May 28, 2021
When you know you have the winning poker hand on an end-of-the-night pot… or you fill your boots with a stock that’s going to the moon… or you have a perfect soft-lob setup for a match-winning overhead smash… that’s what’s known as a “fat pitch,” a setup for an easy homerun, pretty much a sure thing.
It’s a gift to have the patience to wait for the fat pitch – and also the smarts to recognize it, and the guts to go for it.
Well, right now, America is staring at a geopolitical fat pitch, one so big it’s as rare as a red diamond, a white peacock, or an honest politician… It’s obvious, compelling, would save millions of lives, and yields an extraordinary geopolitical return.
On top of that, it’s an incredible investment… With an estimated annual return of 266% over four years (that’s enough to turn $10,000 into $1.8 million… no, not a typo), while improving the health of billions of fellow human beings.
The last time Uncle Sam stared down a pitch so plump and swung hard, the result was half a century of American economic, military, and geopolitical dominance on the world stage… and an absolutely critical friend in its corner for generations.
Another reason to swing: America’s biggest geopolitical rival, China, is swinging hard, right now. And there isn’t space for two at the plate.
What America should do now… vaccinate the world.
The Last Pitch That Was This Fat
On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall – hero of World War II as the “organizer of victory,” in the words of Winston Churchill – in a seminal speech told Americans to “face up to the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country.”
In the broken wake of World War II – with 15 million to 20 million dead in Europe alone – the spirit, economies, infrastructure, and politics of the continent were shattered. The spoils of war were ash and bones, hopelessness and misery, not – as you might think from the movies – ticker-tape parades and Champagne and caviar.
In the face of such the utter bleakness of post-war Europe, Marshall called on American foreign policy to coalesce “against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos”… without regard for country or political doctrine.
He pretty much said, “Swing at this fat pitch to resurrect Europe.” And America did.
The muscular – epochal, heroic, historic – American response to Western Europe’s devastation was the Marshall Plan (or, as its mother called it when she was angry, the European Recovery Program). The largest foreign-assistance program ever – $13.8 billion at the time, or $145 billion in today’s dollars – the Marshall Plan resurrected Western Europe through supporting agriculture and industrial production, expanding trade, and re-establishing financial stability.
Over the next 25 years, the region experienced the strongest economic growth in its history, at least partly thanks to the Marshall Plan.
The recovery of Western Europe was critical to heading off what Foreign Affairs, in a 50th-anniversary celebration of the program, described as the danger of a “leftward turn in European politics, from the pervasive socialist influence throughout Europe to the heavy communist inroads in France and Italy.”
Though it’s difficult to imagine now, after the end of the war, Western Europe (and the U.K.) was on the brink of widespread societal and economic collapse – with the real possibility of an ensuing vast expansion of Soviet influence. Without the Marshall Plan, Western Europeans could have within a few years been shooting vodka and humming socialist anthem The Internationale… rather than quaffing Budweiser (not the Czech version, that is) and humming the Stars and Stripes.
The Marshall Plan “won the peace,” as Foreign Affairs explained…
The Marshall Plan served as the economic and political foundation for the Western alliance that waged the Cold War. It allowed the United States gradually to engage itself in the bipolar confrontation by first committing money, not blood.
The Marshall Plan solidified the U.S. as Western Europe’s best friend forever (or “BFF,” as the kids say). The alliance has been strained at times – like any long-term relationship, it’s been a journey. But not even former President Donald Trump could break up the bromance.
Cementing key allies for decades… planting the seeds of a resurgent Europe, which would become a big market for American goods… establishing America as the dominant economic and military superpower… as well as dramatically improving the lives of hundreds of millions of Europeans: Not a bad return for America on the Marshall Plan.
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That Sounds Like… Wait, Don’t Tell Me…
The setup to the Marshall Plan sounds vaguely familiar, no?… Entire economies and societies in complete disarray and on the verge of collapse, from a ravaging, deadly enemy… the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people at risk… one would-be superpower lurking (more on that in a moment)… Uncle Sam in a position to ride to the rescue like a white-hatted-cowboy on a white horse.
In the United States, the pandemic is – or, at least, feels – over. Face masks, confusing CDC rules aside, are optional. The bum rush on hand sanitizer a year ago has turned into glut. On Amazon right now, it sells for less than half the price of Coca-Cola’s Zero Sugar Cherry Vanilla soda. And good luck getting a rental at the Outer Banks for July – or even a table at the local Applebee’s – as cooped-up Americans clamber to get out again.
Even though only 40% of Americans are fully vaccinated, COVID-19 jabs are as hard to give away as a dirty diaper. People on the fence can get a joint (New York), a lottery ticket (Ohio), a free glazed doughnut (Krispy Kreme), a fishing and hunting license (L.L. Bean), or free flights for a year (United Airlines)… if they only deliver a willing arm. And still, America is swimming in surplus COVID-19 shots.
In other words… nearly 600,000 (and counting) dead Americans later, the country has – at least in some ways – “won” the pandemic. And now it’s in a great position to win the peace, George Marshall-style.
An Incredible Return
Getting more doses in more arms – around the world – is the humane thing to do… and it also makes compelling economic sense, as the Economist explains…
The world cannot rest while people perish for want of a jab costing as little as $4 for a two-dose course. It is hard to think of a better use of resources than vaccination. Economists’ central estimate for the direct value of a course is $2,900 – if you include factors like long COVID and the effect of impaired education, the total is much bigger.
Multinational lender International Monetary Fund (“IMF”) posits that a program to inoculate 40% of the global population (versus 5% now) by the end of the year, and 60% by the first half of next year – including widespread testing and tracing – would cost around $50 billion.
The return on that investment – in terms of additional economic growth globally – by 2025 would amount to $9 trillion. That’s a return on investment of 266% per year.
Of course, there are probably some sunny projections in those figures. But let’s say it costs three times as much… and delivers only half the forecast economic growth. That’s still a return of 134% per year.
But that’s only part of the picture, as the returns would be a lot more than just saving lives and economics.
‘Soft Power’ and COVID-19
The Marshall Plan was – along with all of its other benefits – a master stroke of “soft power.”
That’s the ability of a country to influence – and convert the preferences and behavior of – countries, companies, and communities by using attraction or persuasion… rather than force or coercion. Soft power is winning hearts and minds through leadership, values, and weapons of mass influence.
The world’s “only soft power superpower,” as marketing consultancy Brand Finance dubbed the U.S., projects the ideals and values of independence, diversity, generosity, opportunity, and equality – through the country’s trade relationships, how the government treats its friends and enemies, and how it does business… as well as its universities, culture, and sports and entertainment.
Soft power is the flip side of – but a key complement to – the “hard power” of bullets and bombs. And the most durable empires over time deploy both.
And helping out countries around the world that need COVID-19 assistance is the biggest, fattest soft pitch for America since, well, the Marshall Plan.
As Scott Galloway, a New York University marketing professor, investor, author, and gadfly recently wrote…
“The opportunity is clear – for the United States to demonstrate the might of American capitalism and character. It’s time for a second Marshall Plan, a global investment in the fight against COVID-19 with the world’s premier health care professionals and superior vaccines… this would reflect both altruism and enlightened self-interest… Pandemic relief presents an opportunity to re-establish America’s historic role as the “leader of the free world.”
And after the beating that America’s status has taken over the past four years, vaccinating the world would get America back to the head of the geopolitical table in a hurry.
And more than that: How could America benefit – in terms of friendship, leverage, positioning – with the governments (and, more importantly, the people) who it vaccinates? If the post-Marshall Plan relationship between the U.S. and Western Europe is any gauge, it could be epochal… the sort of thing that defines generations.
Friends That America Needs
And the U.S. would be helping countries that matter – and are in serious trouble.
Right now the country in most desperate need of “winning” is India, as I wrote recently, where the devastation wreaked by the coronavirus is breaking all records.
This week, a New York Times analysis suggested that the most likely actual COVID-19 death toll in India is between two and five times – or more – the official body count of 300,000. (By comparison, around 600,000 Americans have died of the virus.)
Just over 3% of Indians have been fully vaccinated, via a rollout that “favours the wealthy and tech-savvy,” according to the Financial Times… while “many [free] government vaccination centres… are shut down because of lack of supply.”
“Unless vaccine supplies reach poorer countries, the tragic scenes now unfolding in India risk being repeated elsewhere. Millions more will die,” warned the Economist recently.
(This decade, India will overtake China as the world’s biggest country by population. It’s currently the world’s fifth-biggest economy. In the Russia-China-India triad, India is the wild card… In a neighborhood where the United States could use a good, permanent, do-or-die ally, India is a country you want on your side.)
In Brazil, with close to half a million deaths – the second-highest official death toll of all countries – COVID-19 denialist President Jair Bolsonaro last weekend led a mask-free motorcycle rally… while upwards of 2,000 Brazilians are dying every day from the virus.
(Brazil, with around two-thirds the population of the U.S., is Latin America’s biggest country and most important economy by a long shot – with a larger GDP than Mexico – No. 2 – and Argentina – No. 3 – put together. Brazil trades three times more with China – which is thirsty for Brazil’s copious natural resources, from iron ore to tin to beef – than the U.S.)
Another part of the world with lousy health care, where people live in very close proximity to each other, is Africa – which has been the COVID-19 dog that hasn’t barked.
As the Financial Times recently warned, “The crisis in India… has provided proof… of what could happen in Africa if vaccination campaigns are not rapidly accelerated and the virus is allowed to spread and mutate.”
(The “sleeping continent” won’t be quiet forever. By the turn of the century, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to triple, to around 3 billion… which by then will be more than one-third of total global population. Africa will be at the center of the radar. And in the meantime, investment flows into Africa from China have been many multiples of investment levels from the U.S.)
Then there’s southeast Asia, home to around 650 million people (that’s nearly twice the population of the U.S.), which has – so far – been mostly spared from the devastation of COVID-19.
But the final chapter hasn’t been written… After all, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as recently as late January was crowing about how India had solved its pandemic problem – before India’s toll hit 400,000 official new cases a day. And recently Malaysia and Vietnam have posted new highs in total cases (albeit still from a low base). Vaccination rollouts in the region are slow – just 1.4% of the population in Thailand is fully vaccinated, 3.7% in Indonesia, and 0.9% in the Philippines.
(Southeast Asia, of course, is the hotbed of the “Pacific Century”… home of the world’s fast-growing and most dynamic economies. It’s also China’s backyard, a fact that China is constantly reminding the rest of the world… where American influence is widely seen as steadily waning.)
The longer COVID-19 hangs around, the more people who are infected around the world, and the more virus variants will evolve. That increases the chances that a biologically updated version – worse than the current slate of variants from South Africa, India, the U.K., and elsewhere – will be able to penetrate the defenses offered by current vaccines.
And if that happens… slowly, and then all at once, there won’t be any more tables available at Applebee’s – because they’ll all be closed again, and we’ll all be baking sourdough and binging on Netflix as COVID-19: The Virus Part Deux hits.
China Is Already Swinging
China sees the opportunity of vaccinating the world… and is ahead of the U.S. in swinging at the fat pitch.
Right now, China is a soft-power klutz. Being the cradle of a global pandemic isn’t great for a national brand… and then lying about is soft power kryptonite. On a regular basis, China does tone-deaf things like (this happened in October 2019) banning the hugely popular National Basketball Association (“NBA”) from Chinese airwaves over a tweet by an American basketball executive in support of Hong Kong protestors.
And then of course there’s the fact that some of the values that China projects – authoritarianism, control, conformity, genocide – aren’t exactly soft-power friendly. They’re values that don’t enjoy broad appeal beyond the megalomaniacal, murderous dictator demographic.
A Pew Research Center poll in October found that the views of developed economies of China have grown more negative in recent years – with unfavorable ratings rising sharply in the previous year.
China doesn’t have a global currency (the U.S. dollar is a centerpiece of America’s soft power, though perhaps not forever) or Hollywood stars (quick, name a Chinese movie star…) or a language that 1.5 billion non-native speakers are trying to learn (that’s English).
But the country is a fast learner. It’s using technology to its advantage… Wildly popular video-sharing social media app TikTok is an example of how China’s technology can become a soft-power weapon.
And China’s Belt and Road Initiative (“BRI”) – through which it’s pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure and development projects to create a 21st-century Silk Road in roughly five dozen countries – is like a reimagined Marshall Plan on Communist Party of China steroids.
China is extending its influence via hard cash, a soft power that speaks in a loud voice. In 2020, total outbound (that is, into other countries) investment by China increased by 3% to $133 billion – while U.S. outbound investment fell by 29% to just $42 billion.
And now, China sees the soft-power fat pitch potential of saving hundreds of millions of lives with its vaccines – and gaining a “potent diplomatic calling card in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East,” Bloomberg says.
China has shipped about 265 million COVID-19 vaccine doses (with commitments of another 440 million) to dozens of countries. That’s more doses than all other would-be donor countries put together – and towers over a promise by the U.S. to deliver 80 million doses by late June. Covax, the global initiative to provide the vaccine to less-developed countries, has provided just 68 million dosages.
Sinovac, China’s jab, is less effective than others. But compared with the vaccine nothingburger of meager and unfulfilled promises from the U.S. and others, it’s mighty attractive.
China’s efforts are working. “Vaccine diplomacy is reaping soft-power dividends for the Chinese government and consolidating its relationship with BRI countries,” said Foreign Affairs in March. As an academic explained in late April on East Asia Forum, a policy discussion platform…
China’s advanced vaccine diplomacy stands in contrast to the ‘me first policies’ of the United States and the European Union… Just by showing up and helping plug gaps in the global supply of vaccines, China has gained ground in vaccine diplomacy… Vaccine diplomacy has helped increase China’s influence and enabled it to capitalize on new opportunities.
Not Easy, Cheap, or Fun… but Vital and History-Defining
Could the United States inoculate the world? On its own, probably not.
But it could try… and it could also marshal (… that word again…) the IMF and the will of the wealthy world to do so – and in so doing, undercut sneaky China… earn an unheard-of return on investment… improve and expand and deepen relationships with key countries and regions in a way that could reap geopolitical and economic benefits for generations – while saving millions of lives.
The Marshall Plan wasn’t quick or easy. But it was worth it. Vaccinating the world would be, too… So swing at the fat pitch, America.
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