Vaccine Soft Power: a CANZUK Strategy? | Sebastian Rowe-Munday
Lost amid the fall-out from the so called ‘vaccine wars’ between the UK and EU over the past few days has been the impact felt on other nations. While the UK press has focussed on the potential for the EU to block shipments of the Pfizer vaccine to the UK, less attention has been given to the fact that many countries worldwide are entirely dependent on vaccines manufactured in the EU.
Both Australia and Canada have had their vaccination programs severely affected by the EU’s decision, causing significant political fall-out. Boris Johnson should leverage the crisis together with the UK’s highly successful vaccination strategy, as a form of soft power to complement one of his most cherished foreign policy objectives: CANZUK.
The idea of CANZUK (a political and economic union between Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK), has picked up significant steam in the last year. Two factors explain why: firstly, Brexit has allowed the proposal to move beyond a pipe dream into an idea which looks increasingly feasible as the UK looks for a post-EU direction; secondly, foreign policies towards China (excluding New Zealand) have become remarkably aligned to the point of being indistinguishable.
All three states have recently taken strategic stands against China, leading to Chinese economic retaliation. Canada infuriated China by arresting Meng Wanzhou, the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei, on an extradition warrant from the United States linked to the ongoing trade war. Britain decided last year to ban Huawei from its 5G network and offer up to three million Hong Kong residents citizenship. And Australia became the first country to publicly call for an international inquiry into the Chinese origins of the coronavirus and is in the midst of a bitter trade war after China blocked Australian imports in retaliation.
The shortfalls of a CANZUK union, especially in the realm of trade, have been well documented. That is why the ideological core of such a union would be its shared strategic purpose, namely a defence of liberal values against a hegemonic superpower posing a direct threat to those values. After a 75-year hiatus since the Second World War, the world is once again entering an era of multi-polar great-power competition. It is culturally, politically, and economically prudent to band together with our closest friends and strategic allies to assert authority in an increasingly unstable international environment.
There has never been a time when strategic priorities have been as closely aligned since the days of the empire. Therefore, the present crisis offers Johnson an excellent opportunity to curry favour and positive headlines among the CANZUK states. Starting after the vaccination of all high-risk groups within the United Kingdom (currently scheduled for mid-February), the government should sell and proactively deliver UK-made vaccines on a no-profit basis to Ireland, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand (Ireland must be included due to the open border with the UK, regardless of Dublin’s strategic priorities).
It would be a low-risk, high reward, soft-power coup that will act to bind our nations into an even closer relationship. The UK would not be stopping its vaccination program, but merely diverting a small percentage of it away. The international leverage gained from such an action would far outweigh the minimal consequences of delaying UK vaccination for healthy young people a little longer.
The CANZUK idea would gain further legitimisation among populations that are already highly receptable to the idea. The 68% of UK respondents polled who would be in favour of a CANZUK union represents the lowest figure among the respective populations, illustrating that complications towards the implementation of a new union arise from political will, rather than public support. It will be through such displays of soft diplomacy that political will can be generated.
In every crisis comes opportunity. By the good fortune of a world-class vaccination program, Boris Johnson has been given one such opportunity. Yet it is time-dependent, and he should not squander it whilst it lasts.