Source: Ernesto Benavides / Agence France-Presse — Getty Images / New York Times
There is considerable hand-wringing about China’s vaccine diplomacy in Latin America. This reflects the inability of the Trump and Biden administrations to view vaccines in strategic terms. At a decisive time, the U.S. chose to complain about China rather than offer leadership and a compelling alternative to solve Latin America’s COVID-19 crisis. The Biden administration needs to move quickly, while keeping three points in mind.
First, China bashing is not an effective tool. Latin American governments now have two decades of close relations with China and know very well where they stand.
Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Tim Kaine (D-VA) recently sent a letter to President Joe Biden that “our competitors”—meaning China and Russia—will send vaccines “to coerce Latin America and the Caribbean nations in support of a diplomatic agenda inimical to ours.” In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, one lawmaker insisted the vaccines needed to have a clear “made-in-the-USA” label.
This echoes an oft-repeated message from the Trump administration, as when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that China and Russia are “showing up at the doorstep” to “use debt traps.” Throughout many speeches, he crafted the image of a gullible Latin America letting the dishonest traveling salesman into the house.
In both the Trump and Biden administrations, that image is contrasted with the selfless United States. Secretary of State Antony Blinken bemoaned China’s “strings attached” vaccine diplomacy, compared to the United States’ focus on the “overall interest of humanity.” This ruffles China’s feathers, as the country’s leaders insist they attach no such strings anywhere in the world, even in Asia.
Almost all of this logic is wrong, and Latin American leaders know it. Foreign aid from all countries has strings attached of some kind, though some are more visible than others. As political scientist Tomohisa Hattori put it, foreign aid “transforms material dominance and subordination into gestures of generosity and gratitude.” Last month, a senior Biden administration official claimed that “China’s bullying and bribing over vaccines will backfire.” That was wishful thinking. Latin American policy makers fully understand the risks and make decisions accordingly.
Second, self-praise is not effective either. Latin Americans know better.
The almost martyr-like insistence on U.S. altruism is laughable given the history of U.S. policy in the region and its continued preference for the same coercion it ascribes to China. As Senator Rubio complains about China’s unethical use of leverage, he also called to cut aid to El Salvador when it switched recognition from Taiwan to China. President Trump pushed for cuts in foreign aid except for Central American countries that he deemed amenable to his immigration policy demands.
The United States cannot claim moral superiority when it comes to vaccines in Latin America. The world watched while U.S. democracy faltered, domestic human rights abuses became glaringly obvious, and nationalism blocked vaccine assistance to other countries. With regard to Covid-19, the U.S. government seems to talk much more than act. At this point, Latin America is just “poised to receive” doses as the U.S. “considers prioritizing” the region while it is still “deliberating how to direct the shots it promised to send abroad.” Inaction and philanthropy don’t go well together.
Third, the U.S. can respond most effectively if it views the issue in broader strategic terms.
The good news is that the U.S. can still respond by sending its promised 80 million doses by the end of June, which will help mitigate the COVID-19 catastrophe in Latin America while establishing some degree of partnership with countries in the region. President Biden, who is known for extensive, even excruciating, deliberation, needs to act soon. If he does not, we will continue to see stories like authoritarian-leaning President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador receiving Chinese vaccines from the New England Patriots’ team plane.
The vaccines should be accompanied by measured, even realist, rhetoric about how they are part of a broader policy of engagement. The Biden administration will be sorely tempted to frame the action in superhero terms, where the U.S. swoops in to save the day. This might provide some briefly positive headlines in the United States, but would be greeted with knowing cynicism in the region.
The Biden administration’s policy toward Latin America is only just coalescing. Vaccines, which will take time to roll out effectively, should be integral to it, not a one-off PR move. China is now deeply involved in Latin America because of mutual interests. By recognizing this instead of complaining about China’s presence, the Biden administration can work with Latin American leaders to formulate clear and mutually beneficial policies.
Dr. Greg Weeks is a professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist, and he is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Military and Politics in Postauthoritarian Chile (2003), Irresistible Forces: Latin American Migration to the United States and its Effects on the South (2010), The Bachelet Government: Conflict and Consensus in Post-Pinochet Chile (2010), Understanding Latin American Politics (2014) and U.S. and Latin American Relations, 2nd Edition (2015).
Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregWeeksCLT