Biden’s misstep in India

FILE PHOTO: A health official draws a dose of the AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, at Infectious Diseases Hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka January 29, 2021. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Editor's note:

While the Biden administration did correct its initial mistake in not responding forcefully to the COVID-19 crisis in India, the experience is a lesson that President Biden and his team will need to respond more rapidly and flexibly to future crises, writes Thomas Wright. This post originally appeared in The Atlantic.

The Biden administration’s announcement on Monday that it would soon export tens of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine completed a dramatic policy U-turn. It came after a tumultuous week in which the administration’s carefully constructed pandemic-diplomacy plan fell apart as the COVID-19 crisis in India worsened. The Biden administration needs to learn from this misstep and demonstrate a more agile approach in managing the pandemic globally and in navigating the domestic politics of foreign policy.

President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy team supports India and is unambiguously internationalist in its instincts, especially on matters of public health. It was horrified by the Trump administration’s failure to lead a global response in the early stages of the pandemic. However, key elements of Biden’s domestic-policy team, including his political advisers and the coronavirus task force, favored achieving herd immunity in the United States before sending vaccines or related materials overseas. It wanted to demonstrate to the American people that they were laser-focused on fighting the pandemic at home. The administration settled on a policy to reconcile these different impulses. It would keep Donald Trump’s executive orders preventing exports of vaccines and related raw materials, but once the domestic vaccination program was largely complete, it would pivot to play a global leadership role in the pandemic.

All going according to plan, this moment would come before the G7 summit in the United Kingdom on June 11, which would allow the president to act boldly with other world leaders. The U.S.’s initial protectionism would likely then be quickly forgotten. In early April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken appointed Gayle Smith, a highly respected former administrator of USAID, to head up the administration’s vaccine-diplomacy efforts. Biden also announced the Quad Vaccine Partnership, which promised to finance, manufacture, and deliver 1 billion vaccines for the Indo-Pacific region by the end of 2022. The production would be centered in India.

In the meantime, when asked by the press about its export restrictions, administration spokespeople would point out that when Biden took office, the United States had the highest cases of infection and deaths on the planet, so the rest of the world had a stake in the success of its vaccination program. For a while, this two-step plan looked like it would work. Multiple officials from U.S. allies and multilateral organizations, speaking on condition of anonymity so as to discuss the issue freely, told me that they understood the domestic political constraints Biden was operating under, and they all desperately wanted him to succeed. They would make some remarks calling for less protectionism, but they did not press too much.

Biden’s plan was reasonable and might have worked had the world escaped a massive surge of COVID-19 this spring. The problem is that the world is not a static place—the coronavirus gets a vote. By mid-April, India’s coronavirus cases were rising exponentially, fueled by reportedly double- and even triple-mutation strains and a number of political and religious super-spreader events. This tragedy totally changed the context of the president’s plan.

On April 16, Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, tweeted at Biden: “Respected @POTUS, if we are to truly unite in beating this virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the U.S., I humbly request you to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up. Your administration has the details.”

The situation was not quite as Poonawalla described it. The raw materials he was requesting were largely for the Novavax vaccine, which will not be distributed until September, but the tweet had a major impact on the public discourse. In the week that followed, India’s COVID-19 crisis reached epic proportions. The number of daily cases exceeded 300,000, surpassing the previous record set in the United States, and hospitals reported shortages of oxygen as they tried to care for the growing number of patients.

Many governments offered to help, including India’s geopolitical adversaries China and Pakistan. The Biden administration, which was in constant contact with Indian officials, was strangely silent in public. Last Wednesday, the press asked Ned Price, the spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, about U.S. export restrictions. The administration, he said, has “a special responsibility to the American people,” who have “been hit harder than any other country around the world … It is not only in our interest to see Americans vaccinated; it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.”

Price said only what the administration had been saying for months, but his comments landed very differently at a time when America’s COVID-19 problem was rapidly improving and India’s was careening out of control. The remarks sparked a firestorm of criticism in the Indian press, on social media, and on messaging apps. India’s leadership understood the political constraints on the Biden administration and did not criticize the United States. But as India’s health situation deteriorated, its political leaders lost hold of the narrative. The public understandably had little patience with the political limitations of another government, especially one that seemed well positioned to help. An Indian official would later tell The Wall Street Journal, “What took us by surprise was the slow response by the U.S. It created some misgivings in the public opinion, and that sometimes creates complications.”

That frustration was compounded by the fact that much of India’s elite had little sympathy for Biden to begin with. This past summer, the Center for Strategic and International Studies conducted a survey of thought leaders from 16 U.S. allies in Europe and Asia. India and Vietnam were the only countries that thought Trump would do a better job than Biden on China. Indians also remember that Trump sent ventilators to India as part of a deal in which President Narendra Modi lifted restrictions on exports of hydroxychloroquine to the United States.

The Biden administration had put cooperation with India at the heart of its foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific, but by the weekend, U.S.-India relations were facing a crisis. Chinese embassies tweeted details of their assistance to India, including its delivery of oxygen concentrators. Chinese state media ran stories blaming the United States for India’s predicament and gloating about how American inaction would affect Indian public opinion. Beijing clearly hoped to drive a wedge between India and the United States, perhaps fatally undermining Biden’s Asia policy.

Biden’s foreign-policy team grew more and more concerned that Indians could rally around the notion that America was absent in their hour of need and reinforce perceptions that the United States is not a reliable partner. Late last week, that team won the argument inside the administration.

Late on Saturday night, the U.S. conducted a full-court press. Blinken tweeted a message of solidarity with the Indian people “in the midst of the horrific COVID-19 outbreak” and promised additional support in the fight against the virus. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan followed up on Sunday with a phone call to his Indian counterpart and then announced a number of concrete steps to help the country, including sending raw materials for vaccines. On Sunday, Biden weighed in on the unfolding crisis, adroitly noting that India had helped the United States in its own hour of need, as did Vice President Kamala Harris, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

The mistake the administration made was not the original compromise to prioritize the domestic vaccine program, but the failure to adapt the plan ahead of schedule in light of changing circumstances. The White House now appears to fully understand this, albeit belatedly, and this realization explains why we are likely to see deep engagement with the Indian crisis in the coming days and weeks. Its delay is unlikely to be forgotten, but it may be forgiven. An editorial in the Hindustan Times reflected:

“At a time of distress, friends matter. And it is disappointing when a friend does not instinctively reach out and help, and, instead, may even add to the distress. As India got hit by the second wave, this is what happened with the United States … The good news is that the Joe Biden administration listened to feedback … This was not just a support package at stake—the entire relationship and perceptions of the US in India were at stake.”

The Biden administration will face many more dilemmas concerning its COVID-19 diplomacy. One of the most difficult was whether to export excess doses of vaccines. The United States has more than 100 million unused doses, a number that is likely to grow. The decision on AstraZeneca will buy some time, but the administration still needs to decide how to distribute them—should they go to wealthy allies who were left short by AstraZeneca or to COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), the partnership for vaccine distribution, which would likely send them to the developing world?

The administration is also under pressure from Democratic senators, progressives, NGOs, and an alliance of 175 former world leaders and Nobel laureates to waive intellectual-property protections to allow other countries to produce vaccines themselves. The pharmaceutical industry insists that such a waiver would prove counterproductive and could unintentionally damage global production efforts. The relative silence of the Biden administration in explaining any trade-offs and offering a framework for a speedy compromise is creating a vacuum that is quickly being filled by its critics.

More broadly, this misstep on India also shows how haunted the Biden team is by Trump and his nationalistic rhetoric. This episode and Biden’s recent attempt to maintain Trump’s cap on refugee numbers (a decision that was quickly reversed following an outcry among Democrats) suggest that the administration is worried that Trump will use any international assistance against them as a political weapon to bash Democratic globalists. It is not wrong to be concerned. Even after a failed insurrection, Trump seems unassailable in the Republican Party. The 2024 nomination appears to be his for the taking if he wants it. But the Biden team will need a way of denying Trump a political advantage in 2024, while remaining true to its values and without committing a major foreign-policy mistake. One way to do that is to try to enlist top Republicans in backing controversial actions. That sounds implausible, but Republicans are closely aligned with India geopolitically. One wonders if Biden could have gotten top cover from GOP senators or from Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. On the refugee decision, the administration could have allocated part of a significant increase for residents of Hong Kong or those who may suffer after the United States withdraws from Afghanistan.

The administration should not wait until the G7 summit to take on an international leadership role. Italy is the chair of the G20. Biden should ask Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to convene an emergency virtual summit of the G20 to address the global COVID-19 crisis. The G20’s strength is that it includes non-Western countries, but its weakness is that it is full of geopolitical rivalries. Biden will find the G7 more amenable to bold action on the pandemic and much else throughout his term, but a G20 summit would be an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with the developing world in particular.

During a pandemic, time works differently. In 2020, battles against the virus were won or, more often, lost over weeks or even days. Those who acted quickest fared the best. The U.S. knows this all too well, given the catastrophic consequences of time lost at the beginning of the pandemic. This is why the delay matters and may not be forgotten. The Biden administration now seems committed to doing everything possible to help India, but new emergencies surely lie ahead. The U.S. must be ready to act rapidly and confidently next time around.