Morality and Law
Vaccine Diplomacy: Expectations vs Reality?

Belief in diplomacy as such and in its “vaccine spin-off” in particular instils optimism in an ordinary man. A mantra arises: we will create vaccines all together — we will be vaccinated — we will defeat the pandemic. But in fact, large-scale international cooperation in the development of vaccine materials fails to transpire. Contrary to the declared unification of efforts of people of good will, we see simple geopolitical nationalism, writes Roman Reinhardt, Associate Professor at the Department for Diplomatic Studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

For many months now, problems associated with so-called vaccine diplomacy have remained a subject of debate in the media. However, there has been somewhat less attention among experts. This is often connected with not-yet-fully-established political science constructs. Moreover, sometimes these constructs, while understandable at an intuitive level and from a theoretical perspective, turn out to be not entirely suitable for describing and analysing objective reality. As a result, the topic loses its relevance. After all, no matter how doomed, pessimistic and, moreover, bureaucratic it may sound now, we “have to state” that vaccine diplomacy (namely diplomacy, not vaccination itself) has not justified the hopes we had placed in it. In other words, it has systematically failed — at least three times.

In order to track each of these failures, I suggest first shifting your focus to a year and a half ago. Second, it helps to look at the phenomenon not through the eyes of an expert, but rather of an ordinary man. So, in the spring of 2020, during the “first wave of the pandemic”, the man in the street, along with all progressive humanity, enters a tense lockdown. He strictly observes the self-isolation regime and, in order to pass the time, begins to read the classics of history and the theory of diplomacy — Harold Nicholson, Ernest Satow, Vladimir Potemkin and others. He also stumbles upon the contemporary American scientist Peter Hotez, a prominent public figure who a year later (in March 2021) published the book Preventing the Next Pandemic — Vaccine Diplomacy in a Time of Anti-science. With individual theses outlined in the essay, Hotez spoke earlier on various platforms — before as it became mainstream.

Belief in diplomacy as such and in its “vaccine spin-off” in particular (whether in the interpretation of Hotez or more generally and abstractly) instils optimism in an ordinary man. A mantra arises: we will create vaccines all together — we will be vaccinated — we will defeat the pandemic. In part, this formula is part of the official or, at any rate, the semi-official narrative. So, all the participants in the world arena must unite in the face of a global catastrophe; collaboration rather than competition is chosen among politicians and professional diplomats, and most importantly, of course, among scientists.

The words, as usual, look beautiful, but in fact, large-scale international cooperation in the development of vaccine materials fails to transpire.

Friendship is friendship, but vaccines are another matter! Contrary to the declared unification of efforts of people of good will, we see simple geopolitical nationalism. In fact, this was the first failure of vaccine diplomacy — with regards to science and technology.

We see no use in reasoning about such a failure from the point of view of the ordinary man. It is better to remember what happened next. Furthermore, Russia, and in parallel with it many other countries with a developed scientific and technological potential, is concentrating upon itself. (There was no one to be angry with — except for a few bats from a Chinese province). It created several vaccines. First, the conscientious layman thinks of enrolling in the front-line group of participants in their clinical trials. But then he decides that it could be better not to be in a hurry, waiting for foreign colleagues to catch up, and a choice will appear. Globalisation, after all. Maybe a kind of vaccine supermarket could be formed at the global level, albeit one which is much more important and “close at hand” at the local level.

Needless to say, here too, philistine (or rather, consumer) expectations proved to be out of touch with reality. Vaccine supermarkets did not open. And so far, nothing indicates that they will open in the near future (with minor amendments as well). This can be regarded as the second failure of vaccine diplomacy — already at the trade and economic level. In essence, this is a manifestation of protectionism in the best traditions of international political economics. Its former apologists, like Friedrich Liszt, Alexander Hamilton and even Sergei Witte, would surely have been delighted to see modern practices. “Everywhere there is a mercantile spirit,” not to mention the regional disparities in aid to countries that have not yet managed to establish the production of their own medicines.

Morality and Law
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The COVID-19 pandemic has probably caused the greatest economic, political and social damage to humanity since World War II. In fact, it will accelerate and deepen some of the pre-existing processes and trends and will confront us with new challenges and scenarios at the global level, the scope of which we barely glimpse.
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In light of this, as of the spring-summer of 2021, the average person is still vaccinated with a domestic vaccine. Protectionism breeds patriotism among consumers. And here, as expected, the issue of international mutual recognition of vaccine certificates and QR codes arises.

The average person has repeatedly heard calls for such recognition both from the scientific and expert community and at the highest level, including from Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, other countries, apparently, are again trying not to force, but to carefully “study” this vital issue. A small voice crying (and vaccinated) in the diplomatic desert. It seems premature to speak of a third failure — this time consular and legal. However, there is still no evidence of success, at least for the average person.

Taking a step forward and two steps back, the layman recalls how, back in the winter of 2021, some publications were full of headlines about the beginning of the Cold War of Vaccines. Restrained in his assessments and analysis of other people’s interpretations, he is sceptical about such interpretations of events.

It is much easier, as it seems, in a futurological vein to answer the question “what’s next?” With the understanding that a detailed examination of scenarios and the preparation of vaccine-diplomatic forecasts is a difficult matter and hardly within our power. The humble author of these lines is not Bill Gates or even the aforementioned Peter Hotez. Nevertheless, let us dwell on two theses illustrating the inevitable subsequent difficulties, even in the case of formal recognition of certificates both on a bilateral and a multilateral basis.

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On March 17, the Valdai Club and the Argentine Council on Foreign Relations (CARI) held a joint discussion, titled  “Vaccine as a Global Public Good. Multilateralism, Cooperation and Regional Integration”. The experts discussed the problems of ensuring equal access to vaccines and international cooperation in the field of vaccination.
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The first is dependence on the political environment. As you know, the processes of integration and international cooperation accelerated by globalisation should remove barriers to the cross-border movement of goods and services (1), capital (2) and labour resources (3). Combining tourism as one of the special cases within sphere (1) and the most expanded interpretation of sphere (3), we can also say — this concerns people. At the same time, regarding sphere (1), it is not at all difficult to imagine the following picture. The two countries conclude a foreign trade deal on some regular product deliveries from country A to country B — food shipments, for example. At some point, the leader of country A makes a statement that causes disapproval among the public in country B. After which it suddenly turns out that the products imported from country A do not meet the sanitary requirements of country B. As a result, exports from country A stop. If a consensus is reached between the leaders and peoples of both countries, the conditions may again be revised for the better (a mutually beneficial, “most favourable” regime). Of course, this is a simplified, perfect scheme; however, alas, it is common in modern international relations. These represent what could be called “non-tariff barriers”, if you will.

There are no guarantees that similar incidents will not arise with “vaccine certified” people. Moreover, here the conditional country B does not even have to exercise in sanctions-discriminatory casuistry. The explanation will be simple: a new strain has been identified for which country A’s vaccines are not effective.

The second thesis is the difficulty of dealing with opportunistic behaviour. About half a year ago, the competent authorities drew attention to the very active trade in “Covid passports” via the Darknet. There is an opinion (the law-abiding man in the street himself, of course, cannot verify it) that for a certain, and quite affordable price, you can purchase not only domestic, but also foreign fake vaccination certificates. This is where transnational cooperation and “phony”, “criminal diplomacy”, as opposed to “vaccine” diplomacy, are in full swing! However, many of those who want to go abroad are not stopped by the law and the consequences of its violation. As you know, man is weak. Especially a potential tourist, regardless of the purpose of the trip abroad.

On a related note, I can recall a story. In the late 1980s — early 1990s, Russian Germans, who repatriated to their historical homeland, were allowed by German authorities to use driver’s licenses, which they had received in the USSR and the Russian Federation. Pretty soon, road traffic accident statistics revealed an increase in the proportion of new immigrants involved in them. The German police launched an investigation and concluded that the culture of their driving, to put it mildly, left much more to be desired. This was explained, first of all, by the fact that in the era of late Perestroika and the 90s, the “dashing” decade that followed, driver’s licenses were sometimes issued to people who, again, to put it mildly, simply bought them unofficially. The inspectors of their newfound homeland were able to identify many of these “reckless drivers”, bring them to justice and force them to go to local driving schools again. But the main result of this scandalous trial was that all persons coming from Russia in search of permanent residence in the Federal Republic of Germany were subsequently required to obtain certificates issued according to the German model, regardless of driving experience and other circumstances. And it doesn’t matter that the requirements for graduates of driving schools in Russia have become much more stringent since then. Arguments that now it’s rare for a Russian driver to pass the driving exam the first time do not mean anything. Dura lex sed lex.

Given the general climate and the atmosphere of continuing distrust, we do not exclude that something similar may happen with vaccination certificates.

Prevention of these crimes and offenses, as well as the fight against them, are the tasks of the authorised bodies. We can only call on fellow citizens and citizens of other states to be conscientious.

In conclusion, it must be emphasised that faith in vaccine diplomacy remains. The patient is certainly alive and, fortunately, is not in the “red zone”. Pathology remains within the normal limits, not all is lost. It is necessary to continue the course of treatment, possibly making certain adjustments. At the same time, we are forced to reiterate that the Gorchakovs have not yet been found in vaccine diplomacy. Nor the Talleyrands, apparently.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.