries can be forgiven for taking a wait-and-see attitude.
America’s approach to the world has gyrated over the past two decades from George W. Bush’s assertive interventionism to Barack Obama’s lead-from-behind modesty. Trump’s “America First” posture was a mixture of obsequiousness toward dictators and truculence toward traditional allies.
Biden attempted to reify the “America is Back” slogan by urging a unified G7 position toward China. He hoped for a unanimous declaration condemning China’s use of forced labor, and while Canada, Britain, and France were ready to sign on, others demurred. It seems likely that the Biden administration will continue to press allies on taking a hard line toward Beijing. He has repeatedly emphasized that confronting China is a defining challenge of his presidency. “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies,” he told reporters at his first news conference as president. “We’ve got to prove democracy works.”
There is a way to prove democracy works, and I’ll come to that. But first, ideally, the Democratic party would reverse its hostility to free trade (the Republicans are lost on this issue) and would embrace multilateral trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which, since Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2017, has re-formed as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—without us). As I’ve noted before, we’ve got to be realistic. The U.S. share of the world economy continues to shrink compared with our post-World War II dominance. In 1946, the United States accounted for 50 percent of global GDP. Today, we are about 24 percent. (China is about 19 percent.) As Trump’s wan efforts demonstrated, unilateral tariffs by the United States don’t carry the weight they once did. Together with our Pacific allies however, such as those who were part of the original TPP, an American-led trading bloc would constitute 40 percent of world GDP. China would find it more painful to defy all of us.
Sadly, we squandered that opportunity, but there is another one staring us in the face. America and other free nations have a chance to do something that would earn true admiration and respect from the rest of the world: donate free vaccines. As with trade, development, and technology, we would be competing directly with China and Russia. President Biden has pledged 500 million doses. It’s a start. But as Dalibor Rohac has urged, we’ve got to think bigger.
When the United States launched the Marshall Plan in 1948, Europe was still devastated by World War II. Even three years after the war’s conclusion, there were fears of widespread famine due to the disruptions of agriculture, industry, and infrastructure. America offered generous aid to the whole continent, including the Soviet Union and its satellites (they declined). The Marshall Plan took its place, as Winston Churchill said of Lend/Lease, as one of the “most unsordid acts” in world history.
Less well remembered is George W. Bush’s PEPFAR initiative, a program to battle AIDS in Africa. The original $15 million grant has been supplemented many times since by Congress and amounts to the largest effort by any government to fight disease and the largest U.S. government foreign commitment since the Marshall Plan. PEPFAR is estimated to have saved 18 million lives.
There are many goals that are extremely difficult to achieve in foreign policy. It’s tough to get Iran to stop funding terrorists. We’ve tried friendliness (Obama) and harsh sanctions (Trump). Iran remains Iran. North Korea is a disaster. We’ve tried strategic patience (Obama) and fawning friendliness (Trump). North Korea remains nuclear-armed. It’s difficult to try to reform countries in Central America so that their people will not be so desperate as to journey north. It’s hard to get nations to agree to joint action on climate change.
But vaccinating the world is something we can do. Is it expensive? Compared to what? The International Monetary Fund estimates that it would cost $50 billion to vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population over the next 10 months. That amounts to just 0.13 percent of the combined GDPs of the G7 nations. In Washington, $50 billion is what you find in the sofa cushions. As the Economist argues, the economic benefit by 2025 would likely be measured in the trillions, as well as in lives saved and improved.
China and Russia are both offering vaccines to developing nations. But Russia is demanding quid pro quos. In Bolivia, for example, Russia began talks about rare-earth minerals in return for the Sputnik V vaccine. China donated the Sinovac vaccine to Cambodia and Laos . . . in return for backing China’s position in the South China Sea.
And here’s another potential reason that the U.S. vaccines will be preferred—they work. Though the Russians have claimed a 92 percent effectiveness rate for their jabs, some have expressed skepticism. A recent Lancet article called the data backing Sputnik into doubt. It seems there’s been a lack of transparency in Russia. Who would have thought?
As for the Chinese vaccine, Sinovac, it’s efficacy is officially put at 50 percent, compared with over 90 percent for Pfizer and Moderna and 70 percent for Johnson and Johnson. The newly developed Novavax vaccine also just clocked in at 90 percent. Nations like Bahrain that were early adopters of the Chinese vaccine have backed away as their caseloads have risen.
If the United States had nothing to gain from vaccinating the world except the satisfaction of benevolence, it would be well worth it. But our own self-interest would be served as well. As long as the virus spreads, it has opportunities to mutate. So far, the vaccines have proven effective against the known variants, but that may not persist. If a more virulent and/or vaccine-resistant strain gets a foothold anywhere in the world, it will be knocking on our door before long.
In addition to its not-so-effective vaccines, China is exporting its vision of the future to the world. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing is sharing surveillance technology with repressive regimes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It offers Zimbabwe facial recognition software, the better to track its citizens, and it provides Venezuela with the means to create “Fatherland cards,” an imitation of China’s “social credit system.”
A U.S.-led effort by wealthy nations to vaccinate the world would play to our strengths. We deserve to strut our stuff a bit about our technological prowess. Thanks in part to our openness to brilliant immigrants like Kati Kariko, who developed mRNA techniques, our breakthroughs continue to dazzle. And then, there’s our flexibility. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, put it this way:
As you look around the world, there is no other country [or entity] that can lead on this. The problems are complex. It’s not just a matter of releasing IP patents. It requires tremendous capacity, which is uniquely situated here. It requires the ability to bring manufacturers into a room and coordinate about raw materials, techniques, and many other matters. I don’t see Europe doing that. Certainly the WHO cannot do it. This requires bold American leadership.
Finally, Americans like to help. We may disagree vehemently about whether to withdraw from Afghanistan or rejoin the Paris Agreement, but most Americans will, I hope and expect, feel a sense of pride at leading the world to overcome this deadly plague, and doing so with graciousness and a servant’s heart.
Let’s do this. Let’s be “unsordid” again.