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Opinion Vaccine nationalism is a corrective to often-naive views of globalism

European Council President Charles Michel speaks during a news conference at the European Council Building in Brussels on Thursday. (Aris Oikonomou/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Former president Donald Trump was widely pilloried for playing down multilateral cooperation and the global trading order in favor of his “America First” mind-set. But Trump likely understood the nationalist underpinnings of foreign policy better than his critics. For evidence, look to recent efforts by the European Union and India to restrict exports of covid-19 vaccines produced in their territories.

Defenders of multilateralism and globalism often proclaim that their approaches to foreign policy and economic development are superior to nationalist focuses. They champion efforts such as the Paris climate accord or the Iran nuclear deal as ideal ways that nations can work in concert for the betterment of all. Global free trade is often lauded as an end unto itself, a panacea for endemic global poverty and an engine for growth in developed countries. Those who pose queries or disagree are regularly shunted aside or pelted with epithets that seek to delegitimize them entirely.

So it’s telling, and more than a bit ironic, to see countries that regularly cast aspersions on nationalism resorting to nationalism themselves. The European Union has been locked in a war of words with Britain for weeks over whether the E.U. will bar vaccines produced within its members’ borders from being sent to the island nation. India has also engaged in vaccine nationalism, preventing the export of the savior drug produced within its borders for its own use. Contracts and the virtues of globalism apparently no longer matter to the leaders of these nations when their own domestic needs weigh down upon them.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The E.U., of course, piously pronounced that it doesn’t engage in vaccine nationalism. “The E.U. has never stopped exporting,” European Council President Charles Michel retorted in response to the charge of nationalism. But European voters have noticed that Britain, which broke away from the E.U. last year, has given at least one vaccine dose to more than half of all its adults, while almost all E.U. nations languish with about 10 percent of their populations having received at least one shot. Tellingly, the E.U. nation with the second-highest vaccination rate is Hungary, whose populist-nationalist government is regularly lambasted by global elites.

Europe may find its vaccines are in short supply, but political hypocrisy never is. This dust-up just shows what wise leaders always know: Nations will always act in their own narrow interests and discard multilateral modes of behavior when their interests are seriously at stake. Even though the E.U. has backed off its threat to immediately interdict vaccine exports, it has said it would be willing to bar future vaccine exports unless exporting companies give E.U. nations “their fair share.” In other words, the nationalistic threat is simply being carried out by less risible means.

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The United States has long been accused of engaging in such a la carte multilateralism. The post-Cold War global trading order was largely set by the United States, so much so that it has been called “the Washington Consensus.” It was intended to benefit all nations, but it was also intended to provide outlets for U.S. intellectual and financial capital, while tying developing nations to a system whose rules were de facto set by U.S. policymakers. The widespread use of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency also discretely benefits the U.S. economy, as it allows the United States to borrow more freely on global money markets unafraid that currency fluctuations will suddenly impose drastically higher borrowing costs.

How nations are reacting to the dollar’s status speaks volumes about the real motivations undergirding public pronouncements to global multilateralism. Nations that are openly unhappy about this, notably Russia, have tried to displace the dollar from its perch, with some success. The E.U. has pursued a characteristically subtler course, but its euro is now the second-most traded global currency. Communist China, unsurprisingly, is trying to make its currency, the renminbi, the global reserve currency in the next few decades. Everyone loves global multilateralism — on their own terms.

This should be a wake-up call for U.S. policymakers. The United States benefits greatly from many military alliances and global treaties, but others unduly restrict its interests. Many so-called free trade agreements, for example, sacrifice U.S. domestic manufacturing capability to support domestic consumer spending and U.S. corporate profits. The pandemic has forced many countries, the United States included, to see how outsourcing goods such as protective medical equipment or drugs can make a nation vulnerable in a crisis when long directly assert their own interests contrary to contracts or treaties. The Paris climate accord is another example of a multilateral commitment that arguably damages the U.S. economy — while letting competitors such as China and India become more attractive places for U.S. firms to invest in energy-heavy projects.

Vaccine nationalism is a useful corrective to often-naive views regarding globalism as an end unto itself. “America First,” whether through solo or coordinated action, isn’t just the best way to engage with the world; it’s the only way.

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Read more:

Eugene Robinson: The only way for the U.S. to truly get back to normal is to vaccinate the world

The Post’s View: Biden should start planning now to help the rest of the world get vaccinated

David Ignatius: The post-pandemic economy will boom — but not for all

Marty Makary and Nicole Saphier: The case for vaccinating children for covid-19

Kathleen Parker: Republicans need to get over their vaccine resistance

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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