Vaccine diplomacy and selfish altruism: assessing the impacts of medical diplomacy on soft power prospects


Among the most startling trends noted by international relations scholars is the increased impartiality of the global south on many of the direst geopolitical issues facing the world today. The reasons for the increase in states adopting a neutral position are complex and should not be reduced to simplistic explanations. However, one interesting variable which partially explains the emergence of this trend is the prevalence of vaccine diplomacy throughout the covid-19 pandemic. Though considerably less effective than their western counterparts, vaccines produced by countries such as China, Russia, and India, offered global south countries in desperately needed access to vaccines to combat the pandemic. This charitable initiatives are seen in contrast to global north countries, whom the global south community accused of hoarding vaccines and not doing enough to stop the pandemic. As a result, there has been a notable increase in warmer relations between these perceived altruistic countries and states which struggled to combat the pandemic. Moreover, this vaccine diplomacy has come in tandem with waves of vaccine misinformation, which sought to undermine western vaccines as a means by which to promote alternative non-western vaccines. As such, it is important now in a post-pandemic context to chart the development of vaccine diplomacy, make note of its impacts, and derive policy suggestions for states going forward.

Vaccines as soft power tools

In January of 2021, the WHO began to raise considerable concern over the global inequality surrounding access to vaccines, with officials proclaiming that the world was on the brink of a moral failure. By early 2022, these predictions had proved to be prophetic, as many countries especially in Africa, lacked robust vaccines programs while western countries were preparing to roll out booster programs (Sparke, Levy, 2022). It was within this context that states such as China, Russia and India began to offer vaccines to global south states in an effort to help them turn the tide against covid. The amount and significance of these donations varied depending on how a state weathered its own pandemic as well as the international policies it implemented regarding vaccine distributions. India for example enjoyed a strong start to its initial campaign of vaccine diplomacy. However, this trend quickly backfired during the country’s second wave as it found itself inadequately prepared for the momentous task of vaccinating large numbers of its own citizens (Chikodzi, Nhamo, 2023). Similarly, Russia found itself in a strong position initially, having donated medical equipment earlier in the pandemic globally and developing the worlds first marketed vaccine in Sputnik V. However, credibility issues regarding the vaccine as well as the war in Ukraine harmed the image of the Russian vaccine abroad, leading to a decline in its soft power potential (Giusti, Ambrosetti, 2023). China conversely enjoyed a relatively well received vaccine internationally being widely adopted by countries across Asia, Latin America, and Africa. However, it failed to break through many thresholds necessary for massive adoption. In the Middle East and Mediterranean for example, China was able to export its vaccine to many regional states such as Egypt and Lebanon. However, China proved unable to break into Turkey, a key regional player and NATO member, demonstrating the persisting limits to its soft power (Üngör, 2023).

It is important to note these drawbacks so as to not give in to the wave of sensationalism which has followed reports of vaccine diplomacy. Western powers still hold a significant advantage within both medical technology capacity, as well as legitimacy. However, it is important to note that the perceived reluctance of western powers to be forthcoming with vaccine donations precipitated shifts within the international order which, while not yet seismic, do signify the beginning of a worrying trend which merits the attention of scholars and policymakers alike. The necessity of tackling the pandemic coupled with the difficulty of expanding procurement drove India into deeper cooperation with Russia in order to satisfy its domestic demand, strengthening an already worrying bilateral relationship between the two countries. Additionally, the severity of India’s second wave prompted China to offer vaccine donations, which although unlikely to represent a turn in relations, signifies a marked departure from the traditionally distant and unfriendly relations between the two countries (Chikodzi, Nhamo, 2023). Russia also utilized the prospect of extrapolating backdoors as a result of the pandemic. Russian donations of vaccines to economically weaker regions of Europe helped to worsen social cleavages regarding support for Ukraine during Russia’s invasion, a result which represents a small yet significant diplomatic victory for Moscow (Giusti, Ambrosetti, 2023). Above all however, China enjoyed the widest success with their vaccine diplomacy campaign. China relied on its well-established policies of bilateralism throughout the pandemic, creating ‘win-win’ scenarios for itself and recipient countries. The extent of this diplomacy even reached Europe, where countries such as Serbia, Montenegro and even EU member states like Hungary and Czechia utilized Chinese vaccines despite not being approved by the European Medicines Agency (Lee, 2021). The value of these connections also expands to the geopolitical realm. Honduras, a country which received Chinese vaccines, recently moved to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan after decades of amicable relations between the two countries, a move no doubt motivated by the political favour earned by Beijing throughout the pandemic.

While vaccine diplomacy efforts were brought about tangibly through the physical deliveries of vaccines, the initiatives were bolstered in large part through misinformation campaigns. These efforts sought to cast western developed vaccines as dangerous not through outright disinformation but rather by amplifying reports of their danger in attempts to mislead media consumers on their efficiency and safety. Researchers have also noted that these narratives, and the contrast between “dangerous” western vaccines and “efficient” alternatives formed the backbone of how countries like China and Russia pitched their vaccine programs to developing countries (Schafer, 2021). Evidence of this commitment to misinformation can also be seen in Russia Today’s coverage of the Ottawa Trucker Protest in Canada’s capital last year, where the Kremlin sponsored media outlet covered the protest disproportionately more than other outlets, while also adopting a largely pro-trucker stance, indicating potential Russian involvement in the movement (Bueno, 2022).

Policy implications regarding vaccine diplomacy

Given the emergence of this alarming trend, western policymakers should ensure that the issues surrounding medical diplomacy are addressed as soon as possible. As the world increasingly recovers from the covid-19 pandemic, experts continue to warn that future pandemics are on the horizon which could threaten comparable if not equal disruptions to the international order. Moreover, given that the effects of vaccine diplomacy are still being felt by the international order, the issue is not merely one which has receded alongside the pandemic but rather one which will likely endure if not worsen. As such it is important for effective international policy to be crafted and international relations scholarship to become more nuance in order to bring increased transparency to these trends.

As stated earlier, it is essential for the west to realize that while vaccine diplomacy initiatives represent a powerful tool wielded by adversarial states, by no means has the west fallen dramatically behind within its legitimacy. This should drive western institutions and governments to further emphasize the reliability of their medical capacity through increased outreach with the global south. This outreach could manifest itself in a multitude of ways, but an important one being collaborations with global south medical institutions and actors. Such actions could further improve trust between global south and western actors, resulting in increased transparency, thereby enhancing sense of integrity afforded to western institutions and potentially an increased willingness to cooperate on public health crises such as Covid-19. Such cooperation may also impart the necessary technical expertise required to increase the vaccine production capacity within the global south, thereby limiting the dependence of global south actors on.

Additionally, policymakers should look at ways to increase the access of vaccine knowledge to global south countries. Intellectual property rights proved to be an immense obstacle for global south access to vaccines over the course of the pandemic, arguably prolonging and worsening the global impact of the virus (Altindis, 2022). As such, while western countries should insure to safeguard the intellectual property of their national firms, pragmatism must take pre-eminence when considering how to combat future pandemics whilst retaining stable international standing. Considerable effort must be committed to bridging the gap between intellectual property and the practical ability of the global south to access vaccines.

Lastly, western institutions must endeavour to combat the spread of disinformation regarding western institutions and vaccinations. Delegitimizing western vaccines formed an important component of how states such as Russia and China pursued their campaigns of vaccine diplomacy. As such, efforts to increase trust within global south actors should encompass efforts to dispel falsehoods and half-truths pertaining to western vaccines. Doing so will not only allow for enhanced trust between the global north and the global south but will also contribute to a significantly safer global south who are adequately informed of the benefits of vaccinations and risks posed by viral infections.


 Vaccine diplomacy, while existent prior to, has been significantly amplified as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, and will likely continue to be an important soft power tool in coming years. Western states significantly lagged behind non-western states in their vaccine diplomacy programs, allowing states such as China and Russia to establish important diplomatic relationships stemming from their donations of desperately needed vaccines. As such, this paper recommends that western states and institutions should acknowledge the political power of these programs and endeavor to address their effects. Western governments should therefore seek to increase the global south’s access to vaccines as well as combatting the disinformation promoted by adversarial states. Implement these policy actions will in large part determine not only the medical but also the political implications of future pandemics.


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