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A successful candidate for president of the United States has plenty of choices to make. He can select his vice president, the members of his cabinet, and the text of his inaugural address. (I say “he” only because Americans have yet to elect a woman to the position.) He can also decide which executive orders to issue, where to make his first trip abroad, and whom to invite to the United States. One thing that an incoming president cannot choose, however, is the inbox that awaits him.
When he first enters the Oval Office, President-elect Joe Biden will be greeted by an inbox that can only be described as daunting. There will be a seemingly unlimited number of domestic and international challenges that call out for his attention. The question of what to do and in what sequence is inescapable, since presidents have only so much time and so many resources at their disposal. They must set clear priorities that reflect their assessment of urgency, opportunity, and reality.
The Jewish concept of tikkun olam means “repairing the world.” For individuals, it is a code to live by—the responsibility of each and every one of us to mend the broken world we live in and try to make it a better place, to work to improve the welfare of others rather than just our own. But tikkun olam also offers a code to govern by. This world is in dire need of repair, a process that will take time and inevitably meet with uneven success. But it is essential to keep in mind that repair is distinct from building. Repair means taking what exists but is broken and making it work; building is about creating something new, be it to better achieve existing goals or in some cases to accomplish new ones. Repair should define the opening initial six to nine months of a Biden administration’s foreign policy, and only after that will there come the opportunity, and in some areas the necessity, to build.
The domestic context could hardly be worse. By inauguration day, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have claimed 300,000 American lives; each day between now and then is nearly certain to bring more than 100,000 new cases and more than 1,000 deaths. Unemployment is expected to be in the range of six to seven percent. Millions of Americans will be unable to make their rent or mortgage payments.
The internal challenges facing this country go well beyond its physical and economic health. The United States is a country divided. More than 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, and many of them will buy into his destructive narrative that the election was stolen and believe that Biden is an illegitimate president. American society will be split on matters of wealth inequality, race, and education. The two parties (neither of which is monolithic) embrace radically opposed positions on matters of policy ranging from taxes to police reform and health care. Government may be divided as well, since the Republicans have a good chance of maintaining control of the Senate and the Democrats’ margin of control in the House of Representatives will be reduced.
Although domestic challenges will rightly absorb a large percentage of Biden’s time and resources, the outside world will not patiently wait while his administration sorts things out at home. To the contrary, the international inbox is no less daunting.
To blame his predecessor for all or even most of the international challenges that will await Biden would be to misread history.
That can be partly attributed to Trump’s policies. There are areas in which the Trump administration got things right: in calling out China for its trade practices, in supplying lethal arms to Ukraine, in striking an updated trade deal with Canada and Mexico, in brokering normalization between Israel and several Arab states. But there are many more in which the administration got things wrong: in undermining the alliances that had been the bedrock of international stability for 75 years (in turn raising questions about U.S. reliability among friends and foes alike), in withdrawing from international agreements and institutions without putting anything better in their place, in cozying up to authoritarian leaders in China, North Korea, Russia, and Turkey to little or no real end. Trump’s frequent violation of democratic norms and policies such as separating migrant children from their parents and banning travelers from many Muslim-majority countries also did much to undermine America’s appeal around the world.
But to blame his predecessor for all or even most of the international challenges that will await Biden would be to misread history. Many were in play long before Trump and will persist long after he exits the Oval Office: a rising and more assertive China, a Russia willing to use military force and cyber-capabilities to advance its goals, a North Korea with growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, an Iran committed to carrying out an imperial strategy in a turbulent Middle East, advancing climate change, weak and ineffective governments in much of the developing world, an ongoing refugee crisis. Simply reversing what Trump did or did not do, however welcome in many instances, would not solve the problem.
The first task of repair comes in a realm not always thought of as a matter of national security: public health. The administration must begin by getting COVID-19 contained at home. The arrival of therapeutics and vaccines will obviously help, but their timing and effectiveness are largely beyond the government’s control. What the administration can do, however, is make the development of a quick, accurate, easy-to-administer, and inexpensive point-of-care test a national priority. A Biden administration can also do much more to encourage responsible behaviors, above all mask wearing. Progress in containing the pandemic is essential to reviving the economy, to restoring the United States’ reputation for competence, and to giving the new administration bandwidth to tackle other problems, both domestic and international. To extend the medical imagery, stabilizing the patient—that is, ourselves—is essential for anything and everything we might choose to do.
The administration must begin by getting COVID-19 contained at home.
A Biden administration could and should rejoin the World Health Organization (as it is reportedly planning to do soon after inauguration), not because the organization is not flawed but because it is. An empowered WHO is needed to end the pandemic and to prepare for inevitable future outbreaks, as well as to tackle noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease (still the greatest cause of illness and death worldwide). It will take the United States working with like-minded partners within the WHO to reform it, so that during future outbreaks no country can stifle investigations or pressure the organization to alter its recommendations, as China did in the early weeks of this pandemic. Much of this work, however, will fall under building; the first step is to rejoin the WHO and help it do all it can to contend with the current pandemic.
The United States should also join international efforts to develop, manufacture, fund, allocate, and distribute vaccines. Such participation would help ensure that the United States can benefit from vaccines that emerge elsewhere first. And for those vaccines developed in the United States, making a portion available to others would go a long way to restoring U.S. standing in the world, as well as speeding the economic and physical recovery of others—which would in turn be good for both U.S. recovery and global stability. Doing this would literally help to fix the world.
A second priority for repair should be alliances—the great structural advantage of U.S. foreign policy. Alliances and partnerships provide for a pooling of resources to meet both local security threats and global challenges. Yet in recent years, most U.S. allies have lost confidence in the United States, the result of its unwillingness to stand up to adversaries and reticence to stand by friends (along with the country’s own domestic shortcomings). Setting out immediately to demonstrate a new, more consultative and committed approach to alliances would signal that there is a new and very different sheriff in town, one willing to work with allies on the full range of international issues. Repaired alliances would provide a stronger basis for all else the United States would want to do in the world.
Beyond convening genuine consultations, the Biden administration can make tangible moves that demonstrate its commitment to allies early in its term. It can immediately stop the ill-advised withdrawal of troops from Germany and resolve differences with South Korea over financial support for U.S. troops based there. It should revisit the agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan; future troop drawdowns should be tied to Taliban behavior and capabilities and coupled with long-term commitments of economic and military aid to the government. The new administration can also coordinate with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to forge a new approach to Iran—for example, pledging to rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the condition that Iran roll back anything done beyond the deal’s limits and that U.S. allies work with Washington in the coming months and years to develop a new framework that will last longer than the current deal (some of the nuclear provisions will begin to sunset within the next five years). And in Asia, the Biden administration can immediately begin consultations with South Korea and Japan on the best approach to North Korea, one that predicates any relaxation of sanctions on specified areas of North Korean restraint.
Setting out immediately to demonstrate a new, more consultative and committed approach to alliances would signal that there is a new and very different sheriff in town
The administration can underscore that multilateralism is back by rejoining international agreements and institutions—not as a favor to others but because it is in the U.S. interest. In addition to the WHO, an obvious place to begin would be the Paris climate accord (which Biden is also reportedly planning to rejoin early in his administration). That would have the right symbolic impact even as the real work, given that the voluntary commitments under Paris would not come close to addressing the climate challenge, will come over time via a successor agreement and other aspects of a comprehensive and ambitious climate policy. Similarly, the administration can move quickly to nail down an extension of the soon-to-expire New START arms control accord with Moscow, even as it will take much longer to develop a comprehensive approach to Russia that addresses its interference in U.S. politics, use of force in the Middle East and Europe, and domestic abuses, such as attacks on opposition figures including Alexei Navalny.
With China, too, it will take time to craft a comprehensive policy—one that addresses everything from trade and technology to human rights to strategic concerns related to the South China Sea, Taiwan, and China’s growing assertiveness with its neighbors. More immediately, however, the new administration can take two important steps. It can make clear that this new policy will be developed in close coordination with allies in Asia and Europe, which will make it more widely supported and thus much more likely to succeed. And it can indicate a willingness to convene a serious, strategic dialogue with Beijing, in order to determine areas of potential cooperation (for example, on North Korea and climate change) and to limit areas of unavoidable disagreement (or more realistically, perhaps, to limit the possibility that such disagreements escalate into confrontation).
The same sequence—first a time for repair, then a time to build—will hold for many of the other issues filling the new administration’s inbox. Several months will be needed to get a new national security team in place, to reestablish a disciplined policy process, and to complete initial interagency policy reviews. Time will be needed to hold discussions with members of Congress from both parties in an effort to find common ground; during both the current and previous administrations, too much U.S. foreign policy has been made by the executive branch alone, making it all too easy to reverse and thus undercutting U.S. reliability.
There may be consensus, for example, on how best to counter China and Russia, and even on such decisions as whether, and on what terms, to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has the potential to advance U.S. strategic, economic, and climate goals all at the same time. One could imagine initiatives to overhaul the World Trade Organization, rebuild and modernize the Foreign Service, set international ground rules for cyberspace, promote change in Venezuela and Syria, compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative and offer alternatives to Chinese 5G, strengthen NATO, promote diplomatic progress between Israel and the Palestinians, and much more. The argument is not that these and other new efforts might not be promising but that they will all require time to develop and during that time the emphasis must be on repairing what is broken.
Both the United States and the world are damaged, the result of the pandemic and four years of a U.S. foreign policy committed to profound disruption. While disruption is not inherently good or bad, under the Trump administration it deeply damaged the United States’ reputation and a valuable set of relationships and institutions that had been painstakingly built over three-quarters of a century. The presidential campaign indicated that the American people are not especially preoccupied with global problems, which will both introduce constraints and create opportunities for the new administration, especially when it comes to diplomacy. But to realize opportunities to build, the administration will first have to complete the urgent task of repair, at home and in the rest of the world.