Case Study in Soft Power: Vaccine Diplomacy

Vaccine diplomacy is a useful case study in soft power. In the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccines were used to improve diplomatic relations (soft power). While the West focused on vaccinating its own populations, some emerging powers harnessed the vaccines to increase their international influence. Serbia, for example, which is currently setting up Europe’s largest Confucius Institute to study Chinese culture and history, was among the first to receive Covid-19 vaccines from China, and bilateral donations by the EU have overwhelmingly been sent to its Balkan neighbours, in an effort to anticipate and rebuff Russia’s growing influence in the region. Many of the citizens of countries like North Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro traveled to Serbia for their vaccinations. There have even been so-called vaccination tourism from countries like Turkey. Serbia saw this as an opportunity to improve its geopolitical standing and also to bargain between the West and non-Western powers.

Russia and China sent vaccinations across the world. Russia capitalised on Europe’s delays in rolling out the vaccine and sold vaccines to Hungary. China publicized its vaccine generosity and even incorporated it in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative framework, using middle eastern and African summits to offer vaccines along with investment opportunities. Even where traditional spheres of influence exist, vaccine diplomacy has operated differently; while America used an ‘America first’ rhetoric, China focused on selling vaccines in Latin America. Russia and China also worked on licensing deals to allow manufacturers in some countries (such as Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates) to produce vaccines themselves. This was publicly supported by the WHO and UNICEF which appealed for more such deals, giving Russia and China some soft power in these institutions. India was also influential in supplying vaccines to its neighbours in South Asia, competing with China for diplomatic sway. However, some of India’s soft power could be offset by the heavy negative publicity of the Indian government’s mismanagement of the Covid crisis, particularly in the Ganges region.

The West focused first on vaccinating its own populations and then channelling any extra vaccines into programmes like COVAX, which distributed them to the most vulnerable people in the poorest countries. They also handed more power to pharmaceutical companies to decide where vaccines should go, which could be determined by highest bids. This might suggest that for Western governments, their domestic popularity is more important to them than improving their global soft power.