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Pivotal Power

May 18, 2009
World powers must shift mindset to tackle flu, global threats

Delegates convene at the World Health Assembly in 2008. Photo: WHO

We live in interesting times, that’s for sure — so I am thrilled to be launching a blog with Worldfocus, an exceptional source for information about what is happening in the world beyond our shores.

A little background on me — I am a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank that John Podesta founded about five years ago. Last year, I co-authored a book called The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise. The changing nature of security and great power relationships continue to fascinate me.

These issues are playing out today as the World Health Organization (WHO) convenes public health officials from 192 countries, including U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, for its annual assembly in Geneva. The possible pandemic of swine flu makes this week’s gathering particularly timely.

The H1N1 virus is the third truly global crisis to hit Americans this year. 2009 opened with us in the throws of the largest global financial meltdown in our lifetimes. Global warming is nothing new, but its effects are becoming ever more apparent. Now the swine flu, still spreading rapidly, has taken the lives of six Americans.

This is perhaps the first time the United States faces three global disasters at once. While this trifecta is obviously brutal for Americans, it may accelerate a long-overdue shift in the American debate about how to think about national security.

Many policymakers, particularly of an older generation, are stuck on the view that the primary threat to America will come in the form of strong, rising powers bent on domination. Our historic battles with Germany and Japan in World War II and the Soviet Union during the long Cold War crystallized this premise and our whole national security infrastructure is built around it.

Technology, though, has changed national security, as it has everything else. Now, our national security policies need to focus on transnational forces like terrorists, proliferators, global warming, financial crises, poverty and viruses. These are the forces that are directly harming our population and sewing chaos around the world. Other strong powers could well pose a dire threat to America or its interests on a distant day, and we must be prepared. But at this moment, China, Russia and India — not to mention Europe and Japan — are caught along with us, and every other country, in these global tornadoes. The best way out is through collaboration and coordination with them. In this new era, strong nations will hang together or fail apart.

This paradigm shift impacts the way in which we conduct foreign policy, and we have a lot of catching up to do. Until very recently, simply the idea of treating climate change and viruses as national security threats was unusual, though they have the potential to affect the physical well-being of individual Americans today far more directly than, say, NATO expansion.

President Obama, who did not live the bulk of his professional life during the Cold War, is inclined toward this new approach, but his administration faces an uphill battle as it tries to implement it. Senator Susan Collins stripped funding for pandemic response that was in his original stimulus proposal. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s defense budget, which eliminates several Cold War weapons systems and increases support for counterinsurgency, is meeting resistance in Congress.

Moreover, inside the beltway, there is a decided lack of appreciation for, if not hostility and suspicion towards, what is a critical element for American security today — international rules and institutions like the WHO. While nations are the ultimate actors, the nodes of networks that connect them have to be smarter and faster than ever before in the face of these globe-circling threats.

While in need of reform and resources, multilateral organizations are today playing central roles in addressing each of the three crises. The WHO has distributed information about path of the virus, dolled out anti-viral drugs to countries in need and outlined appropriate steps for countries to take (not that they all listened, and pigs paid the price). Earlier in the year, the Group of 20 leaders pledged over a billion dollars to the International Monetary Fund, to continue bailing out countries hit by the global recession. The U.N. is sponsoring negotiations over a new climate treaty, without which the world will not be able to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

These organizations and others ensure that many nations pay their fair share to tackle global threats. Further, they help to set parameters for emerging powers. Their existence creates pressure on new pivotal powers like China to contribute to the global good. (Politics was the main factor in Beijing’s decision to allow Taiwan to join the World Health Assembly for the first time this year, but international scrutiny contributed).They develop deep expertise and help nations find areas where their interests overlap.

Americans, as a people, have long been more willing to cooperate with other nations, and through global institutions, than their leaders give them credit for. A 2004 poll found that 66 percent of Americans surveyed said the U.S. should address more problems through the United Nations, even if it means not getting our way as often. Yet in that same survey, only 9 percent of congressional staffers guessed correctly that a majority of Americans would hold that view. Those representatives assume, with some justification, that Americans don’t vote based on funding for pandemic disease or U.N. dues.

Perhaps, with the relentless barrage of global threats bearing down on them and the clear need for a global response, Americans will create the political room President Obama needs to make a long-needed transformation. If 2009 marks a decisive break point with outmoded foreign policy paradigms, then at least one blessing will have come of all the pain and anxiety.

– Nina Hachigian

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At the risk of being a bit too windy, I’d like to add that a metamarketplace is the strategy for universal resiliency as well as universal prosperity, and so the way to universal sustainable prosperity. Any closed system, such as the global marketplace, feeds on itself, and so eats itself alive. And as power within the global marketplace is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands, the system becomes more vulnerable, less resilient. We can have all the benefits of consolidation and all the resiliency of decentralization by having complementary local marketplaces everywhere that are strong enough to resist the exploitation of the global marketplace. By definition, the metamarketplace is the solution for the 21st Century, the way for the US and all nations to thrive.



And I don’t mean to imply that you are suggesting that the strong band together against the weak. In fact, I’m clear on understanding that you strongly believe that technological change means small nations can mount big threats and that you advocate that the strong band together (and not just the strong) to more effectively deter such threats. But the power of the “strong” is derived from the exploitation of the “weak” within our current system, so that any strategy that seeks to deter proliferation of conflict between these sides by consolidating power rather than resolving the underlying flaw must instead heighten the conflict. Indeed this is precisely why conflict deepens everywhere we engage our “enemies” this way, and why waging peace rather than waging war means strengthening of the weak through funding literacy, health, etc. When we empower the weakest, we create friends who are able to caretake the world we share; when we resist our “enemies” we harm our common home. Undoubtedly, there are examples of where the banding together of nations permits them to “fight most effectively”, but peace does not equal war. The enemies of great nations cannot destroy those nations without together destroying our shared home unless the great nations destroy themselves first by dedicating their power to resisting the weak, because the weak are the product of the conflict and so can never be eliminated through this “fight”. The choice is whether we relinquish or grip on power or watch the world destroyed trying to retain it. The metamarketplace ( is a solution because it is the revolution with no enemies, a world where every individual – the weakest of all powers – has a seat at the table.


Thanks for the comments, all, and keep them coming. Kevin–I did not mean to imply that strong nations would band together against weak ones, but that nations in general will need to band together, strong ones included–and with all the frictions that inevitably entails–to fight most effectively some of these forces that can harm all their citizens. Will they? Not always. But there are examples of where they do cooperate and are the better for it.




Forgive me…
but dead bodies (from human disease of greed, corruption, or even just plain murder etc.)
don’t think…
they are either buried or turned into ashes.

And since when has “Humanity”
ever acted like “One Big Family”??


You have:

Masters and Slaves.

(Have a little dish of Eugenics
with your fine dining while you dine
on that cuisine ready-made for the
Thoughtful Moment.)




Forget the poetry. Humanity will have to act as one big family to move forward. Vested and localized interest continue to fester human disease of greed, corruption, etc, but BACTERIA AND VIRUSES HAVE A WAY OF SHAKING SOME SENSE INTO OUR NARROW WAY OF THINKING. I is true, universalism is the only hope. Or struggles will make that clear. A pandemic does not stop at anyone ideology – it is truly, non-discriminatory.


From the main article:

“Moreover, inside the beltway, there is a decided lack of appreciation for, if not hostility and suspicion towards, what is a critical element for American security today — international rules and institutions like the WHO. While nations are the ultimate actors, the nodes of networks that connect them have to be smarter and faster than ever before in the face of these globe-circling threats”.

Focus of the Quoted Portion above:

“the nodes of networks that connect them have to be smarter and faster than ever before in the face of these globe-circling threats”.

A possible “midrashic” interpretation
of the Focus as combined with the Original Quote:

What if intelligence will come to act like a boomerang (an object which “circles up” into an atmosphere and back again like global-threats “circle out” and “around” and “into” (i.e. the idea involving the (medical?) circulation process of “smarter and faster”) which, once we “throw” it (whatever “it” may be, by interpretation) “out there”,
it (e.g. involving any Uknown Factor or Variable) will surely come back to “hit us” mightily?

The “smarter and faster” might find you (occasionally, but with what frequency and with what stability?): “geometrical points” (or, Idea Coordinations) on the various “networks” by which to guide your (“thought-missile”)
human-health-computer world-systems…
but will “mutations” of Fear (‘viruses’ = ‘thoughts of fear’ mutating from one worried “body” [or “organization”] to another), necessarily, need mere “speed” or require even simple (orthodox) “intelligence” to deal with “parallel layers” of (unorthodox) concerns…each “Plane Of Cconcern” operating (seemingly) only at its own level (according to the Laws Of Visibility) while being influenced by (and attempting to find) “coordinates”
(or, “points of nation conjunctions”) (somewhat geometrically) at other involved levels of challenges in the beginning modes of a
genesis-like project?

All this!
While keeping in mind what took place
in the Garden of Eden (if only as a story…
but, especially: if true…as a factual tale: allegorically and/or otherwise).



I could not agree more with your assessment. I too believe that the threats that we now face are largely transnational in nature. Coordination among nations to tackle these important issues are critical.

As you pointed out with the G20 and its contribution to the Internation Monetary Fund I was of the opinion that this ‘casting of a wider net’ to include more of the world’s larger economies should have been done much earlier in the financial crisis.

‘Secretary of War’ Gates’ recent replacement of Gen. David McKiernan with Lt. Gen Stanley McChrystal who has a strong Special Forces background who can better create a stonger counterinsurgency focus is to your point absolutely.

Much closer to home (NYC) we are seeing more transnational criminal organizations setting up shop from Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East.

I have begun ‘Seismic Shifts’ to bring together people and organizations who have an interest in our rapidly changing transnational world.

Alberto Suarez




You assert that strong nations must join together or fail separately. I have a different view.

In the first place, I reject your approach as mistakenly dividing the world into “us and them”, with the weak nations being “them”. That’s the kind of thinking that’s got us where we are now, as irresponsible exploitation of those unable to protect their human and natural resources has not only caused the weak to suffer but also failed to realize that political borders don’t align with natural systems.

Moreover, your solution doesn’t end the problem, it merely builds a shelter, and worse would use that shelter to consolidate the power of the parties generating the crises. I would hope that we begin at last to see that the fundamental problem is that our economic system punishes those who act responsibly, and that we realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, we can create a metamarketplace to protect the weak from this flaw in the global marketplace and so create sustainable prosperity everywhere.

Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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