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Saturday, June 10, 2023

COLUMN: Why the U.S. Must Lead in COVID-19 Vaccine Diplomacy

Vaccine distribution poses national security issues – not only in the biological sense, but also in terms of traditional diplomacy, foreign relations, and international influence. In this piece, we, the authors, set aside ethical considerations, and discuss the “strategy-of-influence” for which we are advocating only in terms of diplomatic utility.

As in any other setting, whether diplomatic or military, in which the U.S. desires to be influential, it needs to “get there first” with its narrative. The U.S. desires to establish the narrative frame within which its actions, and those of other actors, will be viewed. There is still time to enhance foreign influence through the vaccine context, but the new U.S. administration must act quickly.

We in the U.S. need to carefully frame the intended meaning of each element of an aggressive donation policy, not only in terms of volume and expediency, but also the tone of delivery of the message, and its consistency with other U.S. actions, messages and goals.

Among the salient elements of the framing of vaccine donation, the following points contribute to the U.S. strategy:

  1. Stockpiling of vaccines is not the safest biological strategy given the international nature of the threat. Hoarding prolongs the global pandemic, risking more virulent, more fatal and more vaccine resistant strains. Stockpiling can be viewed as hoarding, which provides an opportunity for other nations to create and reinforce negative narratives without bending the truth and create a power (and solutions) vacuum for others to fill, increasing their influence. Additionally, hoarding can have long-term impacts on economic growth, threatening the global recovery, slowing down tourism, trade and foreign direct investment.
  2. An aggressive U.S. vaccine donation policy will strengthen existing relations, create opportunities, and fill the void of pandemic exit solutions before other global players do.
  3. The U.S. needs to present itself as present, active and capable on the world stage. We cannot pass up this opportunity to do so for the reasons above, and to help avoid allowing other nations to establish competing narratives of aid and humanitarian engagement that will diminish long-term influence and credibility of the U.S. internationally.

The impact of vaccine hoarding on international relations

The U.S. has secured more than enough doses to vaccinate double its population (1.21 billion as of March 8), with another 100 million purchased on March 10 increasing total doses purchased to 1.3 billion. The U.S. has purchased more vaccines per capita than any other large country in a time where vaccine nationalism is causing new rifts, and is stockpiling vaccines that it cannot currently use. In a world of nations that are each scrambling to vaccinate their populations, the resulting global narrative is one of pandemic-exit isolationism. The authors understand that this approach is flawed from a biosecurity perspective (since viruses are mutating and don’t respect national boundaries), and also assert that it is self-defeating from an influence perspective. The U.S. will be better served in international diplomatic circles to be seen as an outward-looking, generous leader rather than insular and isolationist hoarder. We should not be playing catch-up to these countries that are positioning their vaccine policies to help expand their respective spheres of influence:


On the most recent official visit by the Afghanistan foreign minister to Moscow, a free batch of Sputnik vaccines for the Afghan parliament was discussed, although not yet formalized. The rest of the vaccines in Afghanistan so far have been donated by India.

Russia also started to deliver vaccines to Belarus in early February and is in the process of supplying doses to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Egypt, India, Mexico, Nepal, Palestine and Venezuela, among other countries


China has pledged to donate vaccines to 53 countries this year, and export to 27 more, even though, while having made the pledge, it has only vaccinated 4 percent of its population. Recipient countries include 12 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and others.


Despite being home to the largest vaccine production hubs globally of the Astrazeneca vaccine, most vaccines being produced in India are being exported. As well as to Afghanistan, India has also pledged vaccine provision to neighboring Bangladesh, Myanmar, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Oman, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Bhutan, Suriname, Guyana, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Guatemala, thereby demonstrating and setting a tone of leadership in international cooperation despite India’s developing status and enormous domestic population.


Mexico’s vaccines have been provided by China, in contrast to President Biden ruling out sharing of vaccines.

UK vs. EU

Tensions escalated in late January when the European Union (EU) threatened to block exports of the Pfizer vaccine to the UK on the grounds that Pfizer had yet to fulfil their European orders. Following condemnation by the WHO, British government and others, the EU subsequently backtracked. However, this likely caused irreparable damage to the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, and her reputation. This has also damaged relations between the EU and post-“Brexit” Britain, and may well have hindered the likelihood of a more integrated relationship in the near run.

Italy vs. Australia

Earlier in March, Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 Astrazeneca vaccines to Australia. This is based on production problems by Astrazeneca and their ability to meet domestic requirements in Italy.

Australia has requested a formal review from the EU, as well as accusing Italy of “tearing up the rule book” and Germany has expressed concern that other countries in the EU will follow suit, endangering international vaccine distribution.

Russia and China are both utilizing vaccine diplomacy.

Joining COVAX has been a welcome move by the Biden administration. However, the U.S. donations, which were significantly less and given later than other countries, may not be sufficient to return the U.S. to a narrative leadership position for vaccine and related issues.

The U.S. narrative leadership can be regained through an advantageous narrative frame that focuses not just on numbers of vaccines sent, but also expediency and attitude of delivery. The expediency needs to highlight the willingness with which the U.S. takes on vaccines. The attitude needs to be one of generosity and leadership, rather than critique and condescension. The U.S. needs to be very intentional and conscious of shifting public opinion to craft an effective strategy for vaccine donation.

The absence of deliberate messaging and action for vaccine donation creates the situation where the U.S. is currently perceived as sleepwalking into its policies, with the narrative effect of treating the vaccine beneficiaries as “second-class” stakeholders unworthy of serious policy consideration. The lack of deliberation and intention also creates a power vacuum that contributes to a larger global policy leadership vacuum that other global powers are all-too-happy to fill.

The current perception of the U.S. internationally differs markedly, in a negative way, from its frequently positive domestic narratives. A few examples illustrate some of the many variables that suggest U.S. insularity and policies of exceptionalism, rather than generous global leadership. For example, while the UK is maligned for cutting foreign aid expenditures from 0.7 to 0.5 percent of GDP, the United States’ is less than 0.2 percent for the same period. Separately, when China is called out on climate change, current U.S. emissions are more than twice that of China per capita. Also, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is viewed by citizens in that country and elsewhere that the U.S. considers the lives of its soldiers to be worth more than Afghan lives. When viewed in light of these self-interested policies, and many others such as imposition of sanctions, etc., vaccine hoarding will further tarnish the United States’ international reputation.

The contrasts are stark and not flattering to U.S. leadership. In effect, by stockpiling vaccines in excess of what would be needed for double the U.S. population, the Biden administration appears to be taking an “America First” strategy. Notably, and with the potential to additionally corrode U.S. influence, none of Russia, India and China are following the U.S. stockpiling policy, despite having vaccinated a much smaller proportion of their populations.

This sends a clear and counterproductive message: that in times of crises, U.S. concerns do not extend beyond its citizens, borders and institutions.

So, what can the U.S. do? The U.S. must LEAD. It must lead with a narrative that frames our actions consistent with U.S. policy interests.

  • Release excess vaccines to those countries that need them most.
  • Deploy the U.S. military for vaccines in fragile contexts and
  • Demonstrate that in so doing that our military’s logistical capacity is clearly most capable of this. Every moment this is not done is a moment that frames the narrative that the U.S. is not capable of doing so.
  • Further, encourage the EU and the UK to do similar, especially given the success of their vaccination programs.

There is a window of opportunity for the U.S. to reverse its leadership erosion and to leverage and strengthen its frayed alliances relating to pandemic response and global pandemic exit. Specifically, if the U.S. were to take such a bold and brave step to donate excess vaccines now, it would place meaningful pressure on the EU and UK to do so, especially since the EU and UK are further along in their domestic vaccination programs. If such an action and recruitment of European countries were to be successful, it would result in a dramatic shift of vaccine sources for developing countries toward the U.S. and our traditional allies. 

Help plug the humanitarian crises exacerbated by COVID-19

The world is facing the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII, with David Beasley, the ex-governor of South Carolina and executive director of the UN’s World Food Program, warning of multiple upcoming famines, especially in Yemen. The last time the world was in such dire straits the U.S. developed and implemented the Marshall Plan, a crucial aspect of the subsequent global recovery, and the U.S. has the opportunity to engage in a similar policy framing success once again.

Data from 2017 shows the U.S. donates just 0.18 percent of GNI on foreign aid, well short of the 0.7 percent target set by the OECD and the lowest in the G7. The U.S. could make serious inroads into the current global humanitarian crisis by committing to the 0.7 percent, which would increase foreign aid spending by roughly $100 billion. This is only just over 5 percent of the recent $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package, a miniscule proportion, and would undoubtedly save millions of lives while showing the U.S. returning first and foremost to the global stage.

Why would the U.S. do this?

Strategic relations

Countries such as Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are seen as alternatives sources of rare earth metals to China, and providing vaccines and foreign aid could strengthen bilateral relationships and provide more economic and social stability to facilitate mining investments. These rare earth metals such as cobalt are incredibly important and have wide-ranging uses from electric cars to iPhones and military engines.

International relations

Vaccine diplomacy from the likes of China, Russia and others has been described above, strengthening bilateral ties with their traditional allies as well as countries closer to the U.S., such as Mexico.

In a world of increasing polarization, faced with the advent of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the U.S. faces the risk of a large number of countries choosing to ally themselves with China over the U.S., if a conflict were to take place.

Taking a leadership position in vaccine diplomacy, development and humanitarian aid would not only demonstrate global leadership, but also strengthen bilateral ties, with longer-term reputational and economic benefits for the U.S.

COVID-19 mutations and risk

COVID-19 does not respect borders and boundaries, and as long as some in the world are unsafe from it we all are. New variants are emerging from around the globe, including those with increasing transmissibility, mortality and, worryingly, vaccine resistance. A woman in Russia was found to have 18 different mutations of the virus inside her body.

Donating vaccines earlier and increasing funding to COVAX increases vaccination rates around the globe, reducing global spread of the virus around the globe and the likelihood of new mutations. Aggressively pursuing a global COVID-19 zero strategy is not just benevolent but economically prudent, given the low cost of vaccine donation and high cost of future lockdowns.

Therefore, donating excess vaccines, amplifying this message and providing ancillary logistical support is not only politically smart, but is also economically smart, and the right thing to do. Vaccine rollouts are both highly complex from a logistical and a trust-building standpoint. Donating vaccines is one thing, but ensuring that they are administered – and to those most in need – is another challenge entirely, and one that the U.S. military is uniquely well-equipped to undertake. The U.S. can play catch-up in vaccine donation, but the difference will be making sure that on-ground operations are successful. Additional military logistical support may also be more available due to recent withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq.

This would position the U.S. as the predominant character in the global recovery narrative, its benevolence saving hundreds of thousands around the world and kickstarting the global recovery.


We, the authors, are co-authors of the Narrative Campaign Field Guide (NCFG), intended to help strategists design Narrative Campaigns, increase their efficacy, and reduce their cost, development time, and potential for blowback.

Sahil Shah has been a Fellow and is an Action Council Member at the Atlantic Council. He is a co-founder and director of Sustainable Seaweed, an agri-tech company scaling seaweed production for food security and blue carbon sinks. He is also an Honorary Fellow at the Jahn Research Group at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and a specialist advisor at US food security nonprofit, the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED). He sits on the Chatham House Food and Land Use round table and co-founded the Point7Percent campaign. He cofounded an open-source project, the Food Systems Handbook and is a co-author of The Narrative Campaign Field Guide. Sahil previously advised the think tank Let’s Fund, and served as a strategy and management consultant with Accenture and Legal & General Investment Management. Sahil holds an MA in Economics with Management from the University of Cambridge and Judge Business School.

Ajit Maan, Ph.D. is Professor of Politics and Global Security, Faculty at the Center for the Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative, at Arizona State University. She is also Founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies, LLC, author of seven books on national security and foreign policy, and columnist for Homeland Security Today.

Scott David, J.D., LL.M., is the Director of the Information Risk and Synthetic Intelligence Research Initiative (IRSIRI) at the University of Washington (Seattle) – Applied Physics Laboratory, and was formerly the Executive Director of the Law, Technology and Arts Group at UW School of Law.  Over the past decade, Scott has been active in several programs of the World Economic Forum, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the IEEE, and a host of other organizations addressing the challenges associated with global information network and interaction system transitions.   Prior to joining the University of Washington, Scott worked as an attorney for 27 years focused on counseling commercial and governmental entities worldwide in the structures and transactions at the crossroads of technology and commercial networks with an emphasis on online commerce, data security, privacy, digital risk, standards setting, taxation, and emerging intangibles value propositions. Scott was a partner at the K&L Gates law firm (formerly Preston, Gates & Ellis) from 1992 to 2012. Prior to joining K&L Gates, he was an associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in New York.

Richard J. Cordes is a co-founder of COGSEC and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council on appointment to the GeoTech Center. He has contributed research to a variety of working groups and committees across Department of Defense programs, the IEEE, and the Private Sector, and has authored, coauthored, and edited books on topics such as gray zone warfare, knowledge management and education technology, optimization of human learning, social systems engineering, remote team performance, and complex systems. He is especially interested in unifying concepts within narrative design, intelligence analysis, science and scholarship, behavioral engineering, and pedagogy under the domains of sensemaking and knowledge management.

Sahil Shah
Sahil Shah has been a Fellow and is an Action Council Member at the Atlantic Council. He is a co-founder and director of Sustainable Seaweed, an agri-tech company scaling seaweed production for food security and blue carbon sinks. He is also an Honorary Fellow at the Jahn Research Group at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and a specialist advisor at US food security nonprofit, the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED). He sits on the Chatham House Food and Land Use round table and co-founded the Point7Percent campaign. He cofounded an open-source project, the Food Systems Handbook and is a co-author of The Narrative Campaign Field Guide. Sahil previously advised the think tank Let’s Fund, and served as a strategy and management consultant with Accenture and Legal & General Investment Management. Sahil holds an MA in Economics with Management from the University of Cambridge and Judge Business School.

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