When the Chips Are Down, It’s a ‘Me First’ World

Stewart M. Patrick

At first glance, the tenacity of vaccine nationalism and the shambolic U.S. departure from Afghanistan appear to be completely unrelated. And yet they both expose the moral costs of a world dominated by sovereign states that consistently place narrow national interest above the ethical imperative of alleviating the suffering of strangers.

This is hardly a news flash. The question of how governments should square their duties to their own citizens with their obligations to those in other countries is an inherent and recurrent ethical quandary in international relations. It is at the heart of debates over humanitarian intervention, foreign aid, human rights policy, the global digital divide and much more. It is becoming more acute, however, as the world becomes more integrated politically, economically, technologically, ecologically and epidemiologically. As interdependence grows, we increasingly speak the language of cosmopolitanism. But when the chips are down, we remain nationalists at heart.

Consider the debate over COVID-19 vaccines. From the outset of the pandemic, wealthy Western governments have paid rhetorical homage to global health security, even as they acted aggressively to lock up supplies of vaccines and therapeutics for their own populations. In April 2020, in an effort to expand global availability, several international actors—including the Global Alliance of Vaccines and Immunizations, the Gates Foundation, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, the World Health Organization and others—launched the Access to COVID Tools Accelerator, or ACT, a multistakeholder arrangement. A core pillar of this initiative is COVAX, which seeks to provide innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

Despite initial hopes, the response from wealthy world governments has been underwhelming. They have provided COVAX with far fewer vaccines and therapeutics than anticipated and, in the case of the U.S., EU and Japan, often chosen to deliver such lifesaving supplies bilaterally to reap diplomatic benefits. Western miserliness has exacerbated inequitable global access. As of July 15, only about 1 percent of Africa’s 1.3 billion inhabitants had been fully vaccinated, while excess vaccine stockpiles in wealthy countries were approaching 1.9 billion doses. The frustration of poor countries has only grown as several wealthy world governments have begun to endorse booster shots for fully vaccinated citizens.

In January, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the world was courting a “catastrophic moral failure.” By mid-summer, when more than 80 percent of doses worldwide had been administered in high income and upper middle-income countries, he sharpened his critique. “The global failure to share vaccines, tests, and treatments … is fueling a two-track pandemic: the haves are opening up, while the have-nots are locking down.” Later, he sought to shame rich nations for pursuing booster shots at the expense of the planet’s poor, saying, “We cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it, while the world’s most vulnerable people remain unprotected.” The WHO has called for a moratorium on booster shots, depicting them as not only unethical but also short-sighted, since allowing COVID-19 to circulate freely in the developing world could give the virus further opportunities to evolve into new and potentially deadlier forms.

If one looked behind the curtain, it was clear that the “global war on terror” that animated the entire enterprise in Afghanistan was based on a nationalist rather than cosmopolitan logic.

A similar sense of shame pervades the precipitous U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan after a futile, two-decade venture in nation-building. The abrupt departure abandons Afghan citizens to fundamentalist zealots committed to reimposing theocratic rule at odds with universal human rights. It also leaves hundreds of thousands of former partners at risk of Taliban reprisals. This sense of dishonor is felt most acutely by U.S. and allied soldiers who fought alongside Afghan colleagues, as well as many American and international civilians who worked with Afghan counterparts in the hopes of helping them build a better future for their country. But it is also shared by many of the countless people who played even a modest role over the past 20 years in shaping U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, as I did from 2003 to 2004 as a fellow on the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff.

The ugly denouement in Afghanistan has exposed the hollowness of the idealistic, nation-building rhetoric that accompanied the post-9/11 U.S.-led intervention, when the George W. Bush administration dreamed of transforming Afghanistan into a modern, functioning market democracy. Others have identified the many U.S. errors made under both Republican and Democratic presidents since then. The bottom line is that the United States promised things it could not possibly deliver, no matter the magnitude of the resources available, given the pervasive corruption of the Afghan state, the persistent duplicity of Pakistan, our ignorance of Afghan society and identity politics, our moral compromises with Afghan warlords and, most importantly, our unwarranted faith in our own capacity for social engineering.

As a mid-level State Department official, I sat through countless meetings of the U.S. Afghan Interagency Operations Group, where dedicated U.S. officials pored over alleged “metrics” of success, such as how many clinics we had built or police we had trained, with precious little conversation about whether those clinics were embedded in a functioning public health system or whether those police had any respect for the rule of law. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction has documented the colossal waste of resources that resulted from America’s superficial and hubristic approach to institution-building.

If one looked behind the curtain, moreover, it was clear that the “global war on terror” that animated the entire enterprise was based on a nationalist rather than cosmopolitan logic. Consider, for example, how differently Americans, the Afghan government and average Afghans all defined “security” in that country. For Washington, it meant that al-Qaida had been eliminated and the Taliban put on the run. For former Afghan Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, it meant that Kabul could extend its writ across the country, imposing its will over former warlords now serving as provincial governors. Afghan citizens, meanwhile, dreamed of a secure future in which they were not constantly at the mercy of corrupt officials and preyed upon by uniformed bandits, often employed by the government itself. “We all lost Afghanistan,” writes P. Michael McKinley, who served as U.S. ambassador in Kabul from 2014 to 2016. No doubt, but it bears remembering that it was never truly “ours” to begin with.

The late 19th-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once notoriously remarked that the whole of the Balkans was not worth the life of a single Pomeranian grenadier. After two decades of war in Afghanistan, Joe Biden has apparently made a similar calculation. That hardly leaves the United States off the ethical hook, however. “It is true that Biden’s first duty is to the American people,” Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times recently wrote. “But that does not mean that, after a 20 year presence, the United States has no continuing moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan.” These responsibilities include working assiduously to get Afghan partners whose lives are in danger out of the country, collaborating with neighboring countries to press the Taliban to uphold fundamental rights, and working with the United Nations to ensure that Afghanistan gets the humanitarian relief its people so urgently need.

The ignominious endgame in Afghanistan, like the tenacity of vaccine nationalism, exposes the limits of our attachment to universal principles and our hypocrisy in pretending otherwise. The world may be increasingly joined, in terms of its interdependence—but its nations are anything but.

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