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Should the U.S. Have Joined TPP? Evaluating the Short-Run Labor Market Effects of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership

By Thomas Cronin

January 27, 2023



The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a proposed free trade deal between the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam that, if enacted, would have eliminated most of the trade barriers, such as tariffs, between the signatories. The deal was one of the largest proposed since NAFTA, as the 12 countries together accounted at the time for an annual GDP of over $28 trillion, or approximately 40% of the global GDP, and a third of global trade. While free trade deals were once the subject of significant bipartisan support, the recent emergence of populism on both sides of the political aisle in the United States meant that TPP faced widespread opposition from U.S. policymakers. Prominent contender for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, claimed the deal would “[force] American workers to compete against desperate and low-wage workers around the world”, and shortly after assuming office in January of 2017, Republican President Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement before it was ever enacted, citing the outsourcing of U.S. jobs to other countries as a principal concern. Although the U.S. was by far the largest player involved in negotiating TPP, the other 11 countries proceeded ahead without the United States. Consequently, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), borne out of TPP, came into force between the first six signatories—Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore—in December of 2018, and grew to include the remaining five countries over the course of the next four years. 

Geopolitical arguments surrounding TPP are mostly favorable in the United States, likely motivated by the widely-held goal of limiting China’s power, both economic and otherwise, over the Asia-Pacific region—in TRIP’s Fall 2020 Snap Poll of international relations scholars, over 70% of respondents indicated some amount of support for TPP, with nearly 30% expressing strong support:

Still, political rhetoric surrounding the economic effects of free trade deals remains divided, especially surrounding their effect on jobs. Advocates laud trade as an opportunity to create millions of jobs by attracting foreign direct investment and increasing exports, while critics argue that eliminating trade restrictions on developing countries with less labor laws will drive American manufacturing and service industries out of business by flooding the market with cheaper goods than they can produce, leading to a net elimination of jobs, especially for low-income, low-skill workers. This study will evaluate the short-run effects of the CPTPP on unemployment rates in the countries in which it was enacted to determine which, if any, of these claims have proven to be true so far.


The nature of the claims being made by both proponents and opponents of TPP requires a broad evaluation of the labor market conditions of involved countries. CPTPP went into effect in late 2018, so trends from 2019 onwards will be of interest. Because Peru, Malaysia, Brunei and Chile enacted the deal much later than the other members, they will be eliminated from the analysis, and only Mexico, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and Vietnam will be considered CPTPP countries. In order to evaluate differences in trends by national wealth, both CPTPP countries and non-CPTPP countries will be split into separate groups—developed and developing—as defined by the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database. Unemployment will be calculated by averaging national unemployment rates, sourced from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, for all members of each group. This study seeks to understand the deal’s effect on CPTPP countries’ unemployment rates separately by varying levels of education compared to global trends in these metrics by non-CPTPP countries in the short run. Higher unemployment rates in developed CPTPP countries (relative to other developed countries) accompanied by lower unemployment rates (especially among workers with low education levels) in developing CPTPP countries relative to their peers will support claims by opponents of TPP that the deal would outsource American manufacturing jobs to involved developing countries with less labor regulations. The inverse, that is, a decrease in unemployment numbers for developed CPTPP countries, will support TPP proponents’ claims that the increased trade prompted by the deal would attract more jobs in the United States.


In the three years since its adoption, CPTPP does not appear to have had a significant effect, positive or negative, on national unemployment rates for developing countries. Developing CPTPP countries (Mexico and Vietnam) had significantly lower unemployment rates on average than other developing countries; in 2018, the mean unemployment rate for these two countries was 2.22%, compared to 7.84% for all other developing countries. This changed very little over the course of the next three years, as the developing CPTPP countries’ unemployment rates decreased in 2019 to an average of 2.58%, while other developing countries’ unemployment rates increased to 8.22%. Both CPTPP and non-CPTPP developing countries saw similar spikes in unemployment in 2020 likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and recovered in unemployment at similar rates in 2021 (developing CPTPP countries saw an average 0.04% decrease in unemployment, while developing non-CPTPP countries had their unemployment rates decrease by 0.24%): 

Contrary to the opponent of TPP’s expectations that the deal would drive American manufacturing jobs overseas to developing countries with fewer labor standards, it seems that trends in overall unemployment rates in developing CPTPP countries were barely affected after the deal’s enactment, while developed CPTPP countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Singapore) actually saw their unemployment rates decrease substantively more than other developed countries. Developed CPTPP countries had notably lower unemployment rates on average both before and after enacting CPTPP than developed non-CPTPP countries. The mean unemployment rate among developed CPTPP countries in 2019 was approximately 4.08%, compared to 5.71% among all other developed countries. This gap narrowed slightly in 2020 when unemployment in developed CPTPP countries spiked marginally more sharply than in other developed countries, but while developed non-CPTPP countries saw their unemployment rates plateau in 2021 at roughly the 2020 rate of 6.62%, developed CPTPP countries experienced a decrease in unemployment from 5.48% in 2020 to 4.54% in 2021. Due to the timing of this change in trends, it is entirely possible that this difference is in part the result of different responses to the COVID-19 pandemic rather than of permanent trends in employment due to enhanced trade conditions with countries with less labor laws, but it certainly calls into question claims that the deal would rob involved developed countries of their jobs in any significant way, at least in the short-run.

This finding is consistent when controls were added for varying levels of education; adults with a basic level of education (primary education only) in CPTPP countries, both developed and developing, fared notably better than adults with basic education in the non-CPTPP countries with the same industrialization levels after the deal’s enactment. Adults with a basic education in developing CPTPP countries saw remarkably constant levels of unemployment after 2018, maintaining mean unemployment rates between 2% and 3% even through 2020, while those with a basic education in other developing countries saw their unemployment rates increase from 8.94% in 2018 to 11.2% in 2020 and 2021. Contrary to the predictions of opponents of TPP, workers with a basic education in developed CPTPP countries actually saw their average employment rates decrease to 9.22% in 2021, down from 9.91% in 2018 just before the deal’s enactment, even as unemployment rates for these workers in other developed countries increased over the same timeframe from 11.19% to 12.69%. As with unemployment overall, workers with a basic education in developed CPTPP countries fared better in 2020 than in other developed CPTPP countries:

CPTPP appears not to have been notably impactful at all for workers in either developed or developing countries with an intermediate (secondary) education. For developed countries, trends existing prior to the deal’s enactment continued for both CPTPP and non-CPTPP countries in 2019, and while CPTPP countries saw their unemployment rates spike in 2020 and 2021 relative to other developed countries, this is again likely due to external factors such as the global pandemic. If this increase in unemployment were the result of jobs fleeing to lower-income CPTPP countries due to less trade restrictions, then these countries should have experienced an equally-significant decrease in unemployment relative to other developing countries at the same time, but this does not appear to be the case; trends in unemployment for workers with an intermediate education were nearly identical after the deal’s enactment between developing CPTPP and non-CPTPP countries through 2021.

Unemployment rates among workers with an advanced education (bachelor’s degree or higher) reflect a similar story; as with workers with an intermediate education, highly-educated workers in developed CPTPP countries experienced increases in unemployment despite decreases in other developed countries:

The opponent of TPP might point to the increases in unemployment among developed CPTPP countries as unemployment decreases in developing CPTPP countries as evidence that the deal has harmed American industries. However, the decrease in unemployment among developing CPTPP countries reflects a trend also present among other developing countries, and if this theory were correct, the increased unemployment should be concentrated among the adults with low or intermediate education levels, as they are typically the ones who work manufacturing jobs. A more likely explanation for lagging employment in 2021 among highly-educated workers in developed countries is that many of them, being on average wealthier and therefore not as dependent on a consistent source of income, chose not to return to work amid continuing uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems, then, that CPTPP’s effect on employment in the short-run for developed countries has in fact been mostly beneficial, with benefits concentrated among low-education workers.

Finally, in order to estimate whether the generally positive effects that CPTPP appears to have had on its members’ labor market conditions would be replicated in the United States had it remained a member of the deal, I ran a difference-in-difference estimator comparing the United States’s unemployment rates before and after CPTPP’s enactment to New Zealand’s. New Zealand was an ideal choice for this test given its membership in CPTPP, generally strong economic position, and highly similar levels of and trends in unemployment to the United States’s after 2014:

Because breakdowns by education levels reflected similar trends in both countries, I chose to use unemployment overall as the variable of interest for this test. As previous results indicated, the difference-in-difference estimator found CPTPP membership to be associated with a lower unemployment rate, in this case a massive difference of 1.83%. While this outcome is certainly interesting, it is difficult to tell how much of this difference is actually the result of CPTPP membership; because the United States was hit so much harder than New Zealand by the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems reasonable to assume that much of the difference in the two countries’ unemployment rates following CPTPP’s enactment is down to stricter shutdown measures and decreased consumer demand brought on by the pandemic, especially in 2020. Without more post-pandemic data, it is difficult to estimate how much of an effect TPP would have had on the United States’s labor market specifically. Still, given that global unemployment trends indicate that low-education workers in developed CPTPP countries on average recovered faster from the pandemic than in developed non-CPTPP countries, it is unlikely that CPTPP’s role in New Zealand’s more favorable unemployment rates is negligible, and these comparatively better trends are driven by low-education workers. 


In being followed by better trends in unemployment rates for developed countries in which it was enacted relative to the rest of the world for the lowest-education workers, at least in the short term, data on CPTPP’s aftermath contradicts arguments often made by American opponents of TPP—that the deal would lead to higher unemployment by making it easier for developing countries with looser labor laws than the United States to out-compete American workers in manufacturing industries, at least in the short-run. This, and the far more encouraging trends in New Zealand specifically, whose unemployment rates strongly mirrored the United States’s pre-CPTPP, relative to the United States, suggests that the United States labor market would have benefited in the short-run from remaining a member of TPP.

Importantly, these results should not be interpreted as an all-encompassing endorsement of the economic effects of CPTPP or of free trade generally. National unemployment rates are affected by so many factors that it is extremely difficult to definitively trace trends in any of them back to a single source, especially over a shorter time frame. It is certainly compelling that CPTPP countries on average seem to be performing better than other countries with similar economic circumstances after the deal took effect, but proving to what extent that CPTPP is directly responsible for these positive trends is near-impossible. There are also many other purported economic implications of free trade deals outside the scope of this blog post on factors such as average wage levels, GDP, average price levels, and government spending, that ought to be taken into consideration when calculating any deal’s overall economic ramifications. It should also be noted that while initial outcomes seem mostly positive, it remains to be seen whether these trends will continue in the long run. This is important to remember with regards to unemployment, as companies moving their factories and other inputs overseas is a process that takes time, especially when interrupted by a global pandemic.

Still, CPTPP’s initial outcomes appear to be relatively positive, which, even if not a reliable estimate of future prosperity, is a useful finding. It is not uncommon for politicians opposed to trade deals to portray their purported effects as near-instantaneous; in his 2016 presidential campaign, for example, President Trump famously derided TPP as “a continuing rape of our country” and promised he could “turn around” the purported negative effects of free trade in general “fast”. Hopefully this analysis shows, though, that this rhetoric is misguided, and those sympathetic to Trump’s position on TPP should, in the face of future trade deals, take solace in the fact that the industry-wide layoffs that he warned of will take time to happen, if they occur at all. The destruction of entire industries, even if it doesn’t happen right away, is still certainly a cause for concern, so these preliminary results do not by any means disqualify the entire protectionist economic view. Nevertheless, the generally positive aftermath of CPTPP so far indicates that TPP would not be quite as destructive as its opponents suggested, and that the United States might have been better off, at least in the short run, remaining in the deal after all.

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Shedding Light on the AUMF: Examining U.S. presidential application of the bill and its detrimental impacts

By Nathaly Perez

April 29, 2022

International scholars well understand that the act of declaring war has serious implications on foreign policy and global relations. When former President George W. Bush officially declared war on terrorism after the infamous 9/11 attack, a flip switched for the United States. The U.S. Congress quickly moved to enact a joint resolution called the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which granted Bush permission to retaliate against al-Qaeda for the terrorist attack in 2001. For the last 20 years, this legislation allowed past and current presidential administrations to strike Afghanistan, and in 2002 the same legislation permitted the military attack in Iraq. Over the last three presidencies, political parties between administrations have flipped between democrat and republican. Yet, there are still many similarities with how presidents interacted with the AUMF. The past three presidential agendas emphasized the importance of addressing and reshaping the war on terrorism. Ultimately, however, it was only Biden’s administration that maintained his foreign policy promise of officially removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. While this marks a stark difference between Trump and Obama’s foreign policy versus that of the Biden administration, all three are similar in that they continue to abuse unnecessary threatening military power through the AUMF. 

The war on terrorism under this joint resolution allows U.S. presidents the power to sidestep the authority of Congress by immediately enacting policies that serve to militarily intervene without any geographic boundaries. The AUMF was what gave Obama approval to assassinate Osama Bin Laden and what recently gave Biden approval to assassinate Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, an alleged Islamic State (IS) leader. It is important to understand why the resolution is still active and often used by the president in their foreign policy agenda. Below I discuss further implications of the AUMF policy, how previous and current presidential administrations have used this bill in their foreign policymaking to abuse military power, and why this joint resolution needs to be changed or repealed immediately. 

Implications of the AUMF 

Under the AUMF, there are three major factors that affect how the president can use this bill to support the war on terrorism. The first factor is that this joint resolution does not have a termination date. When it was passed by Congress in 2001, the legislation failed to include when this law should no longer be active and thus continues living today. The second factor is that it is unclear where the geographical boundaries lie with respect to where the president can launch attacks. This gives the president a limitless opportunity to target any country of their choosing. The last factor is that it is up to the president’s discretion to use force on any country, individual, or group they deem a threat without the need for approval from Congress. Ultimately, these three factors are too vague and because of this, the U.S. president has far too much control and flexibility over the use of military force.

Examining the way in which the last three presidential administrations used the AUMF in their foreign policy highlights the bill’s capacities. Moreover, it provides a political party comparison as I detected similarities between the three differing administrations.

Former President Barack Obama made it clear that he disapproved of the 2001 AUMF because it permitted attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq. While in office, Obama sought, as he claimed, to repeal this law. Also during his time in office, he drafted his own version of the AUMF in 2015 to combat the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also recognized as the Islamic State (IS). He claimed that combating this group was a pertinent issue when he vaguely stated “If left unchecked, ISIL will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland” as the reasoning for initiating this militant attack

  Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy

Obama’s version was distinct from the original AUMF in three ways. First, Obama’s draft differed from the original 2001 AUMF, which also initiated attacks in Iraq, specifically in that it included an explicit end date whereas the latter does not. Obama’s version of the AUMF was set to expire in three years on the day it was enacted. Another distinction between the two versions was that the Obama resolution claimed that it would not follow in the footsteps of the original AUMF. He stated in the resolution that he would not make the same mistake as the original bill and thus would  not “authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations.” Last, his version specifically stated the attack was on the militant IS group and their leadership personnel. In contrast, the 2001 AUMF does not explicitly state a country or militant group in which it is allowed to deploy military force without the need for approval from Congress. Obama recommended including the specificity in his version as one of the alterations that needed to be made if his administration and Congress came together to refine “and ultimately repeal” the 2001 AUMF, which is what he aimed to do

Obama’s application of his “refined” AUMF bill, however, was contradictory to what he claimed he was going to do. Even after enacting restrictions on the legislation, Obama eventually expanded the scope of his bill to attack other countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. He also operated several drone strikes in these countries under the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with no declaration of armed conflict to begin with, which violates his clearly stated restrictions on these kinds of attacks. In his two terms as president, Obama conducted 542 drone strike operations on several countries using a bill he claimed would be temporarily applied in restricted, specific situations concerning IS and would only attack Iraq and Syria. 

Considering Obama’s clear violation of American law and perhaps even international law, let us examine how international relations scholars reacted and their sentiment towards Obama’s foreign policy. Using poll data collected from the Teaching, Research, and International Relations (TRIP) Project at William & Mary, figure 1 shows that half of the scholars surveyed believe that Obama’s foreign policy produced greater benefits through inaction and nonintervention. Figure 1 also shows that approximately 75 percent of surveyed scholars believe that Obama’s foreign policy produced greater costs to the United States. 

Figure 1: TRIP – Snap Poll IV

It is reassuring to find that scholars do not favor Obama’s foreign policy. While this does not only concern the Middle East and Terrorism, this still demonstrates that the overall trend is that scholars disfavored Obama’s foreign policy

The TRIP project also collected poll data from scholars’ perspectives regarding Obama’s resolution of the AUMF. The data shows that most scholars thought that Congress should pass the AUMF in its current form, which implies there is some degree of support for the bill. While there was a general disagreement with Obama’s foreign policy among scholars, the controversial law AUMF was still favored by these IR scholars.  

Figure 2: TRIP – Snap Poll IV

In sum, Obama publicly stated intent to repeal the original AUMF and thus created a temporary version of the bill, which he claimed had the necessary restrictions that the original law lacked. He said the original bill was too broad in scope and gave too much militant power to the Executive branch. However, his actions demonstrate that he applied the AUMF as a means to executive power to do exactly what he criticized in the original bill. Also, the AUMF has not been repealed and is still active today. While the repeal was introduced to Congress by Senator Tim Kaine recently in 2021, the bill has yet to even pass the Senate. Obama failed to follow through with several cheap talk promises he made to the American people along with the 3,797 people, including 324 civilian lives lost in the Middle East who had to experience his unnecessary wrath of military power. Obama served two terms as President, so political scholars were well aware of his application of the AUMF. When asked for their perspective, they disapproved of Obama’s general foreign policy but were in support of the AUMF. What did scholars fail to learn from the Bush administration’s egregious war on terror after 2001 initiated by the AUMF? 

Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the perspective many claim Trump adopted regarding the AUMF. In 2020, his administration wrote a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) where they stated they  “strongly oppose” H.R. 2456,” which would repeal the 2002 AUMF. Considering Trump was strongly trying to protect it, it is evident that Obama never fully repealed the original bill. Trump’s administration credited the use of the bill to be because of the potential of terrorist attacks by Iran and Iraq’s IS. Considering the countless flaws in the AUMF, Trump’s SAP demonstrates his active support for the bill. Such a forward approach to the war on terrorism like Trump’s deserves further examination. Examining the TRIP polls, scholars were asked whether Trump abused or overstepped his foreign policy powers as president. The graph below shows that 73.87 percent of scholars believe Trump overstepped the foreign policy powers he was granted as president. Furthermore, the poll shows that an overwhelming majority of scholars surveyed believe Trump abused his foreign policy powers.  

Figure 3: TRIP – Snap Poll XII 

Trump and Obama differed in political party affiliations, regardless, both still used the bill at some point in their presidencies. Obama used the original bill to continue his attack on potential IS leaders after his version of the bill expired. And Trump used the law to “combat” Iraqi terrorist groups, specifically IS. Thus indicating that both administrations continued the active use of the 2001 AUMF to continue the treacherous war on terror. 

Biden Administration’s Foreign Policy

Obama and Biden both claimed they would end the war on terror in the Middle East. To be successful, this included officially removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and repealing the AUMF. The Obama administration completed neither of those tasks. The Biden administration, however, has been slightly more successful. In 2021, Biden announced he would remove troops from Afghanistan and in the same year withdrew most American troops from their bases in Afghanistan. 

When compared to Trump’s foreign policy, a slight majority of scholars surveyed by TRIP shared their belief that Biden’s foreign policy would differ from Trump’s policy in regard to the use of military force. While no substantial arguments can be made until Biden’s presidency ends, it is interesting to question whether Biden’s foreign policy, especially regarding military force in the Middle East, mimics that of Obama and Trump’s administrations. From figure 4 below, it seems that scholars believe Biden’s administration will be similar to the former two presidencies. 

Figure 4: TRIP – Snap Poll XIV

 Biden’s Recent Attack

For the time being, we can examine what Biden’s administration has completed thus far in his presidency. As mentioned above, he successfully removed most troops from Afghanistan. More recently, he ordered the U.S. Special Operations Unit to raid the home of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, an alleged leader of the IS terrorist group in Syria. Because of the attack, thirteen people died, including al-Qurayshi when he detonated explosions once the raid was underway. Tragically, the people killed by the explosion were all women and children. So, why did Biden send a Special Ops team to raid a home full of women and children to kill a potential IS leader? He credited the escalating IS attacks in the Middle East, which included when IS released more of its members from prison. While this is a pertinent issue, there was no clear indication that the U.S. was in immediate danger by the terrorist group. Thus, Biden’s order for the military to raid a Syrian home was a violation of the AUMF on the count that it was not a timely necessity to ensure security in the U.S. This makes yet another president who applied the AUMF to evade Congress and initiate violence without the imminent need to do so. 

     Data Limitations 

With all data, there are limitations, and the survey results examined in this article are no exception. First, it is important to note that the surveys are relatively outdated. However, it was necessary to examine these results because they were closest in the timeframe to when the events in question occurred. Second, some of these questions are broad in topics and thus it is difficult to predict the exact reasoning behind respondents’ answers. This limitation may dramatically affect the way in which the data was perceived when writing this article. Because it is near impossible to know with certainty what respondents had in mind when answering some of these questions, we take responses at face value. Taking it as such, the questions and the way IR scholars responded are still relevant to the claims made in this article. These limitations may affect the reader’s confidence in the data and claims behind this article, which is reasonable. However, before dismissing this article please take a moment to reflect on the true and well-documented harms that the last three presidencies committed under the AUMF. 

        2001 AUMF – What Now? 

The purpose of this article is not to definitively conclude that the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations all share similar immoral, illegal foreign policies. It simply raises the question that this could be the case, with further analysis. Ultimately, the aim of this article is to provide a glimpse of the tragic effects of the AUMF and the way in which IR scholars reacted to these events. 

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Checking Biden’s Middle East Policy: a year in review 

By Maggie Manson

April 11, 2022

It has been a little over a year since President Biden took office and quickly began implementing his wide-reaching foreign policy agenda. A regional policy area that should be of great interest to the administration is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Looking back at some of the major political and humanitarian events that occurred in the region this year, it is interesting to look at the administration’s response, or lack thereof, to these developments. This piece will look back at some of the key events the region witnessed this past year, as well as examine scholars’ thoughts on Biden’s responses to these events. 

10 year Anniversary of the Arab Spring

The first notable event of 2021 in the MENA that we will look at was the 10 year anniversary of the Arab Spring protests. While protests in Algeria and Tunisia began in December 2010, the majority of countries involved in protests began in early 2011. This was a landmark movement for the region that resulted in stagnation or minimal reform in some countries, devolution to civil war in others, and full-blown regime change in Tunisia and Egypt.

Some of the key countries where mass protests erupted, but little substantive change followed include Algeria and Sudan. In both of these countries, we saw similar demands and tactics of protesters who took to the streets and social media to call for regime change, economic opportunity, an end to corruption, and much more. While these protests were met with insignificant reform and government repression, they did not signify the end of demands for democratization as we would later come to see a reemergence of protests in Sudan and Algeria in 2019. We will look further into specifically the Algerian protests, also known as the Hirak protest movement later in this piece. 

In Tunisia, we saw protests result in the ouster of authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, accompanied by the emergence of a rich civil society and democratic development. In the period of transition, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet brought together four different civil society groups to mediate the new democratic process. Tunisia has seen 10 different governments since 2011 with generally free and fair elections and inclusion of a variety of parties. Tunisia has also seen the inclusion of Islamists in governing coalitions as the party Ennahda has been meaningfully included in the political process. Scholars would argue that this inclusion has led to the ideological and substantive moderation of Ennahda, who now labels themselves as Muslim Democrats rather than Islamists. The 2021 political crisis has put a pause to this progress, but we will explore that further soon. 

In Egypt, unlike in the previous two countries, initial regime change and democratization backslid into military rule. After the end of the 2011 protests, Egypt saw the emergence of a transitional government and a successful round of parliamentary elections from late 2011 to early 2012. These elections resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party: the Freedom and Justice party, winning the greatest number of seats as well as the role of Prime Minister. PM Mohamed Morsi and the FJP’s governing coalition were only in power for a little over a year as the military stepped in to remove Morsi and his government in July 2013. This coup d’état lead to the imprisonment, torture, and death of many members of the Muslim Brotherhood which was later deemed a terrorist organization by army chief and eventual authoritarian president General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. While democracy was not sustained in Egypt, this was a unique democratic opening for the country in response to widespread mobilization that will serve as an inspiration for future generations of Egyptians. 

What lessons can be learned from these protests ten years out? First, we see the power of social media to amplify movements to an international audience. Social media was becoming a widespread form of communication right at the dawn of the Arab Spring. This allowed protesters to spread their cause worldwide, as well as draw attention to the atrocities committed by the police and military in their repression attempts. The international circulation of these protests also put pressure on foreign governments to intervene. While much foreign intervention was indirect, there were still diplomatic pressures placed on many leaders to either resign or institute reforms to address the demands of protesters. There were also instances of direct foreign military intervention, as seen in Syria where Iran and Russia sided with the regime and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the U.S. sided with rebel forces. This dynamic also played out in the Yemeni civil war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-back Houthi rebels. Both of these military interventions demonstrate how calls for regime change and reform can quickly devolve into proxy wars between foreign powers who partake in non-humanitarian interventions. The Arab Spring acts as a cautionary tale for foreign intervention where diplomatic intervention led to a positive outcome (i.e. Egypt and Tunisia), but military intervention worked to further destabilize the situation. Additionally, in the context of the Arab Spring protests, it is important to analyze democratic developments, backsliding, and general stagnation, as well as the U.S. response to see where the region is 10 years after sweeping democratic protests. I will explore two post-Arab Spring case studies, Algeria and Tunisia, to see where they stand today in terms of democratization. 

2 year Anniversary of Hirak Protest Movement

2021 ushered in the two-year anniversary of the Hirak protest movement in Algeria which resulted in the resignation of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and continued calls for further democratic reform. Algeria saw little reform in the wake of the Arab Spring, but protesters took to the streets again in February 2019 to protest Bouteflika seeking a fifth term. These protests resulted in Bouteflika announcing that he would not seek a fifth term and would step down. Instead of this announcement ushering in a new period of democracy, the country’s military-led regime was able to install a new president through rigged elections in late 2019. President Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected after extremely low voter turnout. 

Tebboune was able to utilize the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to crack down on protests, issue a curfew,  and altogether ban gathering in large numbers. Despite the regime’s repression, the movement has been able to utilize social media to spread awareness and mobilize in the face of difficulties. In October 2020, protesters re-emerged to commemorate the 1988 October pro-democracy riots, despite a continued ban on protests. Additionally, in February 2021, on the two-year anniversary of the Hirak protest movement, protesters took to the streets to signal that they would not be satisfied with minimal reforms, they wanted an overhaul of the government and the establishment of a lasting democracy. 

A key takeaway from the Hirak protest movement is that Algeria needs to reckon with its past before it can establish a democratic future. In a piece I wrote in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I looked into the lack of transitional justice following the Algerian civil war of 1991-2002. Algerian experts and activists that I spoke with emphasized that the country needs to address its complicated past before it can imagine a democratic future. For additional context, the Algerian civil war occurred in the aftermath of a failed democratic experiment. In 1991, the Islamist group the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was presumed to win parliamentary elections so the military stepped in to cancel elections and reinstate a one-party state. This resulted in the FIS taking up arms against the state in a bloody 10-year conflict where many civilian victims of FIS and military violence disappeared or were killed. Many families still have no idea what happened to their loved ones, and the conflict has been weaponized by the government as a cautionary tale to not disrupt the regime. Any new government that is hopefully able to form from the protests will need to focus on transitional justice in order to heal the still-open wounds of the war. 

Tunisian Political Crisis 

In July 2021 we witnessed a political crisis in Tunisia where President Kais Saied dismissed the government and suspended the constitution in what critics described as a soft coup. By doing so, Saied essentially delegated all governing powers to himself and his close advisors, rather than the democratically elected parliament. Some of the motivating reasons behind his dismissal of the government were the halting economic conditions, the country’s handling of COVID-19, and accusations of corruption within the government, especially against Ennahda. Protests emerged to push back against this soft coup, but protesters were quickly met with a new curfew installed to curtail demonstrations. Many have drawn parallels between this crisis and the 2013 Egyptian coup d’état, especially given the military’s role in backing Saied. However, there are some key differences between the two cases that hopefully signal a different outcome for Tunisia. First, the actions taken against the government were by an elected official, rather than by a senior member of the military as in the Egyptian case. While Saied’s actions might demonstrate a consolidation of power, he has not entirely dismissed the democratic project. We saw him name Tunisia’s first female Prime Minister: Najla Bouden and called upon her to form a new government. With that being said, Saied has significantly elevated his powers in an unprecedented move since 2011, which demonstrates a salient threat to democracy. By limiting parliamentary power, Saied has made it increasingly difficult for the government to apply checks and balances to his presidential power, which will be a significant barrier to the reinstatement of the constitution. 

However, Tunisia has weathered and survived previous political crises since the establishment of democracy, most notably the 2013-2014 political crisis. This event arose from the assassinations of two prominent secular leaders and the rise of Salafist Islamist groups in the country, both of which sparked widespread protests against the governing Troika coalition that prompted Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to step down. This crisis resulted in the renegotiation of the constitution, which seems to be a likely outcome of the current political crisis as Saied has granted himself constitution-amending powers. The prospects for democracy to emerge from this current crisis might seem grim, but civilians have mobilized and taken to the streets to call for a return to democracy, coming out staunchly against Saied’s actions. These protests have been met with high levels of repression from the police, with the result of many protesters being arrested and/or injured with one recorded death

Scholars on Biden’s MENA Policy 

How has President Biden responded to these major events in his first year in office? Biden has promised to shift his focus to the Middle East and North Africa, prioritizing human rights and democracy promotion. Opposite to former President Donald Trump’s approach to the region, Biden has assured that he will not embrace diplomatic relations with autocratic rulers or tolerate governments’ human rights abuses. Expert Steven A. Cook has described Biden’s approach as “ruthless pragmatism” indicating that he will take a practical, realist method to middle eastern policymaking. In regards to democracy promotion in the context of the 10 year anniversary of the Arab Spring, Biden is focusing foremost on improving countries’ human rights records, rather than aiming for direct intervention and regime change. 

In Egypt, it is difficult to influence a social and political landscape dominated by the military or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, notes expert Mohamed Lotfy. This was made worse by Trump’s approach to aid that gave blindly to the regime and also Trump giving into the regime’s rhetoric against the Muslim Brotherhood by declaring the organization as a terrorist group. A useful tactic for the Biden administration will be to utilize aid, both economic and military, in a strategic manner, tying certain conditions to the receiving of aid. The Biden administration should also consider a critical approach to the Brotherhood and other opposition groups that have been the victims of regime violence. This does not entail blanket support of these groups, but instead support for the upholding of their human rights and the end of mass arrests, torture, and even killings of the Brotherhood and other opponents of the SCAF. 

In Tunisia, Biden’s response to the current political crisis needs to focus on putting pressure on Saied to reinstate the constitution and re-establish the country’s nascent democracy. Biden also needs to turn his attention toward the stalling economic conditions in the country and its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, both being two key motivations for the protests that led to Saied’s actions. This could look like the provision of U.S. monetary aid meant to alleviate economic woes with conditional terms tied to the constitution being reinstated and Saied committing to upholding democracy. Also, the U.S. should extend its vaccine diplomacy campaign to Tunisia by sending vast amounts of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as medical supplies used to treat COVID cases in order to combat Tunisia’s acute public health crisis. 

In regards to the Algerian Hirak movement, Biden first needs to work on strengthening relations with the regime to use diplomacy to work towards democracy in the country. The U.S. and Algeria have strained relations as of late due in part to the establishment of an Israel-Morrocco (Algeria’s neighbor) relationship garnered by President Trump’s decision to acknowledge Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This relationship has caused distress to Algeria which tends to hold a pro-Palestinian position in regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Diplomatic measures suggested for Egypt and Tunisia cannot be a possibility in Algeria until baseline relations are improved.

What do scholars think about Biden’s Middle East policy? In TRIP’s Snap Poll XV, scholars were asked to grade President Biden on his performance in Middle East Policy. Results were generally positive with 30.7% giving Biden a B, 19.1% giving a B+, and 12.8% giving an A-. 

This is a good starting point to see where scholars stand on Biden’s Middle East policy, but to further understand their perspectives on this matter, I’ve referred to a survey fielded by the  University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll and the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University known as the “Middle East Scholar Barometer.” 

When asked to reflect on the Arab Spring and the likelihood that protests will return, 30% of scholars answered that the uprisings are likely to return within the next ten years. Another 46% responded that the uprisings never stopped and are still ongoing in different forms, as we see in the Algerian Hirak movement. These answers are a positive sign for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa as scholars are still generally hopeful about popular uprisings that have the power to inspire change. When asked about the state of U.S. power in the Middle East compared to a decade ago, the results were less positive in terms of U.S. foreign policy goals. 75% of respondents answered weaker than a decade ago, showing that scholars are not confident in the U.S.’s ability to impact change in the region. Nevertheless, given the developments seen in the region in 2021, this year is likely to be an important year for the Middle East and North Africa as the Tunisian political crisis continues to unfold, and the Hirak movement continues to call for regime change in Algeria. Additionally, looking at the outcomes from the Arab Spring ten years later, and given the scholarly opinion that protests are likely to return, we will hopefully see further calls for democracy and human rights in the region. It will be interesting to see how these situations continue to develop and what Biden’s response to them will be. 

RA Posts Spring 2022

Deal or no deal for Iran?

By Shriya Kosuru

April 1, 2022

Since coming to power, one of the top goals of the Biden administration has been to set the Iran Nuclear deal in place again. After 11 months of negotiations, the deal appeared to be finally nearing an end a few months ago. However, on Sunday, March 27, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malle said he was not confident that a nuclear deal was imminent. In this piece, I argue that a deal would be in the best interests of both Iran and the global community, as it would focus on removing sanctions on Iran, halting Iran’s nuclear program, and an opportunity to re-establish diplomacy in the Middle East

Overview of the Iran Nuclear deal 

The 2015 Iran Nuclear deal focused on slowing Iran’s nuclear program development which has been ramping in the last decade. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the former Iran Nuclear deal, put restrictions on Iran’s uranium stockpile and its ability to produce enriched uranium and plutonium, in return for lifting economic sanctions on Iran. The agreement heavily focused on enriched uranium and plutonium because they are the main components in the production of nuclear weapons. To produce these radioactive materials, uranium can be used in centrifuges in a process called enrichment or irradiated in a nuclear reactor to make plutonium. The deal aimed to reduce the usage of these radioactive materials by 98% and commit Iran to redesign its nuclear reactor, so it could not be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. 

The goal of the deal was to halt the nuclear race in the Middle East, specifically between countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Moreover, as an incentive for compliance, the deal lifted economic sanctions put in place by the UN on Iran to help recover its economy. In 2018,  President Trump withdrew from the Nuclear deal, which he had criticized as a ‘horrible one-sided deal’ during his campaign. However, new rounds of negotiations began in 2021 to put a new deal in place. In the last few months, the talks have surrounded bringing a new deal in place, which would look different from the original, since Iran’s nuclear program has advanced dramatically and any limits on uranium would add no value in halting the nuclear race. It is expected that Iran has a stockpile of enriched uranium larger than allowed under the original deal, as well as advanced centrifuges. Alongside restricting Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons, the negotiations have also focused on sanctions. On one hand, Biden’s administration only wants to remove sanctions imposed on Iran by President Trump, which are in violation of the 2015 deal. Whereas, Iran is demanding the removal of all sanctions. Additional discussions, such as the release of US prisoners by Iran, have caused a delay in setting a new deal in place. However, whether a future for the deal exists or not will become clear in the next few rounds of talks. 

Timeline of the deal  

2015: P5+1 which consists of the US, UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany, proposed the JCPOA with UN support. This led to the preparation and implementation of the deal, as well as the removal of sanctions placed on Iran. This deal aimed to reduce the use of installed enrichment centrifuges from twenty thousand to five thousand kilograms during a 10 year period. Additionally, it intended to limit uranium enrichment to 3.67% to halt nuclear development. One of the key conditions of the deal was that Iran had to convert its Fordow facility into a physics research center for up to fifteen years. In return, the US would release Iran’s frozen assets of 100-150 billion dollars and equip them with 4 S 300 air defense systems.

2016: The JCPOA went into implementation on January 16, lifting heaving sanctions off Iran.

2018: The Trump administration withdrew from JCPOA and imposed drastic sanctions on Iran, leading to a poor economy and regional instability in the Middle East. The Trump administration viewed the Iran Nuclear deal as heavily flawed. One of the flaws explained by the Trump administration was Iran’s political and military leaders’ access to huge assets, which could make Iran a stronger threat in the Middle East. 

2021: The Biden administration re-opened the conversation with Iran for a new deal through negotiation rounds between the two countries, using intermediaries in Austria. The negotiations have been going on since late April 2021 with increasing demands from Iran, placing pressure on the Biden administration to get an effective deal. 

2022: The discussion for a new deal has continued into 2022. These negotiations take into account new developments in Iran’s nuclear program, which has advanced drastically since 2018, along with the concern of the oil supply crisis. If a deal is put in place, then it is expected that Iran will provide much-needed relief to the oil price crisis by becoming one of the biggest oil exporters.

Why Iran is better off with the deal than economic sanctions

A deal would be in the best interests of Iran because it will help their shattered economy to recover from the effects of sanctions. It would also give the international community a chance to restore regional stability in the Middle East. 

The sanctions imposed after the JCPOA crumbled have destroyed Iran’s economy, as it has alienated them from the global economy and shut them from trade opportunities with countries across the world. When the deal took place in 2015, Iran substantially increased oil exports to about 2.1 million barrels, helping them reach their pre-sanctions levels. This had a large impact on Iran’s economy, as it was 80% dependent on oil exports. Additionally, the US and European countries unfroze about $100 billion worth of Iranian assets, pumping money into Iran’s economy and bolstering their trade relations. This set a strong example that Iran was far better off with a deal rather than with the sanctions, as they had the freedom to rebuild their economy with oil exports. 

In 2018, President Trump backed out from the Iran Nuclear deal. The Trump administration viewed this deal as poorly structured, as it provided Iran the autonomy to fund proxy wars and further regional instability. The administration advocated for a deal that would focus on having better relations with Israel and put a complete stop to the ballistic missile program of Iran. 

With the US withdrawal, Iran was left with the freedom to continue its uranium enrichment under no supervision or accountability, strengthen its nuclear facilities for more than just civilian research purposes, and go beyond the previously established stockpile limits of uranium. Following this, a set of economic sanctions were imposed upon Iran to prevent the exploitation of their nuclear facility, isolating Iran from the world. These sanctions directed Iran’s economy down a crippling path. 

The 2018 economic sanctions led to a halt in the export of oil from Iran to Russia, France, Spain, and the rest of Europe. Iran’s economy drastically declined as its oil exports fell from 1.9 million barrels per day in 2018 to 400,000 million barrels per day in 2020. This was a huge setback for Iran as it created a roadblock for them to monetize their oil. Moreover, in 2020, the US sanctioned over 18 Iranian banks, leading to a complete shutdown of Iran’s financial sector and causing Iran’s rial to fall even lower to the US dollar. Following the initial 2018 sanctions, inflation surged from 10% in 2017 to 30% in 2018, peaking in 2019 at 40%, and has since remained constant at about 30%. In 2021, Iran established trade relations with China by exporting oil, causing backlash from the US and European countries. 

At the moment, Iran is better off with a deal because, without one, it does not have access to the US and European oil markets, which are necessary to pump money into its economy through oil exports. Additionally, a deal would relieve some pressure over the international influence through sanctions on Iran’s government. According to TRIP’s Snap Poll VII, more than half of international relations scholars believed that the economic sanctions placed prior to 2015 were somewhat effective in their effort to change Iran’s government behavior. 

TRIP Snap Poll VII

With the Biden administration’s ‘carrot diplomacy’, Iran has increased its demands, pushing for a more autonomous deal. Iran is reaching a point of no return in its nuclear program and is shifting away from the deal. One of the big reasons Iran is moving away from the deal is because of the concerns over regional stability in the negotiations, such as Iran’s role in Yemen and Syria. From the US perspective, ensuring regional stability in the Middle East is only possible if Iran agrees to a deal. Therefore, talks of regional matters should be separate from the nuclear deal to ensure the purpose of the deal is intact. Even if a deal is reached, it faces pressure in the US Congress where there is strong opposition from Republicans .

It is in the best interest of the international community and Iran to put a nuclear deal in place, focused on integrating Iran with the rest of the world through trade and involvement in international organizations. This deal would help Iran revive its economy and give the international community a chance to restore regional stability in the Middle East. 

Fall 2021 RA Posts

Vaccine Access and Diplomacy: the Global Response to COVID-19

By Maggie Manson

December 1, 2021

With the Delta variant of COVID-19 currently ravaging the globe and polarizing politics surrounding vaccination in the U.S., what does the future look like for vaccination of the developing world? Many experts think that country-to-country vaccine diplomacy along with the WHO-supported COVAX initiative may be the answer to widespread vaccine rollout that will get us back to some semblance of “normal.” 

Vaccine diplomacy is the practice of diplomatic exchange where one country provides access to COVID-19 vaccinations in return for diplomatic ties with the receiving country. As Dania Thafer of the Gulf International Forum puts it: “Instead of securing a country by sending troops, you can secure the country by saving lives, by saving their economy, by helping with their vaccination.” This practice has the potential to save lives by supplementing the WHO’s efforts towards global vaccine rollout which has encountered many logistical challenges, leading to slower deployment of vaccines. 

“Instead of securing a country by sending troops, you can secure the country by saving lives, by saving their economy, by helping with their vaccination” 

– Dania Thafer, Executive Director of the Gulf International Forum

The landscape of vaccine diplomacy has altered drastically since the creation of COVID-19 vaccines. Back in April 2021, China and India were engaged in a race towards the most effective and efficient campaign of vaccine diplomacy. The two countries were producing and distributing vast amounts of COVID-19 vaccines to partner countries, in an attempt to strengthen diplomatic relations and grow their spheres of influence. However, since India’s surge in cases and the emergence of the delta variant in the U.S. in March 2021, they have had to refocus their efforts and resources towards their own citizens, creating a change in the key players of vaccine diplomacy. Now, countries such as the U.S., Russia, and various European states are beginning to engage in vaccine diplomacy, while continuing to push for vaccination of their own citizens. 

The Problems with Vaccine Diplomacy 

To understand the key issues with vaccine diplomacy, it is important to look at which countries are engaging in the practice and what vaccines they are using to do so. Vaccine diplomacy leaders, China and Russia, are using SinoVac and Sputnik V, respectively. The U.S. is following behind with a mixed distribution of Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), and non-U.S. approved AstraZeneca. Prior to halting their campaign of vaccine diplomacy to deal with their own COVID crisis, India was distributing AstraZeneca to neighboring countries. EU countries have been late to the game but have begun to engage in vaccine diplomacy by distributing stockpiles of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Back in July,  Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE were sending some of their vaccine stockpiles to Tunisia, which was facing an acute COVID crisis. 

While the act of exchanging vaccines for goodwill and diplomatic ties may seem like an effective strategy to vaccinate developing nations, there are some key issues with this approach. First, the production scale of vaccines such as J&J, Moderna, and Pfizer presents an obstacle to the distribution of these vaccines. These effective vaccines are primarily produced in the U.S. and have highly sensitive transportation requirements to ensure they remain viable. The AstraZeneca vaccine, however, is being produced in Belgium, India, South Korea, and the UK, making access to the developing world more feasible. While this vaccine has not been approved for usage in the U.S., it has been authorized for individuals 18 and older by the WHO, making it a strong candidate for vaccine diplomacy. This allows AstraZeneca producing countries and those with stockpiles to engage in vaccine diplomacy. However, an access barrier still exists for countries located further away from AstraZeneca-producing countries. 

Another major issue with vaccine diplomacy is the effectiveness of certain vaccines used in the process. The vaccine efficacy of China’s Sinovac has been called into question by states on the receiving end of vaccine diplomacy such as Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Many of these recipient countries are turning to other sources and paying countries and companies for booster shots to supplement Sinovac. TRIP Primary Investigator Professor Michael Tierney had this to say on China’s vaccine rollout: “China was the first-mover using targeted vaccine distribution to support broader diplomatic goals, but rollout has been rocky and it may actually backfire if it fails to deliver safe and effective vaccines at levels promised last year.” While the faltering Chinese vaccine diplomacy campaign is of great concern for the health and welfare of recipient countries, this does present an opening for the U.S. to step in and aid these countries in getting their populations vaccinated. 

“China was the first-mover using targeted vaccine distribution to support broader diplomatic goals, but rollout has been rocky and it may actually backfire if it fails to deliver safe and effective vaccines at levels promised last year.”

– Professor Michael Tierney, TRIP Primary Investigator and Director of William & Mary’s Global Research Institute (GRI)

U.S. Response

The U.S. is now faced with the opportunity to improve global public health and strengthen diplomatic relations with a variety of strategically important countries. With the shortcomings of China’s vaccination efforts, the U.S. can target Southeast Asia, a region that has been largely encompassed in China’s sphere of influence in recent years. 

Generally speaking, scholars do not think the administration is effectively doing enough on an international scale. When surveyed in April 2020, 80.3% of IR scholars said that the U.S.’s role in coordinating the international response to COVID-19 was not effective at all. In April 2021, respondents thought that the U.S. was doing better, with 38.7% finding the U.S.’s role to be somewhat effective. However, scholars are still not impressed with the administration’s approach, with more than 50% reporting the U.S. role as either not very effective or not effective at all. 

Additionally, the U.S. must focus efforts towards India, for both strategic reasons and a moral obligation to do so. In TRIP’s Snap Poll 15, scholars were asked if the Biden Administration is doing enough to help in regards to India’s COVID-19 public health crisis. 67.4% of scholars answered that the administration is not doing enough to help India. This piece will explore the moral implications of vaccine diplomacy later on, but with the resources available, the U.S. is equipped to do more to save lives in India and strengthen its diplomatic presence through vaccine distribution. 

At the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. President Joe Biden addressed the assembly and reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic through multilateral collaboration. “Bombs and bullets cannot defend against COVID-19 or its future variants, to fight this pandemic we need a collective act of science and political will, we need to act now to get shots in arms as fast as possible,” he stated in his speech, marking global public health as a top priority for the administration. He also affirmed that the U.S. is reengaged with the World Health Organization and working with COVAX, a global initiative towards COVID-19 vaccine global access. Biden also noted that U.S. vaccine diplomacy comes with “no strings attached,” a reference to reports that China and Russia have been extracting demands from vaccine recipient countries. However, the very notion of vaccine diplomacy has strings attached as vaccines are traded for diplomatic ties, even if not explicitly stated by donor countries. This situation raises important questions about the ethical implications of vaccine diplomacy. 

“Bombs and bullets cannot defend against COVID-19 or its future variants, to fight this pandemic we need a collective act of science and political will, we need to act now to get shots in arms as fast as possible.” 

– U.S. President Joe Biden at the United Nations General Assembly

Vaccine Equity: a Moral Dilemma 

Another key issue posed by vaccine diplomacy is the moral issues with the distribution of vaccines for strategic, rather than purely humanitarian reasons. The WHO initially set out to create a system of vaccine distribution centered around equity of access through the COVAX initiative. Back in February, UN Secretary-General António Guterres addressed the issue stating: “At this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community.” However, the WHO and international actors have since failed at securing fair access to vaccines, letting down developing countries by allowing monetary incentives and intellectual property laws to determine the output and distribution of these vaccines. 

“At this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community.”

– UN Secretary-General António Guterres

While vaccine diplomacy presents a solution for many states seeking to gain quick access to vaccines, it also leaves countries vulnerable to ineffective vaccines. Additionally, states are often tied to diplomatic conditions from vaccine donor countries. Another major problem with vaccine diplomacy is obstacles to delivery due to distance and sensitive vaccine transportation requirements that may prevent some from benefiting from the practice altogether. Some analysts have tried to decouple vaccine diplomacy from ethical considerations and view it as a solely strategic practice. However, in the context of a pandemic where peoples’ lives are at stake, this cannot be viewed as a purely diplomatic exchange, there must be pushback against this rhetoric in order to ensure a more equitable rollout of vaccines. The practice of vaccine diplomacy also brings attention to the widening inequalities between richer and poorer countries. For example, countries such as the U.S. are throwing away doses that their citizens refuse, while in poorer countries, vaccine access is incredibly limited and demand is high. Additionally, the WHO found that six times more booster shots are being administered each day in richer countries than primary doses in the developing world, an alarming statistic that further points to discrepancies between rich and poor countries. The U.S. is moving in the right direction towards redistribution as President Biden announced on September 22 that the U.S. will double its global contribution of vaccines to 1 billion doses. Thus far, the majority of U.S. vaccine donations have gone to Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Columbia, South Africa, and Vietnam.

With frightening statistics showing that vaccines will not reach the poorest of countries until 2023, it is time for countries to rethink how they are engaging in vaccine deployment. Even without a stated quid pro quo, vaccine diplomacy encourages receiving states to strengthen diplomatic ties with vaccine donor states. This along with a myriad of other ethical concerns draw doubt to the practice of vaccine diplomacy. However, for now, it might be the most efficient way of getting populations vaccinated. It is important for donating countries to note that they stand to gain more than diplomatic relations from vaccine donations to other countries. Getting the world vaccinated as fast and as fairly as possible is the only real way to gain any sense of normalcy. Otherwise, variants will continue to evolve and we will continue to be on the defensive, responding to cases rather than preventing them from the start on a global scale.