At first glance, the tenacity of vaccine nationalism and the shambolic U.S. departure from Afghanistan appear to be completely unrelated. And yet they both expose the moral costs of a world dominated by sovereign states that consistently place narrow national interest above the ethical imperative of alleviating the suffering of strangers.
This is hardly a news flash. The question of how governments should square their duties to their own citizens with their obligations to those in other countries is an inherent and recurrent ethical quandary in international relations. It is at the heart of debates over humanitarian intervention, foreign aid, human rights policy, the global digital divide and much more. It is becoming more acute, however, as the world becomes more integrated politically, economically, technologically, ecologically and epidemiologically. As interdependence grows, we increasingly speak the language of cosmopolitanism. But when the chips are down, we remain nationalists at heart.
Consider the debate over COVID-19 vaccines. From the outset of the pandemic, wealthy Western governments have paid rhetorical homage to global health security, even as they acted aggressively to lock up supplies of vaccines and therapeutics for their own populations. In April 2020, in an effort to expand global availability, several international actors—including the Global Alliance of Vaccines and Immunizations, the Gates Foundation, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, the World Health Organization and others—launched the Access to COVID Tools Accelerator, or ACT, a multistakeholder arrangement. A core pillar of this initiative is COVAX, which seeks to provide innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.