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