Mark C Donfried
A year has now passed since the mass outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a global level. Now that we are in the second year of the pandemic, it is obvious that the worldwide vaccination effort is essential to decreasing the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact on all aspects of our lives, including our economies, social lives and international policies. Currently, only a fraction of the world’s population has been vaccinated and the task of expanding this effort is becoming a truly global challenge — one that has only just begun.
Vaccine research, development and production have been a high priority for developed countries. Ever since the first outbreak of COVID-19, the world’s great powers, including Asia, Russia, the EU and the US, have used their scientific, technological and industrial capabilities and infrastructure to work on the first vaccines and quickly set up and develop distribution infrastructures. Even though the task is an enormous one, there has already been significant news about the successful distribution and administration of the vaccination process in a select group of countries.
During the research and development process, however, authorities and institutions around the world have been raising questions about the reliability of the vaccines, problems in implementing their distribution, pricing, patents, and the challenge of enabling vaccinations for all. At the same time, discussions about anti-vaccination movements and campaigns have been taking center stage in public and private debate.
Western institutions in particular are working with high standards of quality and control, making it even more difficult to deliver the vaccine to large numbers of citizens in a short period of time. At the same time, in the eyes of Western scientific institutions, questions over the reliability and quality of, for example, the Russian and Chinese vaccines have been strongly argued.
In this period of global disorder regarding cohesive policies and solutions for the COVID-19 crisis, the world needs sincere cooperation between Western countries, Russia, China and multilateral governance organizations in order to cope with the virus’ challenges and keep up with the demand for vaccinations.
This grave situation enables a key opportunity: The possibility of real global cooperation in order to offer joint solutions for vaccine development, production and distribution, as well as COVID-19 prevention measures and academic research. The disease offers a special occasion to bring together countries that are currently experiencing political tensions or opposition toward a common goal of immunizing the entire human population against a common enemy. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as the ancient proverb tells us; so let us identify COVID-19 as this enemy, which we must all work together against.
Global cooperation using cultural diplomacy strategies might actually be the most urgent foreign policy priority of the nation state in the year 2021. Which global risk is currently greater? Which enemy is currently taking the lives of more humans? The main question is which countries will be first to step up to the challenge of bringing their greatest minds together for this common purpose? Cultural diplomacy can be used to break this international standstill — a cold war between economic and scientific communities. The walls of silence and competition need to be torn down and we must immediately initiate cultural diplomacy initiatives and platforms to serve as hosts for discussion, exchange and debate between the greatest minds in the world. The next generation of cultural diplomacy will not be a jazz concert in Moscow or an art exhibition in China, but rather the exchange of scientific knowledge and theories related to COVID-19 that will help to bring real solutions to real problems that are affecting every human being in the world.
One of the greatest assets of cultural diplomacy is the ability to sensitively and smartly adapt to the situation at hand. It can be used where other traditional forms of diplomacy are of limited use. As martial artist Bruce Lee once famously put it: “Be as water, my friend.” Lee explained how water always adapts to the situation it is put in. If you put it in a glass, water takes the form of the glass. If you put it in a bottle, it takes the form of the bottle. Water can be gently poured or come crashing down with incredible power. Cultural diplomacy acts exactly like water and can be adapted accordingly — specifically for the crisis at hand, in this case the lack of international cooperation when it comes to COVID-19.
Cultural diplomacy practices can also be used to create a positive dialogue to counteract vaccine skepticism among institutions and citizens, convincing them of the necessity of vaccination. These groups are becoming a real threat to a successful global vaccination and, therefore, their claims need to be addressed in cultural diplomacy terms. Cultural diplomacy, which in general is accepted as being positive and constructive in nature, has proven itself over the years as capable of bringing solutions to hard disputes that normal means were not able to reach and resolve.
The walls of silence and competition need to be torn down and we must immediately initiate cultural diplomacy initiatives.
As it looks now, the move of global health to the top of the world’s agenda will probably not end when COVID-19 is defeated. We predict that global health will stay on the agenda for decades to come. The billions of dollars spent on fighting the pandemic will make sure that Western countries and their institutions will keep global health as a top priority. The development of issues surrounding it will only increase as it poses existential risks from all directions: Health, security, economic and social.
So now is the time for cooperation at all levels of society, and across all borders, in order to improve the global health situation. Cultural diplomacy can help to establish cooperation — this is a proven fact. Every minute we lose now, more people are dying, generations of financial savings are being burned, and our quality of life is gradually deteriorating. The time for cooperation is now, not tomorrow or next week. It is, therefore, vital that great positive changes and improvements in the relationships between the superpowers emerge from this disaster.
The writer is director general at the berlin-based institute for cultural diplomacy.