In country after country, SARS-CoV-2 devastated economies, sparked massive social unrest, and upended political careers. Politicians1 should take heed: unchecked infectious disease has grim implications for national stability and therefore security, and a leader’s own political fate. Public health leaders and politicians can seize this moment to reinvigorate global cooperation on pandemic response protocols. Expert-based responses yield better outcomes, which promote stability and ensure political survival. Governments should bring infectious disease planning into the national security conversations and budgets, and consider creating a National Office of Warnings to forecast crises. The US and China should also consider founding a committee of National Envoys for Catastrophe Prevention (NECP) as a channel to promote international cooperation on global threats.
“Complexity Mismatch,” Nationalism and Non-Virtuous Decision Making
Stopping a highly contagious pathogen immediately -- before the momentum of exponential growth kicks in -- is sine qua non to prevent another pandemic; after the first early days, a pathogen’s spread is nearly invulnerable. Could today’s pandemic have been prevented if China was not pitted in confrontation with the US over policy and science? Could disease spread in the United States have been dulled if politics and “complexity mismatch” didn’t win out over science? Almost certainly.
Public health experts regularly warn policy makers that international transparency and early cooperation are critical to prevent the spread of deadly diseases. But, many policy makers respond by running their own personal political calculus, and weighing the imminence and severity of the national security threat at hand against the political costs of preventative action. Usually this calculus is subject to “complexity mismatch2,” where decision makers selected in a sound-bite-world lack the expertise to understand underlying data forming the basis of the threat. This mismatch causes many politicians to overlook key insights and make poor decisions. The devastation of SARS-CoV-2 clearly demonstrates the costs humanity pays when leaders ignore experts' calls, are overwhelmed by complexity, and prioritize nationalistic (or even personal political) interest above the value of international transparency and cooperation.
Nationalist impulses and personal political ambitions are forever tempting, but the past year demonstrates how short-term decision-making results in grim outcomes for nations and politicians. A convincing argument is made that President Trump’s poor results throughout the pandemic led to his 2020 presidential election loss.
Last week’s G7 summit in Cornwall displayed promising unity among the world leaders in attendance, but more work and coordination to prevent the next disaster must be done now, before the harrowing lessons of the last eighteen months are (quickly) forgotten.
NECP and National Offices of Warnings
Creating political “room,” domestically and internationally, to cooperate with adversary nations is not a task amateur (or nationalist) leadership teams do well. American foreign policy is at its best when it confronts and competes with adversary nations, but just as quickly cooperates with them when it is in our interest. US administrations staffed with the most veteran teams tend to be the only ones who effectively incorporate this cooperative element into rivalrous relationships. An initial assessment of the Biden administration and its plans should give confidence that such an opportunity now exists.
China and the US can show cooperation is possible even as they confront each other over this pandemic’s origins. They should announce they are founding members of a committee of National Envoys for Catastrophe Prevention (NECP) to forecast, assess, and consider responses to shared global threats. Initial cooperation could focus on a universal issue, perhaps something easier and relevant like BL4 lab safety regulations, or a commitment to an improved infectious disease surveillance network. Later, NECP could focus on more complex issues like genetic engineering or the control risk of artificial “super” intelligence. Individual nations should also build their own National Office of Warnings which would domestically complement the work of the NECP. (More on an Office of Warnings below). A dedicated channel to share risk information, even if it served no other purpose, could bring profound value.
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and many nations’ abysmal response, shows it’s past time for governments to create a new relationship with the concept of risk. The future can be susceptible to research if we empower small apolitical teams to listen, study and warn. President Biden, and other heads of state should create their own, small National Office of Warning that reports to the White House National Security Advisor or national equivalent. Such an office should be nimble and very good at listening. It would sift through the vast interagency, listen to allies, universities, and a global network of experts, in order to create a “sentinel intelligence network” that scans for potential catastrophic scenarios and warns the national security apparatus.
Dag Hammarskjöld said that the United Nations "was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell." Efforts to forecast catastrophe and to share and assess risk information and warnings are best judged in this framing, for even a small likelihood of preventing or mitigating a high consequence catastrophe is worth this small effort.
Place Disease Outbreaks Squarely in the National Security Realm
While some nations are predisposed to multilateral solutions, the U.S., China, and Russia have often seen multilateralism only as a means to achieve unilateral goals, and therefore a tool other leaders may use to impinge on their sovereignty (see “Black Helicopters”). Still, examples abound where rivalrous states cooperated to successfully battle infectious diseases.
In 1966, at the height of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union teamed up to eradicate smallpox, an issue which American CDC leaders3 had recognized as a top priority also for the Soviet Union, and therefore a viable area for collaboration. More recently in Yemen, warring factions (and their sponsor states) have been cooperating to allow UNICEF vaccinators to reach children in remote locations. Today, leaders must act on the lessons of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and redesign their relationship with risk, warning, and cooperation.4
Similar to multilateral counterterrorism intelligence cooperation (which grew immensely after the 9/11 attacks), public health intelligence gathering and information sharing is crucial for crisis prevention and early containment of public health crises. Indeed, the multilateral disease surveillance and information system proved highly effective against SARS, MERS and Ebola. Without global transparency and adequate attention to unforeseen events, the US will again find itself flat footed as the number of infectious diseases and public health crises increase. This was the case with SARS-CoV-2, where Chinese regional and national authorities hesitated for a full two weeks to report their outbreak, allowing the virus to spread across the globe.5
Domestically and internationally, public health threats receive more attention (read: political backing and real dollar funding) when the national security apparatus provides leadership. In 1996, the Clinton administration released NSTC-7, the first U.S. government-wide infectious disease and pandemic response plan, and a marked elevation of disease policy leadership to the White House National Security Council from traditional health agencies. NSTC-7 began as a National Security Council-led Presidential Decision Directive born out of President Clinton’s concerns about the national security risks of biological weapons and a terrifying “new” disease in Zaire — Ebola. By tasking federal agencies, including the Pentagon, with incorporating global surveillance and response to emerging infectious disease threats, NSTC-7 brought great new energy to the “soft world” of American disease response and international cooperation. It also led to a massive increase in domestic preparedness funding. This rebranding of disease policy as an issue of national security was not merely symbolic: the upgraded status of disease response allowed the Clinton Administration to incorporate international disease surveillance and information sharing into its national defense strategy. NSTC-7 stated,
“The policy directs the United States government to work with other nations and international organizations to establish a global infectious disease surveillance and response system, based on regional hubs and linked by modern communications technologies. It also expands designated federal agency missions and mandates in order to ensure that they have the authority, emergency procurement powers and resources to respond to worldwide disease outbreaks that have the potential to impact the United States.”6 This was a huge step in a global climate that was “characterized by denial, underestimation, and over-simplification.”7
At the start of the new millennium, the US brought this domestic policy shift of treating infectious disease as a security threat to the UN Security Council. On July 17, 2000, as the first resolution of the new millennium, the UN Security Council’s 16 members recognized HIV-AIDS posed a threat to international peace and security. UN Security Council Resolution 1308, authored and pushed by the US, warned “The HIV-AIDS pandemic, if unchecked, may pose a risk to stability and security.”8 Although similar declarations had previously been made in the ECOSOC, UNICEF, UNDP and other organs, bringing the HIV-AIDS discussion into UNSC and labelling disease as a threat to global security, ushered in a new level of global resolve and commitment to the fight, just as NTSC-7 did for the US Government four years prior.
Resolution 1308 marked the first time a health-related issue was recognized as a security matter on a global stage,9 expanding the definition of stability and security to include public health issues. The words of Portugal’s foreign minister Paulo Portas a decade after Resolution 1308 reflected this reality: “Integrating the fight against pandemics into the peacebuilding strategies of post-conflict countries is an essential measure to avoid jeopardizing the gains made in the consolidation of peace.”10 While this success indicates an impressive level of international cooperation, the move to include global health under the umbrella of global security was not without resistance. In 2000, Russia and China declined to comment on the adoption of Res. 1308, and many African nations (off the record) resented that a problem within their borders was being presented as a threat to global stability.11
Similarly, the Ebola crisis engendered a UNSC session dedicated to “Peace and Security in Africa,” marking the Council’s first “emergency meeting” on a health crisis. The emergency meeting resulted in Resolution 2177 which determined “the Ebola outbreak in Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security.”12 It also received the largest number of co-sponsors of any resolution adopted by the UNSC.
The eventual success of these groundbreaking resolutions was largely the result of skillful diplomacy from those who correctly understood the danger posed by public health crises like pandemics or epidemics and the key role national security budgets could play financing solutions. Highly regarded and influential policy leaders such as Richard Holbrooke, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and pushed for Resolution 1308, and Secretary General Kofi Annan, who proposed the Global Fund for HIV-AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, were able to leverage their clout to forge significant multilateral progress.13 To fight HIV/AIDS, Annan “called for a war chest of $7-10 billion” for the Global Fund, acknowledging the need for a larger and more expensive global initiative to counter infectious disease in the least developed countries.14
In 2004, US President George W. Bush affirmed this need when his office launched the Millennium Development Corporation (MDC), a US government foreign aid agency committed to spurring growth and reducing poverty through targeted investment. The battle against HIV/AIDS was central to this mission: the MDC allocated funds to systems and infrastructure needed to scale up HIV counseling, testing, and antiretroviral treatment15. When domestic support for MDC funding was flagging, the agency aligned their foreign aid objectives with national security concerns.
Addressing the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2005, MDC CEO Paul Applegarth declared that “MCC and international development assistance are not only about bringing the best of America to our relationship with the world, but as a key component of U.S. national security, as the 9/11 Commission Report recommends: ‘A comprehensive US strategy to counter terrorism should include economic policies that encourage development, more open societies, and opportunities for people to improve the lives of their families and to enhance prospects for their children’s future.’”16
“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.” - E.O. Wilson
The frequency of catastrophes and epidemics is likely to increase. If pre SARS-CoV-2 near misses like SARS, MERS and H5N1 are any indication, pandemics that were once-a-century could come once-a-generation; climate crises that were once-a-generation are now once-a-decade, and threats emanating from fields politicians usually find opaque such as genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and cyber, are now daily, if not hourly occurrences17.
We must re-envision the future not in terms of two, four, and six-year election cycles, but as a field like any other, susceptible to research and analysis, forecasting, and warning. Individual governments ought to assign these tasks to a non-political, trained and specialized office, such as a National Office of Warnings. Likewise, the US and the PRC should jointly launch a committee of National Envoys for Catastrophe Prevention (NECP) to share forecasts, insights and plans, and to serve as a dedicated channel to push cooperation on multinational threats.
The hard work of disease forecasting, of information sharing, of multilateral cooperation and releasing massive budgets to respond to disease will be eased by ensuring much of the infectious disease portfolio is considered in the national security realms and budgets, and politicians understand the selfish reasons they should listen to health experts and cooperate with rivalrous nations.
RP Eddy is the CEO of Ergo. Previously, he served at the White House National Security Council and as a senior US diplomat. He was Chief of Staff to US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, Senior Adviser to Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, and Senior Policy Officer to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, where he served as an architect of the Global Fund to Prevent AIDS, TB, and Malaria. R.P. was a Managing Director at the Gerson Lehrman Group and a Team Leader at the Monitor Group.
The World Economic Forum honored him as a “Global Leader for Tomorrow.” He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and was an associate at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. R.P. is co-author, with Richard Clarke, of the best-selling and award winning, “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.” R.P. has a B.Sc. in Neuroscience from Brown University.