On June 3, President Joe Biden finally announced his plan to send part of America’s vaccine stockpile overseas. The first step, he declared, is to share some 25 million doses with other countries. At least three-quarters of those shots will go to COVAX, the international effort intended to route vaccines from rich countries to poor ones. The United States will dispatch the remainder to “countries experiencing surges, those in crisis, and other partners and neighbors, including Canada, Mexico, India, and the Republic of Korea,” as Biden put it.
The basic principle seems to be this: Having verified that it possesses enough vaccines to meet domestic demand, the United States will now share its vaccines. The White House says it will distribute them mostly to save lives rather than directly serve America’s political objectives, but some doses will be used to prioritize US neighbors in North America and help US allies and partners around the world.
The announcement was generally welcomed in America, especially within the president’s Democratic Party. But it produced a strikingly harsh criticism from one Democratic representative, Ted Lieu of California. Though delivered on the most foul of forums, Twitter, Lieu’s objection is worth taking seriously. It illustrates a foundational problem with US foreign policy, yet one that perhaps eluded many of the critics who piled on.
Lieu wrote, “I strongly disagree with the Biden Administration on their global vaccine rollout. We should help our allies first instead of letting a third party decide where vaccines should go.” He illustrated the point by juxtaposing a rising US partner in the effort to counterbalance China with a long-standing and ritually punished enemy: “Since there are not enough vaccines, should we help India or Iran? We should help India first.”
The backlash commenced. In the words of a colleague of mine, Lieu was being “morally grotesque.” Representative Ilhan Omar made the case eloquently. “It’s a global pandemic,” she wrote, so “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” For Omar, concern for humanity should take precedence over narrow national interests. “We must have compassion for human beings regardless of where they are born, our humanity depends on it.”
Nevertheless, it was Lieu’s complaint that appeared to trouble the administration. Later that day, Lieu reported that he had spoken with national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Sullivan assured him that the United States will still determine which countries receive the vaccines it routs through COVAX. A White House statement sheds further light, listing dozens of countries that will receive US doses. Not among them: Cuba, Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela, perennial US foes. Although 7 million shots will go to Asia, the White House makes no mention of Cambodia or Myanmar, presumably because their governments tilt toward Beijing.
Lieu, relieved, announced his support for the administration’s plan. If he lacks compassion for fellow humans, it would seem that the Biden administration does as well.
But is Lieu bereft of empathy (a quality he touts in his Twitter bio, for whatever that’s worth)? Not necessarily. If America’s dozens of geopolitical allies around the globe were truly vital for the survival of the United States—and non-allies were grave threats—then his position would make sense. The United States should, in that case, help its allies first, for the same reason it helped itself first: The US government has a primary responsibility to ensure the safety of its people. If I had a life-saving medicine to give away, I certainly would not make a priority of handing it to a person who was trying to kill me. I would give it either to someone willing to protect me or to someone most in need.
So Lieu did not exhibit a distinctive personal failing. He merely followed what has been the logic of US foreign policy for decades. After America’s Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, collapsed, bipartisan leaders opted not to pull back US military commitments and deployments but rather to extend them more widely than ever. As a result, the United States divvied up the world into allies and potential or actual enemies. The allies were supposedly vital to America’s security, so the United States shouldered the burden of protecting them. Others were supposedly threats, so America did not hesitate to counter them.
This is the premise from which Lieu quite logically arrived at an unsettling conclusion: help one half of humanity and punish the other half, even when the goal is to save lives and end a global pandemic. The problem is that the premise is false. Most of the world has no intention of attacking the United States, no capability to do so, and everything to lose by trying. The United States is remarkably secure—or would be, if it did not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy or, the flip side, dependents to save. A foreign policy of global division not only makes Americans less safe; it also leads America to treat others inhumanely. When lives are at stake, it channels compassion to some and directs punishment to others.
For that reason, Omar’s appeal to universal humanity has limits, too. Such appeals are unlikely to impress those who believe certain portions of humanity are out to kill them. Nor can the reality of clashing interests be wished away if collective problems are to be solved. “No one is safe until everyone is safe”—a slogan used across the international community—is well-intended but not true. The vaccine makes people safe. That is why people should take the vaccine even if others do not, and that is the very source of the inequality that should be addressed. Everyone will not be safe unless some people make themselves safe first, and then, out of selflessness as much as self-interest, help others to do the same.
A clash of worldviews lies behind these short tweets. One form of internationalism, prominent in the United States, pays heed to national interests but assesses them wrongly, producing a horrific outcome. Another form arrives at the right place but cannot mobilize power to get there. Take the two together, however, and a way forward emerges. In an age of climate change and pandemic disease—universal dangers with differential impacts—an effective internationalism will respect the genuine interests of nations but redefine and then harness them. And it need not be afraid to embrace a sense of justice and virtue along the way.