What do a member of the left-leaning New York Times editorial board and a senior fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have in common? Usually, not very much. But when it comes to how America can boost its standing on the world stage, they are in perfect agreement: The United States should give away more COVID-19 vaccines to poorer nations to ensure vaccine equity.
In addition to being a member of the New York Times editorial board, Jeneen Interlandi is also a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine. Although she writes primarily about public health, she has also written about immigration, education, bioethics, and healthcare policy. Before becoming a senior fellow at the AEI, Dalibor Rohac was affiliated with the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. Armed with four degrees in economics, he studies European political and economic trends.
Interlandi (“The World Is at War With Covid. Covid Is Winning”) speaks of the need for “a truly global vaccination system” and “the race to vaccinate the world against Covid.” As she sees it:
While the world dithers, the virus is evolving. Given enough time and enough unvaccinated people, it could mutate its way past our best defenses, potentially sending the world — vaccinated and unvaccinated alike — back to square one. The best hope for preventing that from happening is to make many more vaccines — at least three times as many as the world has so far — and then deploy them as quickly and equitably as possible across the globe.
Although this will cost a lot of money, “almost any amount of money will be worth it.” The problem, as she sees it, is that “more than 80 percent of the four billion vaccine doses that had been distributed as of early August went to high- and upper-middle-income countries.” And “while the United States has bought enough shots to vaccinate its entire population three times over, most low-income nations still don’t have enough to give even first doses to their frontline health workers or older citizens.”
President Biden should “take an unequivocal stance on global vaccine equity.” Vaccine donations from “the world’s richest nations” to “lower-income countries” are “a flimsy fix for such rampant inequity.” Wealthy nations should “hold off on boosters and possibly on shots for young children until at least the higher-risk groups in lower-income countries have received their first doses.” If “individualism is allowed to prevail instead, the world’s resources will only grow more concentrated, and the world’s poorest nations will continue to be left out.”
Rohac (“How We Can Boost Our Standing on the World Stage”) believes that “the solution to the pandemic is the same as before: to vaccinate the world.” Doing so “will both reduce the magnitude of possible outbreaks and the potential for future variants, enabling the world to return to normalcy.” The contribution of the United States to vaccinating the world “has been modest.”
The United States should send to developing countries “doses of the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca and Novavax vaccines (both approved elsewhere but not in the United States) as well as extra doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.” He suggests that a “$50 billion investment would bring the pandemic to a much faster end.” This investment is “peanuts” compared to “the multitrillion dollar spending bills being thrown around Capitol Hill.” In addition to “the economic return on investment,” the “gains to America’s damaged standing in the world” would be “incalculable.”
If President Biden “wants to turn things around, vaccines are a cheap and effective way to save lives and fix the global economy.” If he “wants to turn the page from the Afghanistan fiasco, significantly boosting U.S. efforts to distribute the vaccine globally would do just that — and hopefully restore our leadership position on the global stage.”
“The vaccines continue to be extraordinarily effective in preventing severe cases of COVID-19,” says Rohac, but the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine is not the issue. Even if the COVID-19 vaccine is both a safe and effective preventative measure and a miracle vaccine with no side effects, there are still some important questions that must be asked.
Should the U.S. government be vaccinating the world? Should the U.S. government donate more vaccines to Third World/developing/poorer countries? Should the U.S. government invest $50 billion to accomplish these goals?
And here are three even more important questions. Should the U.S. government be helping pharmaceutical companies develop vaccines? Should the U.S. government be buying vaccines from pharmaceutical companies? Should the U.S. government be trying to get all Americans vaccinated?
From a constitutional standpoint, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding no. Therefore, no matter how much U.S. standing on the world stage might be boosted by the giving away of vaccines, to do so would be unconstitutional, just like it is unconstitutional for the U.S. government to now provide vaccines for its own citizens. Moreover, it is illegitimate for the U.S. government to boost America’s standing in the world at the expense of the American people.
How not to boost our standing
So, then, just how can the United States legitimately boost its standing on the world stage? Before answering this question, it might be pertinent to explore how not to boost American standing on the world stage.
Foreign aid. Although it seems as though the U.S. government doling out foreign aid is a way to boost American standing on the world stage, doing so is — just like distributing vaccines — both unconstitutional and illegitimate. Foreign aid is unconstitutional because the Constitution nowhere authorizes the U.S. government to give money to foreign governments. Article I, section 8, paragraph 1 of the Constitution says that “the Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States.” The United States — not Israel, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Kenya, or Pakistan.
Foreign aid is illegitimate because it is money taken from American taxpayers and sent to foreigners without their input or consent. The purpose of government is supposed to be to protect the lives, liberties, and property of the people who form it. But if it is illegitimate for the U.S. government to provide welfare and relief to Americans, then it is even more illegitimate for the U.S. government to provide these things to foreigners. No American should be forced to “contribute” to the aid of the people or the government of any other country. All foreign aid, like all domestic charity, should be individual, private, and voluntary.
Military alliances. Again, although it seems as though the United States making military alliances with other countries is a legitimate way to boost American standing on the world stage, this is certainly not the case. NATO was established in 1949. It initially had 12 member countries, but, with the addition of North Macedonia in 2020, it now has 30 member countries. Since NATO “is committed to the principle that an attack against one or several members is considered as an attack against all,” the United States is obligated to go to war over the invasion of a small country like North Macedonia that few Americans have ever even heard of.
There are four big problems with military alliances. First, although it may boost our standing to have military alliances with some countries, this also means that it will hurt our standing with those countries that we do not have alliances with. Second, military alliances like NATO are obsolete. NATO was formed in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union has been defunct since 1991. Third, military alliances are contrary to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson warned against entangling alliances with other countries. And fourth, military alliances do not serve American interests. As conservative commentator Pat Buchanan has well said:
And why is the defense of the Baltic republics and East Europe our responsibility, 5,000 miles away, not Germany’s, whose economy is far larger than that of Russia?
But why is the defense of Europe seemingly more important to us than to the Europeans themselves?
And, of course, it is not just NATO in Europe. The United States has also obligated itself to defend South Korea and Taiwan. But again, as Buchanan states: “But what do we get out of these commitments, other than an obligation to go to war with a nuclear-armed China or North Korea over shoals, rocks and borders on the other side of the world that have nothing to do with the peace or security of the United States?” The United States should not guarantee the security of any country.
Military bases. When the United States builds military bases in foreign counties, many foreign nationals are hired, the local economy is stimulated, and, of course, that country is less likely to be attacked by another country. But is this a legitimate way to boost American standing on the world stage?
The Department of Defense (DOD) has acknowledged the existence of about 800 U.S. military bases in 80 countries, but we know from the work of Nick Turse, David Vine, and the late Chalmers Johnson that that number could be over 1,000. And it is not just bases, for according to the DOD’s Base Structure Report, the DOD is “one of the Federal government’s larger holders of real estate managing a global real property portfolio that consists of over 585,000 facilities (buildings, structures, and linear structures), located on 4,775 sites worldwide and covering approximately 26.9 million acres.”
There are also about 175,000 active-duty U.S. troops overseas in over 170 countries and territories. Because foreign military bases are not essential to the defense of the United States, however, they are an illegitimate way to boost American standing on the world stage. The only entities that benefit from these bases of empire are government contractors. They are certainly not beneficial to American troops or taxpayers. All foreign military bases should be closed, and all U.S. troops should be brought home.
How to boost our standing
So, then, just how can the United States legitimately boost its standing on the world stage? The answer is found in President Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1801. In the midst of Jefferson’s annunciation of what he deemed “the essential principles of our government,” he uttered the immortal words: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” The one negative point — alliances — we have already visited. There yet remains peace, which can best be maintained by non-intervention; commerce, which can be best maintained by free trade; and honest friendship, which can be best maintained by neutrality.
Peace. U.S. foreign policy is aggressive, reckless, belligerent, and meddling. Its history is one of hegemony, nation-building, regime change, imperialism, jingoism, and empire. In a word, it is a history of interventionism. U.S. foreign policy is downright evil. It sanctions the destabilization and overthrow of governments, torture, assassinations, extraordinary rendition, the destruction of industry and infrastructure, and downplays the slaughter of civilians. It supports corrupt and tyrannical governments and brutal sanctions and embargoes. It results in discord, strife, hatred, and terrorism toward the United States. Peace is not possible without a foreign policy of non-interventionism.
The United States cannot right every wrong or correct every injustice in the world. America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” said secretary of state (and later president) John Quincy Adams. Not only is it not the job of the United States to police the world, put out fires around the world, or be the world’s busybody, hall monitor, or social worker, “the only group to which Uncle Sam has transcendent moral and practical obligations is the United States’ own citizens,” as Doug Bandow has well said. Not intervening in other countries is a sure way to boost American standing on the world stage.
Commerce. Otto T. Mallery (1881–1956), the author of Economic Union and Durable Peace (Harper and Brothers, 1943), maintained that “economic interests based upon mutual interest” were preferable to “political agreements between nations.” He also famously said: “If soldiers are not to cross international boundaries on missions of war, goods must cross them on missions of peace” (a similar phrase has sometimes been attributed to the French classical liberal Frederick Bastiat). Reducing or eliminating foreign commerce is exactly what countries attempt to do to each other during times of war.
Commercial freedom is one of the surest ways to boost our standing on the world stage. This means real free trade, not “fair” trade or managed trade. Free trade simply means that every individual and business in every country is free to trade, or conduct commercial activity, in any way with any individual or business in any other country for any reason, and without interference from the government. Free trade is the absence of any form of protectionism: tariffs, quotas, regulations, anti-dumping laws, restrictions, embargoes, or barriers. One look at the massive U.S. Harmonized Tariff Schedule shows that the United States is still very protectionist. But trade does not result in winners and losers. It is mutually beneficial: No party loses anything by trading with another party. Trade is not a zero-sum game. It always makes both buyer and seller better off, or else they wouldn’t bother to trade in the first place. More choices and cheaper goods always benefit consumers in both countries that engage in trade. Freely trading with other countries is another sure way to boost American standing on the world stage.
Honest friendship. The United States has not been a friend to many countries in the world and has not been an honest friend to others. Instead of remaining neutral, the United States has taken sides in civil wars, territorial disputes, and controversies in other nations; picked winners and losers; crushed populist and nationalist movements struggling against tyrannical regimes; trained foreign soldiers and police to suppress their own people; influenced, sabotaged, financed, and otherwise interfered with elections in other countries; downplayed human rights violations by favored governments while condemning them elsewhere; and demonized countries as evil while committing acts of evil. The best way to maintain an honest friendship with all nations and to boost American standing on the world stage is to practice neutrality.
After all, as Ron Paul once remarked about a dispute between Russia and Ukraine: “Why does the U.S. care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?” And as Pat Buchanan has said about disputes in the Far East: “As we have no claim to rocks or reefs in the South China Sea — Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines do — why is this our quarrel?” Neutrality respects the sovereignty of other nations; guarantees a peaceful, non-interventionist foreign policy; prevents hatred of America and Americans; ensures that the military is not misused; keeps U.S. soldiers from dying in senseless foreign wars; and doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything. Neutrality is part of an “America first” foreign policy. It is a moral foreign policy, a sane foreign policy, and the right foreign policy.
“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” This often-cited statement by Jefferson was not just empty rhetoric like that which bellows from the lips of modern politicians of both parties. The principles embodied in this succinct statement can be found throughout Jefferson’s writings and those of the other Founding Fathers. A Jeffersonian foreign policy not only puts America first, it is moral, just, legitimate, constitutional, and preserves American blood and treasure. To boost American standing on the world stage, we need look no further than the nation’s Founders.
This article was originally published in the January 2022 edition of Future of Freedom.