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.