Global Health Enhances National Security

November 14, 2012 By Zach Silberman

Global health is not often thought of as a national security issue, but development professionals and military leaders have been coming together in the belief the two are “closely tied together.”  Preventing the spread of infectious disease and promoting global health are increasingly seen as ways to promote a country’s stability without using military force. Demonstrating compassion for the neediest in the world, it seems, can also make us safer at home.

Strengthening global health helps prevent potential threats to national security by ensuring stability in the developing world.  As Rear Admiral Thomas Cullison, USN (Ret.) has said,  global health engagement abroad can “deny a base to those who would like to see countries stay unstable; they will help develop close relationships—both military and civilian—between countries and the United States; and they will create friends out of what could potentially have become enemies.”

The nexus of global health and security was the focus of a recent report, Global Health as a Bridge to Security, chaired by former U.S. Central Command commander Admiral William J. Fallon, USN (Ret.) for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In addition to interviews with retired U.S. military leaders, defense and health officials, policymakers like USAID Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg added that global health has a significant impact on U.S. national security because “when you are involved in peace processes and trying to bring warring parties together, for instance, health is often a ‘soft’ issue that can be used to draw people together and seek consensus.”

Programs like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) not only treats disease but works with countries to build their own health systems, making them “unlikely to suffer from political instability due to large numbers of HIV/AIDS deaths and the diversion of massive government resources to those suffering from AIDS,” according to Ambassador John E. Lange, former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana and deputy Global AIDS Coordinator under President George W. Bush.

Military leaders have been among the strongest voices in recognizing that global health has a positive impact on stability abroad.  “On a very basic level, we recognize that the health of a country is closely linked to its people’s prosperity, productivity, and economic well-being. All these things are critical to a country’s stability,” according to former U.S. Pacific Command Commander Admiral Thomas Fargo, USN (Ret.).

Enhancing security through global health efforts, however, does not require a military solution.  As Admiral Fallon noted, “The military can get a lot done very quickly and have a near-term effect on a particularly critical pop-up situation. But the long-term improvement of public health requires something else. An infrastructure and a network of support within the country of interest must be built, and technology must be transferred into people’s hands in an affordable and sustainable way.” Bringing together American compassion and security demonstrates the impact of smart power in development.