The Week in Blob

Against vaccine diplomacy; Israel accused of apartheid; global military spending rises; etc.

Welcome to The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and also consider subscribing.

The Case Against Vaccine Diplomacy

This week Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey called on the Biden administration to send vaccines to India, where covid cases have been spiking. “This is India’s moment of need,” he said.

So far so good. But then Kim started talking the language of “vaccine diplomacy.” He warned that China and Russia “have been using their vaccines to gather favor globally.” India, he noted, is an ally, and “America’s strategic strengths (especially in relation to China) are our allies and partners.”

Vaccine diplomacy has become the standard Blob framing of the case for sending vaccines abroad. “The United States can’t ignore China’s vaccine diplomacy in Latin America,” warns a headline above a piece by Washington Post writer and ardent neo-Cold Warrior Josh Rogin. A news flash from NBC: “Russia and China are beating the U.S. at vaccine diplomacy, experts say.”

The vaccine diplomacy mindset has its virtues. Sending vaccines abroad for reasons of realpolitik beats not sending them at all. Joe Biden’s pledge this week to release 60 million surplus AstraZeneca doses is an improvement over America’s previous policy of hoarding ever-growing vaccine stockpiles—aka, “vaccine nationalism.” If whispering “soft power” in Biden’s ear is what did the trick, that’s better than the trick not getting done. 

Still, this narrow choice between isolationist vaccine nationalism and competitive vaccine diplomacy misses a fundamental point: Viruses don't care about geopolitics. For that reason, a vaccine distribution strategy aimed at fighting an imagined cold war will look very different from a vaccine distribution strategy aimed at fighting a real global pandemic. 

For starters, the second kind of strategy has this as a key premise: We all benefit every time anyone anywhere gets inoculated, no matter where the shot comes from. So if Russia or China gives vaccines to Brazil, that’s a good thing! Yet the Trump administration tried to discourage the Brazilian government from accepting the Russian Sputnik vaccine! (Even today, as the virus festers in Brazil and the country’s death toll rises rapidly, Rogin laments that Brazil’s government, to smooth the flow of vaccines from China, is letting Huawei bid on the contract to build its 5G network. Rogin never explains why Americans should prefer new variants of covid entering the US to Huawei entering Brazil’s telecom market.)

We’re hopeful that, in this realm as in others, the Biden administration won’t be as crude as the Trump administration. Still, there are already signs that Biden will subordinate the global struggle against covid to the global struggle with authoritarianism that his foreign policy team has adopted as its lodestar. Earlier this week, Samantha Power—newly confirmed as head of the US Agency for International Development—endorsed a tweet arguing that India’s being an “ally and democracy” strengthens the case for channeling vaccines in its direction.

Samantha Power made her name in the Obama administration as a humanitarian—indeed, so determined a humanitarian that she advocated military interventions to alleviate human suffering. Well, a true humanitarian should want to minimize the global death toll from covid. And if that’s your goal, then global vaccine distribution should be governed by public health considerations, not diplomatic ones. It’s possible that, at the moment, these two considerations would both arrive at the conclusion that India is where the vaccines should go. But if so that’s a happy coincidence. It won’t reliably be the case that the countries where vaccines would get the most bang per buck, in terms of lives saved globally in the long run, are countries that happen to be on Team USA.

And this point holds, by the way, even if you switch from a global humanitarian outlook to an America First outlook. It won’t reliably be the case that the countries where vaccines would get the most bang per buck, in terms of lives saved in the United States in the long run, are countries that happen to be on Team USA.

In the end, vaccine diplomacy and vaccine nationalism have a lot in common. Both conceive of a non-zero-sum problem in zero-sum terms.

This zero-sum framing so pervades media coverage that you barely notice it. This week the New York Times posted a podcast episode entitled “Why Russia Is Exporting So Much Vaccine.” (Spoiler: It’s not because Putin’s a nice guy.) In it reporter Andrew Kramer says that Russia’s vaccine diplomacy is part of a strategy to shore up support among the “bad boys club”—meaning Cuba, Iran, Syria and other Russian allies—and gain influence in the “battleground countries” teetering between Russia and the West. 

That characterization may indeed capture the strategic logic of Russia—which can itself be rightly accused of subordinating global health considerations to geostrategic aims. But the menacing tone of Kramer’s report encourages the US to respond in like terms—to distribute its vaccines along cold war lines rather than public health lines. 

Kramer states matter-of-factly that, as a result of nefarious Russian actions over the past few years, there is now “no question of collaboration” between Moscow and the West. Is that true? Is it literally inconceivable that Biden could call a global summit of vaccine manufacturing countries, including Russia and China, and try to coordinate distribution along public health lines? (And maybe even think about suspending or modifying patent protections in certain countries to help scale up vaccine manufacturing? Oh wait, we’re getting carried away. Apologies.)

Even Cold Warrior extraordinaire Ronald Reagan managed to set aside his hatred for the “Evil Empire” to negotiate arms control treaties with the Soviet Union. It would be a shame if future historians concluded that Reagan was better at recognizing non-zero-sum situations than Joe Biden.

And if that’s not enough to incentivize Biden, how about this: Calling a global vaccine summit would win America favor around the world. It would be a deft exercise of soft power. It would be… good vaccine diplomacy. And we mean that in a nice way!

In Brief

  • International military spending increased by 2.6 percent last year despite a contraction in global GDP, according to a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The US drove much of the increase with a 4.4 percent jump from 2019; in total, America's military budget amounted to a whopping 39 percent of global defense spending.

  • Human Rights Watch accused Israel of committing "crimes of apartheid and persecution" against the Palestinians and called for an international investigation into Tel Aviv's conduct. The rights organization is the largest of its kind to level the accusation, following a similar finding by Israeli rights organization B'tselem earlier this year. HRW found that Israel "systematically discriminates against Palestinians" and shows no intention to end its occupation of the West Bank. Israel called the report's claims "preposterous and false" and argued that its policies are about maintaining security, not ethnic discrimination.

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas decided to postpone next month's legislative elections, which would have been the first since 2006. The official rationale is that Israel plans to prevent a portion of East Jerusalem residents from participating. In the view of many Palestinians, allowing an election to go forward under these conditions would mean accepting Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem, an area that, like the West Bank, wasn’t in Israeli hands prior to the war of 1967. But some have observed that this justification is politically convenient for Abbas's divided Fatah movement, which, as we noted last week, is likely to lose to a united Hamas. Earlier this week, Hamas rejected the idea of postponing the vote. In The Beinart Notebook, Peter Beinart questions why the Biden administration has done little to push for Palestinian elections despite its avowed focus on democracy. "While Netanyahu and Abbas will bear as much responsibility as the Biden administration if Palestinian elections are cancelled, Netanyahu and Abbas aren’t planning to host a global 'Democracy Summit' later this year."

  • The New York Times reported Monday that Venezuela's economic collapse has rendered governance so difficult that large portions of the country are now in the hands of rebel groups that rule "mini-states of their own." As the Times notes, this collapse is a product both of President Nicolás Maduro's economic mismanagement and of crushing sanctions imposed by Obama and tightened under Trump. Meanwhile, Maduro signaled openness to negotiations with the US-backed opposition led by Juan Guaidó, whom the US continues to recognize as the country's rightful president. But hawks are pushing Biden to keep the pressure on Maduro: Elliot Abrams, who was Trump's envoy to Venezuela and is perhaps best known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, told AP that "every engagement by Biden with the Maduro regime undermines the democratic opposition." For now, it looks like Biden is siding with the hawks.

  • The world got a rare glimpse into Iran’s palace intrigues when a long interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was leaked earlier this week. Zarif told his interlocutor that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—Iran’s elite military unit, which was headed up by General Qassim Soleimani prior to his assassination—plays a big role in foreign policy decisions, often outweighing the influence of elected officials. But Zarif also noted that Soleimani and his allies failed to block the 2015 nuclear deal with the US, suggesting some limits on the IRGC’s sway with Iran’s Supreme Leader, the decider-in-chief. Meanwhile, reports indicate that there has been slow but steady progress in talks aimed at bringing the US and Iran back into compliance with the nuclear deal; the main point of contention remains which sanctions the US must lift in order to restore the deal.

  • Chad’s military junta killed at least five protesters Tuesday during the first major demonstrations against the country’s military government, which took power last week after the unexpected death of long-time President Idriss Déby. The crackdown led France—a long-time ally of Déby—to rescind its support for the military government, opening the door to greater international pressure for a transition to civilian rule.


  • In Vox, Alex Ward investigates whether the Biden administration has really cut off support for Saudi military operations in Yemen. 

  • In Jacobin, Aviva Chomsky argues that Biden’s plan for Central America has two major flaws: It promotes a militarized approach to reducing migration, funneling aid toward police and armed forces in the region, and it pushes for neoliberal economic policies that have “historically brought violence and poverty to the region — and so led directly to today’s migrant crisis.”

  • Also in Jacobin, Derek Davison grades Biden’s first 100 days at the helm of US foreign policy. (Plot spoiler: The title of the piece is “Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Has Been Horrendous.”)

  • In Foreign Policy, Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute weighs in on what led Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to make a “180-degree shift” and pursue talks with Iran. “One factor looms larger than all others: increasing signs that the United States is serious about shifting its focus away from the Middle East,” Parsi writes, arguing that this change “has compelled the region’s powers to explore their own diplomacy.”

  • In Eunomia, Daniel Larison criticizes hawkish reactions to the Russian military build-up on its border with Ukraine, which has now been reversed. “When Biden chose not to send U.S. ships into the Black Sea, we were assured by Russia hawks that this would ‘embolden' Putin,” Larison writes. “Just a few days later, the supposed threat has evaporated and the fearmongering about Russian invasion proved to be completely wrong.”

                                                                           —Robert Wright and Connor Echols

My weekly conversation with famous frenemy Mickey Kaus can be found after 9:30 p.m. ET (give or take an hour) this evening on The Wright Show podcast feed or at or the bloggingheads YouTube channel. And our after-podcast podcast—the Parrot Room conversation, which is available to paid subscribers and Patreon supporters—can be found around the same time by going to the NZN Substack home page—right here—and clicking on this week’s Parrot Room episode.

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.