JPI’s Roya Lotfi sat down with Dr. Damien Leader, former Foreign Service Officer for the United States Department of State and Deputy Director of the Office of Russian Affairs and current adjunct professor at NYU, to discuss the global effects of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
Meet Professor Damien Leader:
Professor Damian Leader was a career Foreign Service Officer for the United States Department of State from 1985 until 2013. He currently consults for the U.S. State Department on the declassification of historical materials related to American diplomacy. His last posting in the Foreign Service was as Director of the Policy Leadership Division at the Foreign Service Institute, and from 2010-2012 he was Chief Arms Control Delegate for the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) where he led an interagency team advancing the U.S. conventional arms control agenda with 56 European and Asian countries. Prior to his posting to the OSCE, Professor Leader was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania; Deputy Director of the Office of Russian Affairs and the Office of Nordic/Baltic Affairs; and Political Military Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in London. He also served on the Policy Planning Team of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 2000-01 on an international exchange. With most of his career spent in Europe, Professor Leader is an expert on the international relations and geopolitics of Europe and Russia.
At NYU, Professor Leader teaches courses on topics such as US Foreign Policy, U.S. Policy Towards Eastern Europe, and Practicing Diplomacy. His education includes a B.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame, an M.A. in History/Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto, and a Ph.D. in History/Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto.
Roya Lotfi: Hello, and welcome to JPI Faculty Insights. My name is Roya and I’m a graduate student in the International Relations program here at NYU. This episode we’re going to be focusing on arguable the biggest topic in the news cycle right now, and that’s the war in Ukraine
Crystal Goomansingh on Global News: It has happened. This is Ukraine’s capital. What seemed unthinkable in the 21st century is now underway. A democratic country has been invaded by its nuclear armed neighbor on multiple fronts. People are not safe in their own homes. It is a full scale attack forcing Ukrainians to decide whether to flee or to fight.
RL: So there’s a lot being covered with this war right now. So I decided for this episode to keep the topic pretty broad and just focus on the big picture of the global effects of this war. But before I begin, I want to give sort of a disclaimer and say that although this episode mainly talks about how Europe and the US are being affected by this war, all of that pales in comparison to how the Ukrainian people are being affected by this war. And I don’t want to overshadow just how important it is to recognize that innocent lives and homes are being destroyed in Ukraine. And that should really be the focus here. With that being said, there’s a ton of resources by reputable sources online on what’s going on on the ground in Ukraine and ways that people around the globe can help. So for this particular episode, we’re going to be discussing the global effects of the war in Ukraine. And joining me is Professor Damien Leader. So why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself.
Damien Leader: Yeah, hi, my name is Damien Leader. I’ve been teaching in NYU’s Masters in International Relations Program for eight years now. Before that, I was, spent 30 years in the United States Foreign Service. And what I focused on was largely East–West–NATO–Russia issues with a particular interest in Eastern Europe and those, and those issues. I served in Lithuanian as the number two at our embassy there for three years from 2007 to 2010. And in previous years at NYU, I’ve taught a class on US policy specifically towards Eastern Europe. So addressing these questions of Russia and the countries between Russia and western European countries. I’ve also taught a class for a couple of years at NYU on practicing diplomacy. Very specific issues of how diplomats work. For the particularly of interest to students who are interested in pursuing a career in diplomacy.
RL: So just to start off, I think it would be really important to go over a brief overview of this conflict and why it’s happening. Can you just kind of explain why this is going on right now. Why is Putin choosing to invade Ukraine and how does that go back to the Cold War?
DL: Well, there’s a lot of history in that part of the world, and the name Ukraine means “borderlands”. And the area of the country of Ukraine today is not just between the Russian Federation and NATO countries, Central and Western Europe, but it also is a country which straddles the border between Orthodox Christianity and Latin Christianity. It’s a piece of land, the borders of Ukraine have moved in the last 100 years. The end of World War II, the large parts of Poland were taken over by the Soviets and made and incorporated into Ukraine. A lot of, millions of people have moved across the borders one way or the other. So you have Ukraine, which was one of the Federated States of the Soviet Union, republics they called them.
So at the end of the Cold War, the breakup of the Soviet Union, each one of these constituent parts of the Soviet Union, constituent republics, became independent. Russia being the predominant one. Ukraine becomes a, in a sense a co-equal state with Russia. Vladimir Putin is tapping into very deep Russian roots and the beliefs that Moscow should have control over all the Russian speaking peoples regardless of which country they’re in. And that these should all be gathered together under the tutelage of Moscow. So anyway, long story short, what Putin is doing by invading Ukraine is to try to re-establish that hegemony over that part of the world. His arguments which he put forth in the 6 thousand word essay that was published under his name last year was that this has always been a part of Russia. It’s, Kyiv is the ancestral roots of Russia religiously and the sense of nationality. And that it should never have been separated from the Russian Federation. So he’s trying to, in his terms, right a historical wrong. That’s what he’s saying.
RL: It seems all very ideological. But also, you know, pertaining to land, and resources that come with that, so it’s a bit complicated.
DL: Yeah, I was just going to also add, in a sense, all politics being local, Vladimir Putin’s political strength in Russia is this brand is that he’s a strong man. He’s reversing humiliations that he claims the Russian people suffered at the end of the Cold War. The sense that Russia lost the Cold War. And he’s trying to right that wrong and reconstitute Russia. So this helps make him more popular in Russia. His annexation of Crimea in the first, after his first invasion of Ukraine, you have to remember this is the second invasion.
Dan Harris on ABC News: What America is officially calling a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian troops spreading out throughout the strategic Crimean Peninsula. President Obama, speaking with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently pulling no punches, although it is unclear what the White House can really do about it.
DL: First from Asia, he incorporated Crimea and made it a part of Russia. It’s no longer in his terms a part of Ukraine. So yeah, He’s trying piece by piece to make all these lands not just under his sway, but basically part of Russia.
RL: A lot of the talking points that the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has brought up is talking about how this isn’t just a war between Russia and Ukraine, but it has much larger implications in all of Europe.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy translated by MSNBC: And in the UN already mentioned that there is no such thing as, it is not my war in the 21st century. That annexation of the Crimea and the war in Donbas is a blow to the whole world. This is not about war in Ukraine, this is about the war in Europe.
RL: And so can you explain why he’s saying that and what does that mean? I mean, so far it seems to only really be, in terms of military power and fighting, between Russia and Ukraine primarily. But what does that mean for the rest of Europe?
DL: I think that what President, well, first of all, President Zelenskyy is trying to get as much assistance, direct and indirect, from other countries to help him in this war against Russia. He sees it, and possibly correctly, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine and on Ukraine sovereignty and its move towards democracy and, and all that comes with that, human rights, democratic institutions, is because Putin is afraid that Ukraine is adopting Western standards. And it’s quote, “falling into the orbit of the West,” basically trying to join in the sort of shared community and shared values of Western Europe, what we call Transatlantic values. So what he’s saying I think is if I get conquered by Putin, don’t think he’s not going to be on the border of Poland trying to do the same thing to the Poles, the Hungarians, certainly to the Baltic countries. And unless NATO intervenes more directly, specifically he’s asking for a no-fly zone now, more directly to help him that we’re just going to have to fight this battle on our own territory next year or five years from now, ten years from now.
RL: Do you know if, or does like anyone in the US government know if Putin wants to go further than just Ukraine, or is Ukraine, kind of like the things that he really wants to get down right now.
DL: Well, he really wants Ukraine right now, but I have to believe that his, take him at his word. Just before the, he invaded in February, he said that part of his demands included that all NATO forces be withdrawn from countries which joined NATO after the end of the Cold War. So in other words, basically take your forces, any kind of NATO forces, out of the Baltic countries, out of Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, other countries that have joined NATO more recently. And the only reason you want to do that is to be able to dominate those countries. So that actually supports what Zelenskyy was saying.
That argument by Putin has kinda been lost in the, once the war began because of a couple of things. One, it hasn’t gone so well for Putin. I have to confess that I, along with many people, looked at that and said, “How long is Ukraine going to be able to last,” you know, if Kyiv holds out for a week that would be a lot. Well the Ukrainian have shown that fighting for their own freedom and their own homes, that that’s a much, that gives you much greater power than if you’re a Russian conscript in an army being told to go off and fight against people who speak the same language and look just like you. So, no it hasn’t turned out so well for Putin on that score.
I think the key thing now is for Putin and Zelenskyy and the West to figure out a way to kind of unravel this. Because I don’t think Putin is going to get overthrown. I don’t think, I don’t see a coup on the horizon. I have no special intelligence or insight on that, but I don’t see that happening. So we’re going to have to figure out a way to, to end this war in a way that Putin, is acceptable to him, and acceptable to Ukraine. Acceptable to him, I mean, in the sense that he can just keep blasting away at Ukraine cities unless he’s, comes away with some sort of face-saving measure. I’m not sure what that is. It’s the old argument about a just war is worse than an unjust peace. I mean, is it, is it not? I mean, at what point do the Ukrainian say, we’d rather give up, say Crimea, our claims on that, if that means that the war would end. And, but what else would they have to give up and what assurances would they have?
The Russians signed an agreement in the Budapest memorandum in 1994 when they gave up their nuclear weapons, saying Russia and the Western powers agreed to guarantee the borders of Ukraine. Well, that only lasted until 2014. So what guarantees from Russia means, doesn’t mean a lot. I could go on and mention one thing that I think is a part of this that could help. And that would be if there was some kind of meaningful international effort, the UN that’s difficult to do because the Security Council, Russia has a veto. But if there was some kind of a ceasefire peace agreement, who’s going to monitor that agreement, how do you put people on the border between the two powers to make sure that Russia doesn’t continue to attack, things like that. I mean, there’s an awful lot of diplomacy that needs to play out here. And at this point we’re still, they’re still shooting rockets at each other. So I’m not quite sure how that’s going to unfold.
RL: Yeah, and in terms of trying to find a solution to this and to try to stop this conflict, you mentioned NATO a bit before. And there’s a really complicated debate happening around NATO’s role in this conflict right now.
General Secretary of NATO Jens Stoltenberg: We just finished an extraordinary summit of NATO leaders to address the biggest threats to our security in the generation: President Putin’s war against Ukraine. The people of Ukraine are resisting with the courage and determination, fighting for their freedom and for their future. We stand with them. President Zelenskyy addressed us with an impassioned message, thanking NATO allies for the significant support we are providing, and stressing the vital importance of even more military assistance. Today NATO leaders agree that we must and will provide further support to Ukraine.
RL: There is one side that is saying that there’s human rights violations happening in Ukraine. Many, many people, innocent people are dying. This is a travesty, and NATO, who has a bit of power to act, they’re not really doing as much as they can right now and that’s wrong basically. Then there’s another side saying that if NATO acts, it will just escalate, it’ll make Putin angry, it’ll make him want to retaliate more and then basically create like a whole World War III. So what are your thoughts on these two kind of routes that NATO can take? And, you know, based on your previous experience in the Foreign Service office, what do you think NATO’s role should be in this conflict?
DL: Well, as a, speaking as a former NATO desk officer back at the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the things about NATO is the Article Five guarantee of an attack on one is an attack on all, it’s very specific to the countries that are members. And for NATO to act as a, whatever 26 countries now that are in NATO, something like that, to be able to act in Ukraine in a military sense would require a consensus of those countries. I guess realistically, I don’t see that happening.
So what can NATO do? I think at this point, the Biden administration and the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg are doing a really good job of walking that very narrow line between not getting involved and getting involved in a sense that could be construed, be viewed by Russia as an attack on Russian forces by NATO forces. And that I do believe would in a sense give Putin the out that he wants, which is he gets to go to war with NATO. Not that he thinks he could necessarily win it, but that would be, he would say, “See the mask is off. This was really always about a battle between the evil Western Americans, led by the Americans and us Slavic people, or us Russians.” I mean, it would put it into those kind of apocalyptic terms rather than it being President Putin and the Russian Federation are just trying to attack and occupy another country, dominate a weaker neighbor. Which makes him, which, where he’s clearly in the wrong.
If it becomes World War III, then all bets are off. So I think NATO is doing a really good job of providing supplies, providing advice, providing finding relief, but not putting themselves in a position, any NATO country, where a NATO soldier kills a Russian soldier. That would be the trip line that would unravel all of this. So it would make it even worse, I guess I’m trying to say.
RL: But even now can’t Putin just say that any role that NATO is getting involved in with this conflict is enough for him to kind of retaliate. I mean, I don’t know what’s in Putin’s mind right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he just kinda use any reason to escalate the situation.
DL: Well he has said that the economic measures taken against, and sanctions, are economic warfare, so he’s used those terms already. I think that he recognizes that it would be a little bit difficult for him to justify what NATO has done so far as constituting aggression against the Russian Federation. Because the weapons that are being given are all being deployed in Ukraine. It’s not, there’s no battlefront taking place on Russian Federation territory. So it’s very hard for him to, although he’s tried to do this, to characterize it like the Great Patriotic War where the Nazis invaded and they’re being driven out by the, by the Russians and Russian allies. You know, no, nobody’s invading Russia. It’s Russia invading its neighbor. And that’s always the problem with wars of choice, is he chose to do this. Well, that doesn’t give you any sort of way, it makes it very difficult to justify what you’re doing. The United States had that problem in Iraq. Once things start going south, you go, wait a minute, you brought this on yourself.
So I think NATO, as I said, is doing a pretty good job. One little thing I’ve mentioned also, unintended consequence of this, Putin has already successfully, effectively absorbed Belarus into the Russian Federation at this point. The country’s occupied by Russian troops. I think President Lukashenko of Belarus has absolutely no leverage against Putin anymore. Basically, they’ve become, they’ve made themselves, have become a vassal state. And that was a price that Lukashenko paid to stay in power in the last year, he called in Russian forces to help put down opposition, who claimed that the election, correctly, that the election was stolen a year and a half ago. So Putin’s already achieved one of his aims. He wants to build this great Eurasian Union, Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, who he’s helped out against demonstrators there a few months ago. Belarus, he sees, you know Ukraine as the next part of that puzzle.
RL: So we were talking about how conflict has kind of been affecting all of Europe and that whole region there. But as we’ve seen just in the past few weeks, there can also be types of consequences happening even in the US and around the whole world. And, so, like there’s been this talking point about gas prices going up recently, and this is all because of the war in Ukraine. And I’m not sure how true that is, that it’s like a direct effect of the war. But can you talk a bit about how this conflict can go further than just Europe in terms of the global economy, in terms of global alliances and things like that. So in what way can it affect the US and then also Asia, Africa, other places that are right now seemingly not involved at all.
DL: Well as you said, gas prices is one of the things that is certainly, gas prices were rising last year because of all the well-known pandemic and supply chain issues that followed from that. But certainly in the last four weeks, oil prices peaked at over a $130 a barrel. So they’re gone down since then. Although I always notice, as soon as global oil prices go up, gasoline immediately goes up like within 24 hours at the pump. Global prices go down, it takes months for it to go down at the pump. Anyway, little editorializing there, but certainly there’s increased prices like that. There’s also knock on effects included. As you mentioned, Asia, you have China. China was very much, has been very much sympathetic towards Vladimir Putin. And Putin has tried to build a strong relation with Xi Jinping.
Christian Shepherd on The Washington Post: Beijing is trying to be very cautious with it’s war in Ukraine, it’s walking this fine line where it tries neither to offend Russia or harm that partnership, or to offence the United States, Europe, and of course Ukraine. Putting early end to the fight is the urgent expectation of the international community. It is also what China is striving for. But that is a form of neutrality that also comes with not condemning Putin. It is unwilling to cut off trade ties with Russia. It has been vetoing some of the bills that are coming through the United Nations. China will have to vote against this draft resolution.
DL: But is China going to bail Russia out now, they haven’t yet, they haven’t sent any military equipment there. They continue to buy oil and gas from Russia, as does Europe because they need it. But how is that going to sort out in the long-term? Does Russia end up becoming sort of a junior partner to China because it needs to rely on it economically. But China’s not as big a market as Western Europe is for Russian goods and food and grain and everything else, things that they sell. So that could have a real effect on sort of global power structures in the Far East, how Russian, the relationship between Russia and China.
As you mentioned, also, it’s going to have an effect on the Middle East. Because whenever you start affecting oil prices, that puts the countries of the major oil suppliers like Saudi Arabia in a much stronger position. You see already the United States trying to get Saudis to increase production, which they haven’t really done. That gives Saudis more leverage against the United States. So there’s a lot of these kind of knock on effects.
The one good effect of all this has been Western solidarity. Putin has done what’s the last thing any Russian or Soviet leader before him ever wanted to do, which was strengthened North Atlantic bounds, make NATO a more cohesive organization where everybody is marching in the same direction metaphorically. And that, how long that lasts, we don’t know, but that’s not good for Russia. They can’t pick people off. They can’t divide them. And you have countries like Finland and Sweden talking about joining NATO, discussing it, don’t know if they ever will. That’s the last thing Russia wants, is to strengthen NATO. And that has been one of the effects of his actions.
RL: So you mentioned China and this kind of reminded me of something that I was thinking about as well. Where some people are saying that if Putin gets away with invading Ukraine, then other authoritarian regimes such as China, might kind of feel empowered to go in and invade other countries that they’ve always wanted to take as well, such as Taiwan. How likely do you think that’s going to actually happen?
DL: I can only speculate. I’m not, I can’t claim any particular expertise on it. But I do know that invading Taiwan involves an amphibious operation and a number of other things. It’s not just having your tanks roll across to a border crossing as it was between Russia and Ukraine. So it’s just tactically, in a military sense, a much greater challenge.
I think that this also in talking, I was talking about NATO becoming more cohesive. This is going to be, I think, a real incentive for countries in Southeast Asia to build stronger defensive bonds as well. Because they don’t want to see China being able to move unimpeded, exerting its power in that region. So countries like, not just Australia, but Malaysia and Singapore and others, even Vietnam, might start, Japan and South Korea, might start working together even more closely to, to prevent China’s being able to do something along the lines of what happened with Ukraine.
RL: And then I guess my last question can wrap this all up is basically, since my concentration is US foreign policy and we’re all in the US right now, I’m just wondering, besides gas prices and oil and things like that, do you see the US being affected by this war in any other way? Can, you know, any other types of things in our global economy come back to the US because of the conflict.
DL: Well, I think that because of the pandemic and going back to the Trump administration, difficulties with China, that there’s been a greater movement towards autonomy with, in manufacturing and things like that. So the US should not have to rely on other countries. Not just because of supply chains, but because of these political questions and economic sanctions and whatever that this sort of thing means that the United States should try to be able to source more of its stuff domestically.
Lee Powell on The Washington Post: Neon, titanium, and really big planes. They all have something to do with the conflict in Ukraine. And that’s going to affect us all. The biggest land war in Europe since World War II is upsetting everything from lives, two ways of life. The ripple effects of sanctions and a shuttered economy extend far beyond these lands.
DL: I think that’s going to be an, have an effect in Europe as well, and other countries. So, is that the end of globalism? I don’t think so because in the end, most businessmen are capitalists, and if they can buy a microchip cheaper from Taiwan, they’re gonna do it there rather than from Texas or something. But these are long-term trends. We’ll see how it works out. I think it’s as much because of the pandemic as it is this war. But again, I’m kind of speculating. I’m not an international economist.
I think the war in Ukraine and what the administration’s doing brings out the divisions in the United States as well. We saw that with Afghanistan, President Trump had signed an agreement to withdraw all the US forces by April of last year. Biden delayed that movement to August and still was slammed domestically saying why did he leave, why didn’t he stay? So no matter what the divisions in the United States, political divisions end up being reflected in this, you know. This sense, the sense that perhaps this is a rosy view of the past, that foreign policy ended at the waterline, the shores of the United States, and that when we act overseas, everybody is going to be united behind the president and the administration. That’s clearly not the case now, that those people that were attacking, initially attacking Biden for, I think following President Trump’s lead on this by saying, you know, Russia is being very smart to do this. The Ukrainians are a bunch of corrupt thugs and oligarchs and such. That sort of criticism has faded off of it I think. But you see the idea that, well, Biden’s not doing enough to help the Ukrainians. Whereas you know that if, if we get more deeply involved, he’d criticize saying why are we fight, why are we getting involved in a war that we don’t have such direct interest in it.
So those sort of domestic issues, no matter what, and this goes for both political parties, no matter who’s in charge, the criticism of foreign policy is going to be pretty, break down along party lines for the most part. Anyway, that’s my own two cents on it.
RL: I don’t envy President Biden for being in office during this and during Afghanistan too, and it’s kind of two huge foreign policy things that happened. And yeah, like you mentioned, there’s kind of no winning with either of them, so.
DL: Yeah, and the other thing about politics, when I look back, other than the Vietnam War, where people’s voters tend to break down, broke down along the lines of do you support continued American involvement in Vietnam or not? And even then, Richard Nixon was elected, not the more, the peace candidate, so to speak, George McGovern. In the end, Americans tend to vote on economics and domestic issues anyway. So most people, assuming this war is, ends in some fashion short of World War III, by the next general election in 2024 no one’s going to be talking about Ukraine. I don’t think, unless it’s a fiasco, and then they will be because it can be used against the administration. But who knows?
RL: Right. So for my questions, I think that’s pretty much it, and I think that covered a lot. So, thank you so much for participating in this. I appreciate that.
DL: Okay. Bye-bye.
Producer and Host: Roya Lotfi
Guest: Damien Leader, Adjunct Professor at NYU
Audio clips (in order):
Crystal Goomansingh for Global News, February 25, 2022
Dan Harris for ABC News, March 2, 2014
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, translated by MSNBC, February 19, 2022
General Secretary of NATO Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, Belgium, posted by Sky News, March 24, 2022
Christian Shepherd for The Washington Post, April 12, 2022
Lee Powell for The Washington Post, March 4, 2022
Image Credit: Dalibor Brlek / Alamy Stock Photo
JPI’s Roya Lotfi sat down with Mr. Robert Dry, former US diplomat and current adjunct professor at NYU, to discuss the Covid-19 vaccines, its international creation effort, and its spread to countries around the world.
Meet Professor Robert Dry:
Professor Dry served as an American diplomat in Iraq, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Oman, China, Vietnam, and France, as well as in a range of assignments at the Department of State in Washington, D.C. During the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001 and thereafter, he was the chief of mission (long-term chargé d’affaires) in Muscat, the Sultanate of Oman, where he facilitated the U.S. and allied invasion of Afghanistan and counter terrorism campaign. This political/military assignment represented a departure from economic and scientific and technological postings, including as economic counselor at the U.S. embassy in Hanoi with the goal of completing normalization of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. In another assignment, he served as counselor for scientific, environmental, technological, and health affairs at the U.S. embassy in Paris, negotiating with the French government the world’s current largest science project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (‘ITER’), designed to prove the utility of fusion energy for the 22nd century. Earlier, he negotiated with the Saudi Arabian government its accession to the WTO (eventually successful) and the Kyoto Protocol under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (ultimately unsuccessful).
As his final diplomatic assignment, the Department of State assigned Professor Dry as diplomat in residence and visiting professor at the City College of New York. In addition to recruiting for the U.S. Foreign Service, he taught and lectured throughout the Greater New York Region, including, for example, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Since 2010, he has taught at the Department of Politics and its successor IR Program at NYU. For two years he developed capstone projects at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. In 2019, Professor Dry served as Visiting Professor of Government and Podlich Distinguished Fellow at Claremont McKenna College in California teaching global environmental governance.
As a teaching philosophy, Professor Dry seeks to marry practical, pragmatic and legal (international law) IR studies together with IR academic scholarship in his courses. These include Global Environmental Governance: Approaches, Structures, and Diplomacy (see Fall 2021 offerings); the United States and the Persian Gulf; and Foundations for Diplomacy. His education includes an MA from Glasgow University, Scotland; a JD from George Washington University; and an LLM (international environmental law) from the University of Maryland. He is married to Ellen Kerrigan Dry, a practicing attorney and equestrian, and they live in Middleburg, Virginia. They have two lovely daughters, a wonderful new grandson, four horses and an Australian shepherd.
Roya Lotfi: Hello, and welcome to JPI Faculty Insights. My name is Roya and I’m a graduate student in the International Relations program here at NYU. This episode I want to talk about probably the biggest international topic in the past almost two years now. And that’s the COVID-19 pandemic.
Audio clip of Christina Macfarlane onCNN: A sars-like virus, which has infected hundreds in China, has now reached the United States.
Audio clip of David Muir on ABC News: Good evening. As we come on the air in the west tonight, President Trump addressing the American people just a short time ago as the toll of the Coronavirus widens here in the US. The president’s words come after the World Health Organization today declared the Coronavirus a global pandemic.
Audio clip of Anja Kueppers-McKinnon on DW News: Two years to the day since the World Health Organization set up an emergency crisis team in response to an outbreak of unusual pneumonia cases in the city of Wuhan, China.
RL: More specifically, I want to talk about the COVID-19 vaccine and the international efforts to create the vaccine and also spread it across the world. So today I’m joined by Professor Robert Dry from the MAIR program who’s worked extensively in the global healthcare sector. So, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself?
Professor Rober Dry: Hello, great to be here. I’m Robert Dry. I’m an adjunct professor at NYU in the IR program. And I’ve actually been teaching there since 2010 when I retired from the United States Foreign Service, and I had been, back then, the Department of State’s Diplomat in Residence for New York and surrounding areas. And I had served previously for 30 plus years in the Department of State. I mostly had spent my career as what is referred to as an Economic Officer, and there is a subspecialty under the economic career as a Foreign Service Officer, and that is as a Science and Technology Officer. Think of Captain – or Commander Spock of the Starship Enterprise, even though obviously, I don’t have the same ears. And I was counselor of the Embassy for Scientific Affairs and Nonproliferation Affairs at the US Embassy Paris for a period of four years from 2004 to 2008. And I was Acting Counselor for Scientific and Technological and Environmental and Health affairs, also at the US Embassy in Jakarta. I’m an adjunct professor, and oftentimes the adjuncts are practitioners. So they don’t they don’t come up through the academic system itself. So I don’t have a PhD, I have three law related degrees, all advanced degrees.
RL: Thank you, I’m sure you have a lot to say and a lot of insight to give on the topic of today’s episode, which is the COVID-19 vaccine.
Audio clip of Kathy Park on NBC News: Tonight Pfizer and BioNTech’s emergency authorization requests for a COVID-19 vaccine is in the hands of the FDA.
Audio clip of Karl Stefanovic on 9 News Australia: The race to find the COVID-19 vaccine is ramping up with Moderna seeking emergency approval of its jab from the US and Europe.
RL: So diving in, the first thing I want to ask you about is about the international cooperation that needs to happen in order to create such a vaccine. And I know you’ve worked on situations like this in the past. So can you just speak on that a bit in terms of international governments working together, and also organizations as well outside of the government?
RD: Sure, yeah. No, there’s basically two components to science diplomacy. Well, there’s a little bit more than that. But one is bilateral cooperation between countries and places where I served, you had to take, for example, Indonesia, where I served for three years, there was a US Naval Research Unit. And there were medical doctors, there were medical researchers, there were scientists, and they would collect viruses, they would collect diseases, they would collect mosquitoes. And incredibly useful to have these forward deployed research units. And that’s because the US military is really keen on tropical medicine. They work very closely with their health authorities in Indonesia. And then as I, when I was a science counselor in Paris, I visited the Minister of Health, and the Minister of Health basically said that he was experiencing something of a nightmare in that there was a Chikungunya pandemic in the island of La Réunion, and the problem was that there was no vaccination. And, you know, there were, it’s just a mosquito-transmitted disease. So I then contacted US health authorities, and they told me to contact the Army Medical Research Unit in Fort Dietrich, in Maryland, which I did. And it turned out that they had a trial vaccine that they were looking at, however, they had stopped research on it. They hadn’t gone through the full set of clinical trials. And the reason was because their objective, since this was post-2001, was on counterterrorism and bioterrorism issues.
So, one of my jobs as the Science Counselor at the US Embassy in Paris was to link the two together. So that’s, you know, that’s one is sort of the bilateral cooperative piece. And in the bilateral piece, you know, there’s also the multilateral piece. And in the multilateral piece, of course, the central element is the World Health Organization. And there are lots of representatives of WHO, throughout the world, and they focus in on particular diseases, and they focus in on particular issues. But there are these connections. The CDC has representatives, the Center for Disease Control has representatives. Unfortunately, with regard to the most recent situation of COVID-19, there were only a handful of CDC folk actually out in the world and as CDC representatives, but CDC does have a system of when there is a disease, it sends out their epidemiologists to do this incredible research and talk about bravery. They go to some of these laboratories, there’s much talk about Wuhan laboratory. And it’s not uncommon for CDC to send out folk to visit these laboratories and talk with the scientists there about not only their system of control, but also to keep up and keep in touch with the nature of viral research that these institute’s are engaged in.
When I was in France, I worked on the H5N1 problem, which is the avian influenza, yeah, the avian influenza. And the French government was all over this. And part of it was because the French government felt, was really concerned, having gone through this period of high heat and excess deaths from dehydration in 2003. And could have tumbled the government for its lack of preparedness for that climate change related phenomenon. And so, the French, the French government, when we started hearing about H5N1, started to get really concerned and started, actually pulled together a lot of what was called Tamiflu back then, which was a treatment that would that would lessen the severity of certain influenzas, and actually had a huge volume of this, this treatment and, and sort of put everything into addressing H5N1. And we went through a series of country scenarios. And also international scenarios: how would, we’d do desktops, we would work together and go over to their facilities. I would represent the US government, and in the US Embassy itself, I was the point person on what to do.
The reason why this was so concerning was because the mortality rate if you contracted H5N1 was about 50%, which was much more severe, much, much worse than the COVID-19 disease. And even considerably more threatening than the Spanish Flu of 1918, which was about 2% and led to estimates of between 50 and 100 million deaths. So at that time, there was a great deal of interest in looking at, you know, influenzas and looking at vaccinations, looking at all kinds of ways in order to address this. Tamiflu was considered to be important as a treatment. And the French government because they have a centralized system of medicine, they actually came out with, you know, pre-positioning a lot of these kinds of vaccinations, they – not vaccinations, treatments – throughout their country. And interestingly, internationally, their diplomats are, or their system of government, their health system is governmental, fundamentally, even though there is a private piece to it. And so there were negotiations between the United States government and the French government, because French diplomats wanted to be able to distribute Tamiflu to their citizens, even in the United States. And of course, in the United States, only medical doctors could prescribe this kind of medicine. Interestingly the United States’s response to the question of if they had adequate supplies of Tamiflu at time, the treatment, then the question would be how would the United States deliver this to, you know, to people around the country? And our answer to that was to use the US postal system because it was a treatment as opposed to a vaccination. And then, you know, we started thinking through scenarios of if this entered into a pandemic state, then would the Postal Service be essentially targeted by criminals and others who needed or wanted access. If the treatment were life and death, then, as it is with the COVID-19 virus, how do you, how do you address those kinds of issues?
So as you can sort of see, with all these issues coming out, and these kinds of kinds of things, you need a lot of pre-planning, you need to have protocols in place, you need to have thought through the ramifications of a lot of these things. And, you know, back then I think we did a reasonable job of this, and we’re focused, like a laser on the question of the transmissibility of the H5N1 between, you know, chickens or whatever, in South Vietnam, and unlike the US response, in particular, but in connection with COVID-19, I mean, and part and also one part of thinking through these things, is the messaging and, and certainly that got off to a terrible start in this country. And, and rapidly became politicized, and so forth, as did vaccinations, as did masking and so forth, remedial measures, and, and that is exactly the way these things are not supposed to take place.
Audio clip of Keith Jones on NBC10 Philadelphia: Science versus politics, that’s part of what’s becoming a trend across the country, and it’s led to a divide over the COVID vaccine.
Audio clip of President Donald Trump: A lot of people don’t want to wear masks. There are a lot of people who think that masks are not good.
Audio clip of CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield: I’m not going to comment directly about the president, but I am going to comment as the CDC Director that face masks, these face masks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have.
RD: And similarly, of course, this is during a pandemic is the time when you need to gather and support and work with a central governmental institution established for the purpose, which is the World Health Organization, which is designed in order to address some of these kinds of issues. Similarly, other entities, international entities, like those responsible for governing transportation between countries and so forth, they have to get into the picture as well. And, you know, international leadership is very, very important, funding is very important, and so on, and so forth.
RL: And it definitely seems like the start of the pandemic was very rocky, and there was a lot of issues there. But at some point, it seems like it kind of went a bit on the right track, especially in terms of creating the vaccine because it was this huge success, so to say, because it was the fastest vaccine like ever created. And it was like a huge international effort with cooperation between all these different actors around the world. Can you speak a bit on what changed and how that became so successful?
RD: Well, you know, the Defense Production Act was used by the United States to provide lots of monetary funding to stimulate some of the pharmaceutical companies to engage in rapid research. But the phenomenon of actually finding this mRNA system of vaccines have been something that had been under-studied for years, if not decades. Again, the old system of developing vaccines, using millions of eggs and, and having the chemical reproduce itself and using the egg as a supporting substance, as the growing substance, I guess you could say, it was just slow, out of date. So these other forms, this so-called cellular systems of vaccination were being developed. And so that was important. I think, and I can’t corroborate this, but I think that Pfizer, which is one of the early in the United States that proceeded didn’t, for its own interests did not necessarily want to take all of the US government funding for this, for developing the vaccine. Actually utilization, transportation, or those kinds of things, yes, but not necessarily for those patentable aspects associated with the vaccine itself.
When scientists engage in international scientific collaborative work, there is a different set of intellectual property issues and concerns and thresholds and so forth. And in fact, scientists like to make things happen. Whereas once it gets into the commercial domain, it is restrictive. You know, the entity that holds the patent to something holds on to that patent, and can get royalties, or can get royalties for licensing it to third parties and so forth. And, you know, if the United States government or any government perhaps works with a pharmaceutical company, then there’s going to have to be arrangements made as to ownership and release of the patented material. But in any event, I think money was a clear factor in all of this. And the availability of the defense production act, and the mere fact that the United States is the richest country on the planet, bar none. Although European countries, in many ways are richer, in as much as many European countries don’t have the same debt to GDP as the United States does. We are now at about 100%. But the United States currency is you know, a global currency and so forth. So we can, we essentially print money, for a number of reasons we all know about it. But that allowed the United States pharmaceutical companies to do what they needed to do, and to move forward very rapidly into the manufacturing process.
And, but then, you were right, I think to a certain degree, we got an early vaccine. And that was, you know, again, a lot of scientists at these companies in particular standing on the shoulders of giants that have been researching collaboratively around the world for years and years on this kind of subject. How do they address these things? And, you know, it is phenomenal, this, what has been done in the last, you know, decade or two or three decades in biotechnology, the capabilities are just, boggle the mind. But at the same time, how can we best provide provisions to the rest of the world with vaccines? And, again, we started getting very quickly into the questions of equities and justice and health justice and environmental justice, and God knows what all.
And the other fact is that this pandemic knows no boundaries. And if you let it circulate in a third world country, or a developing economy that doesn’t have access to vaccines, who knows what variant will develop. We already have the Delta and then more recently, people have been talking about a Delta Asterix and Delta Plus, and so forth. So for our own, in the United States national security interest, we need to clamp down on this disease as best as possible. And I’m glad to see that the current administration is interested in not only providing vaccines, purchasing vaccines, you know, from companies that it has relationships with, and providing them overseas in different ways. Also, other countries are doing so. And bravo, you know, more power to them. But it isn’t just to improve soft power, it’s for our own interest, because we need to clamp down on this disease.
The same thing applies to the United States, the anti-vaxxer, anti vaxxers, some of them probably have very good reasons not to have vaccinations, but most people should be vaccinated as a matter of, in the public interest and in public health. And, you know, in order to get to this crowd immunity, herd immunity, we need to have a very high proportion of Americans vaccinated and masked. And that pandemic is part of these global issues like health, like the environment, like weapons of mass destruction, pollution, poverty, lack of sanitation, all of these kinds of things they are referred to, they can be referred to as the “new threat set” on the global stage. This means that governments need to get behind addressing global issues working together on them, and collaborating on the scientific ends more and more, and then working together on, in intergovernmental organizations like WTO – WHO pardon me – to find ways in which to, you know, not only take care of your own population, but to to work together collectively with other countries in the world. And, you know, the last administration was, which was hyper-nationalist, was not nationalist in the sense because its actions were against the United States people in many ways by its failures, not only failures in the manner in which the referred in many ways to this disease, but to the manner in which it addressed the WHO and other countries and so on and so forth. Having served in China in the Foreign Service, and in Asia and other countries in the Middle East, one gets nowhere internationally by insulting other countries and other countries’ leaders. As a diplomat you’re an optimist and a bridge builder. And those are the things that need to be done in order to improve cooperation internationally to address the new threat set.
RL: Yeah, absolutely. And I want to go back a bit to a point that you made earlier about the financial barriers that there are in place in terms of the pharmaceutical companies trying to protect their product, and how that’s making it hard to get this vaccine spread throughout the world, especially in underdeveloped areas.
Audio clip of Nicholas Watt on BBC News: There’s been a huge debate about getting the World Trade Organization to waive what are called the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights that’s known as TRIPS. The advocates for that say, look at Brazil and India, look at the developing world. 1.1 billion COVID vaccines administered so far across the world, only 18 million in Africa.
RL: So there’s that financial aspect to it. But are there also maybe some other aspects to it, such as protocols and governance and these international laws in place that are making it hard for this vaccine and this inoculation rate to be global?
RD: Well, yeah, absolutely. I mean, these companies will and can license this technology and receive royalties for that. And it would be a little bit unusual for a lot of these large numbers of pharmaceutical firms to give up large amounts of potential revenue, without compensation. So someone, some entity, I mean the Gates Foundation, for example, could perhaps jump in and purchase medicines or vaccines, treatments, we’re now getting into the treatments area as well with regard to this disease. And they can also, as part of their sort of the way, their own soft power as corporations, you know, they can, they can help provide some help, some aid on their own. But generally speaking they’re in business to make money. Unlike scientists. Scientists, as a rule, are not doing what they do, they’re doing it because they’re fascinated by their research and they want to help humanity. Corporations can also want to help humanity and do help humanity by essentially commercializing, and it costs huge amounts of money to do so. You know, how much money is spent in failed research in these corporations, lots, billions and billions and billions of dollars.
So there is an equity on their behalf as well in supporting the capitalist system. But governments are instituted in order to provide sort of incentives and ideas and ways forward to give leadership to the private and philanthropic sectors. You know, we have Agency for International Development in the United States, and you’ve got international aid agencies from almost every developed country in the world. And now a number of countries which are, you know, mid-level countries, China’s, Saudi Arabia’s the Kuwait’s, these countries can also help in provisions in, to provide assistance and support. Again, this is where, this is where diplomacy can be so useful too, when you have intergovernmental organizations, well, welcome in the NGOs, bring in the philanthropic entities, you know, bring in, you know, the Kuwait organization for development, the UAE or Qatar, they have a fair amount of wealth. I mean, that’s not, as to say they’re not already doing these kinds of things – they do. For example, in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia often provides a lot of medical assistance around the world, and particularly in Islamic countries. And the reason is because their people will come to Mecca, and they can spread disease not only to other pilgrims but to those who are living in Saudi Arabia. So it is in their interest to, you know, to help provision and supply against this kind of disease.
RL: Right. And you also mentioned a bit before about how the World Health Organization was at the center of these multilateral efforts regarding the vaccine. Can you speak a bit about their role specifically, and the work that they’re doing?
RD: You know, WHO and there are other entities like the Pan American Health Organization, which is just north, is headquartered just north of the US Department of State here in Washington. And you know, they have been around for a long time in one form or another. I guess WHO was probably after the Second World War but there were previous commissions and entities and treaties and organizations, out of which the WHO, WHO grew, and its mandate its purpose is to address these kinds of world health calamities, and they develop protocols and procedures and develop opposite, and so it was only natural for them to come up with this concept of the COVID “COVAX” or I’ve forgotten the name of the entity within the WHO that actually is intended to provide, but it needed more funding. It needed more support. And it was right at the height of the pandemic worldwide and in the United States that all of a sudden, our previous administration decided, oh, no, no, we’re gonna cut ties with this organization.
Audio clip of President Donald Trump: I’m instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the Coronavirus.
RD: Again, the last administration was thoroughly anti-multilateral in almost everything that it did. And you know, and it argued that China was actually working inside multilateral organizations to advance its own interests. Well, what is the purpose of diplomacy? It is to advance your own interests. And one of the elements of diplomacy is multilateral diplomacy. So we should be in there working our way in there, too. And the WTO could have spearheaded, perhaps, and less bluntly than the United States, to get into Wuhan to get in deeper into China, you know, had we played a more dynamic diplomatic role during that period instead of walking away from WHO. I am appalled at the behavior of the United States in particular for its many failures over this period, and the many unnecessary deaths and human suffering and economic displacement that has occurred throughout the world. A different approach by the United States and other countries too, it could have made a heck of a difference. And I hope, you know, somewhere along the line, we learn from this and prepare ourselves much better for it. Because again, the incidence of death, the “RO,” or whatever, and so forth, were relatively not as bad as it could have been. It could have been a lot worse. You could have had 2% deaths as we had in the, in the Spanish Flu of 1918. When certain elements of the last administration tried to refer to the COVID-19 as the China flu, I think back to the Spanish flu, and a number of epidemiologist historians have suggested that the real origin of the Spanish flu 1918 was the United States. Essentially doughboys brought it to Europe, from places like Kansas where they had been living with, it was a harsh winter, and they had been living together with their cattle, their pigs. And anyway, so how would we have felt if this were called the, you know, the USA flu, something like that, that ended up killing between 50 and 100 million people.
The need was to identify the disease and to collaborate scientifically in order to address using time-honored public health ways to clamp down on the disease. And the Chinese have actually been incredibly successful in their own country in limiting that. Other countries like Korea and Taiwan have also similarly done extremely well in that regard. Anyway, so I didn’t exactly follow the COVID-19 development of vaccines. I was, like many throughout the world, delighted when I learned that we had them. And I think that, that the Biden administration came into office, it started a program of inoculations that made a lot of sense. But political ideological resistance has been, has contaminated that, and led to a lot of loss of life. Just, just incredible. Historians will look back on this period with great dismay and wonder how, in the world, did we get things so wrong for such a country that provides the best medical care in the world? Yes, it’s a fractured system. But we do have very, very bright people, dedicated people, and we have almost an unlimited supply of funding for this kind of thing.
RL: Yeah, it’s really unfortunate – and even more so unfortunate because it was preventable, but just such a terrible tragedy. But on top of that, now we have this problem arising with variants combined with the low vaccination rates, compared to what our goals are. And that’s making everything just way worse, so to say. And so there’s this possibility that we’re just always going to be trying to keep up and running behind the virus, and we’re never going to be able to catch up with it fully. Can you speak on your opinions on that, your viewpoints of, you know, how that’s gonna turn out in the long run?
RD: Yeah, obviously, I use the expression that many people do: I’m not a scientist, and I can’t tell. And I think that, but the viruses do replicate. And as they replicate, they can change, and they can get worse or they can get less harmful. And I listened to commenaterists suggests that it couldn’t become eventually like the regular yearly influenza that that can be addressed by, you know, this a strain can be addressed in your annual flu shot, or it could even be as mild as a cold, or it could come back and be more virulent still. And who knows, we might end up giving vaccinations to children so they can go to school and, and vaccinating the entire population. Much like, you know, our elderly, to whom we don’t know who it will affect most going forward either. But, you know, older people like myself, we get shingles shots, we get pneumonia shots, in order to essentially lessen the impact if we contract a disease, or to prevent it altogether. But yes, it is still out there. There is a reservoir of this and there are many other potential pandemics out there too. And those are related to the environmental despoliation that is occurring, habitat loss and so forth, destruction of rainforests, you know, where are the bats going to go? The reservoirs of disease out there are, should be very worrisome. And again, we need these collaborative efforts, we need great surveillance out there. And we can’t let down our, let down our defenses at all going forward.
The naivete of doing so has been amply demonstrated already through these past 20-odd months. Massive dislocations and, and human tragedy and human sufferance and problems just even in the educational system, children who haven’t had, you know, in person schooling in years, and university students as well had the benefit of in-person learning. So I think it’s just this period will be considered a true tragedy and hopefully there will be lessons learned and, and hopefully the lessons learned will be applied not just to the health sector, but also to the environmental sector and the poverty sector and other things. These are all elements, you know, that lead to more grievous problems down the road. I can continue on that, on that. But maybe that’s a subject for another, another discussion.
RL: Yeah, I mean, in terms of this interview, I went through all of my questions and I really appreciate all your insight. Thank you so much for chatting with me about all of this.
RD: You’re very welcome, Ms. Lotfi. Thank you very much.
Producer and Host: Roya Lotfi
Guest: Robert Dry, Adjunct Professor at NYU
Audio clips (in order):
Christina Macfarlane for CNN, January 22 2020.
David Muir for ABC News, March 11 2020.
Anja Kueppers-McKinnon for DW News, January 1 2022.
Kathy Park for NBC News, November 21 2020.
Karl Stefanovic for 9 News Australia, November 30 2020.
Keith Jones for NBC10 Philadelphia, October 28 2021.
President Donald Trump in the White House Briefing Room, September 16 2020.
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield testifying on Capitol Hill, September 16 2020.
Nicholas Watt on BBC News, May 5 2021.
President Donald Trump at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, April 14 2020.
Image Credit: Stat News 2022, Mike Reddy