Arab: Foreign Policy in a Post-COVID-19 World
The pandemic has proven that the United States should replace its reliance on military intervention with a commitment to humanitarian aid.
This column is featured in the special spring 2021 issue.
President Joe Biden’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan provides the United States with an opportunity to reflect on the costs and benefits of military intervention. Like I argued in Dartmouth last month, despite spending over $ 2 trillion, the United States failed to bring peace to Afghanistan. After 20 years of military intervention, the Taliban insurgency that we have tried to defeat still controls or challenges half the nation. So if Afghanistan has proven the ineffectiveness of military intervention, how should the United States conduct its foreign policy instead? The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the need for a special alternative: The United States should replace its reliance on military intervention with a more humanitarian approach centered on a commitment to support public health programs around the world.
Public health promotion is an inexpensive and highly effective method of saving lives – a method that does not require occupation. Almost a decade before the pandemic hit, government professor Benjamin Valentino advocated for this approach in his Foreign Affairs article, “The real costs of humanitarian intervention”. He points out that vaccine-preventable diseases claim about two million lives per year. As of this week, the death toll from COVID-19 is approaching 3.2 million – a figure four times higher than the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Pakistan combined. By investing in immunization in developing countries – alongside health education, disaster relief, bed nets, and other programs – the United States can save many more lives with much less money. . We must accept that Washington does not have unlimited resources and commit to the most effective rescue strategy: one focused on humanitarian assistance rather than endless and ineffective military intervention.
Uganda offers a compelling case study of this approach. In partnership with the United States and its global partners, the Ugandan government invested around $ 18 million in its public health programs before the onset of the pandemic. Learning from their experience with the Ebola virus in 2013, Ugandan officials have trained more than 10,000 first responders, drafted social distancing protocols, and installed monitoring infrastructure, such as thermometers, in public places. Although these measures were not specifically designed for COVID-19, they have still proven to be very effective in its containment. As a result, while most of the world has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, Uganda has fared relatively well. With around 42,000 cases to date, the country has faced one of the lowest infection rates in all of Africa. This remarkable achievement led the representative of the World Health Organization in Uganda, Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam, to proclaim that “COVID-19 has found a preparedness and response system ready and well prepared” in Uganda. Had the United States provided similar humanitarian assistance to other countries before the pandemic, COVID-19 may have claimed far fewer lives in developing countries.
Beyond its moral obligations, the United States stands to reap significant financial benefits from a humanitarian approach, as overseas investments could avoid the costs of future pandemics at home. In an increasingly interconnected world, a virus can originate and spread to any country in the world. So when the United States invests in the public health of developing countries, it also invests in its own public health. An investment in global health could have saved the United States a lot of money – and lives – over the past year. A team of Harvard economists has estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic – assuming it ends by next fall – will cost the country around $ 16 trillion. This cost could have been avoided with better preparation, since a relatively small investment of a few billion dollars a few years ago could have saved trillions today.
Historically, military intervention has almost always failed as a means of promoting global welfare. In the past few decades alone, the United States has been implicated in catastrophic operations in the Middle East and North Africa. He invaded Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda, overthrew the Baath regime in Iraq and carried out countless airstrikes against the forces of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. While, to be sure, these operations can be considered successful from a military point of view, they failed in the larger mission of facilitating peace and cooperation abroad. Gaddafi’s withdrawal, for example, has led to a struggle between competing governments; that is, the situation in Libya has worsened due to US and NATO interference. And, of course, Afghanistan and Iraq offer similar case studies. After fulfilling its military objectives in those countries, the United States neglected to provide humanitarian assistance to them in its recovery efforts. As might be expected, this was not well received by the international community.
Without a humanitarian approach to save its tarnished international image, the United States risks ceding leadership to China and Russia. After four years of former President Donald Trump – who at one point had a lower global trust rating than Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping – the Biden administration may be stepping up its public relations. The military intervention has been unpopular within the international community, as the United States has built a reputation for solving its problems through violence, and its current mismanagement of the pandemic has not improved the situation. The country’s poor international perception has stifled cooperation with our regional partners, who have come to see the United States in a less than ideal light. Meanwhile, Russia and China are fighting to win the hearts and minds of developing countries: China has sold more than half a billion doses of its Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines and donated them to low-income country, while Russia has sold millions of doses of its vaccines. Sputnik V shot at a reduced price. If the Biden administration deploys medics instead of soldiers, the United States could be seen as a force for good in the world.
Where is the United States in all of this? More or less absent. Despite the fact that many clinics across the country are reporting an increase in unfilled appointments, the Biden administration only recently announced plans to give doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The first batch is expected to ship in the next few months – too little, too late compared to the programs being carried out by China and Russia. The United States should have played an active role in the global effort to curb the pandemic as a central aspect of its foreign policy, rather than treating it as an afterthought.
Military withdrawal does not mean an irrevocable decline in that country’s global position – in fact, it can have the opposite effect. If the United States adopts a foreign policy focused on humanitarian aid, it can be seen as an independent world leader in its military deployments. Hopefully the pandemic will make our citizens realize that the health risks are just as serious – or perhaps worse than – the risks posed by violent conflict. If the Biden administration can invest in the future of global health, it can prove to the world that the United States is not only an economic and military leader, but also a moral leader. This is preferable to the usual pitfalls of military intervention: indefinite occupation in Afghanistan, regime change in Iraq, ineffective operations in Libya. The COVID-19 pandemic has put our foreign policy to the test, but on the bright side, we may finally have the opportunity to reshape it around a humanitarian mission – in support of the developing world and our partners, and in support of ourselves.