United States Global Health Diplomacy At Risk


SEATTLE — In January 2019, ranking members across U.S. national security departments presented a collective assessment of the greatest threats to the nation’s defense. In addition to nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, Russian interference in U.S. politics and instability in Venezuela, the assessment also cited U.S. isolationism. Specifically, the report recognized isolationism in response to global health crises and the consequent divestment from global health diplomacy as a threat that had been widely underestimated. 

Global Health Diplomacy

The World Health Organization recognizes Global Health Diplomacy as an interdisciplinary field that combines public health, economics and law. The goal of Global Health Diplomacy is for nations to negotiate the data to manage a global health policy. One specific goal of the Global Health Diplomacy unit is to support collective action among Member States to tackle pressing threats to the health and well-being of the world’s peoples. Collective action requires transparent collaboration between nation states on a level playing field; in more recent times, the world has observed the opposite.

The greatest example of this is the U.S.’s proposed withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Although the exit is a four-year process and the government is still abiding by the terms of the agreement, the motivation behind leaving – to put America first and prioritize American jobs – is demonstrative of the Trump Administration’s push for American isolationism, masked by hyper-nationalism.

Indonesia Paving the Way

But, while the Trump administration is pushing for a more American-centric agenda, emerging economies are seeing the benefit in investing in global health diplomacy. Indonesia, for example, has shown interest in managing global health governance in Southeast Asia. Just last year, the country hosted the Global Health Security Agenda, and was able to involve the former president in co-chairing the U.N. Secretary General’s Post-2015 Development Agenda; health was one of the enumerated priorities.

As the largest economy in the region, Indonesia is in the prime location and developmental stage to pursue routes to influence. Beyond the region, it is seen as a quickly emerging market, which, when coupled with its promotion of Indo-Pacific cooperation, has the potential to become a world leader in addressing transnational health issues. This is in contrast to its state-centered approach to health in 2005 when the government refused to provide the WHO with samples of the H5N1 (avian influenza) virus for vaccine development.

Why Invest in Global Health?

The motive for investment in global health is to stage the global health agenda, primarily for the benefit of a country’s own populations as well as its allied nations. The perfect example of this is China because it has demonstrated its abilities to influence the agenda through collaborative efforts, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative. China continues to pursue its ambitions to incorporate global health into its foreign policy. Both of the aforementioned projects will spread Chinese influence into West Asia, Africa and Europe through a series of infrastructure building projects.

The movement of goods and people along these rails, roads and ports has the potential to facilitate the movement of diseases as well, but the Chinese government has identified four factors to target to curb the threats: public health, policy research, hospital alliance and the health industry. While no specific strategy exists, the government will be investing more in health in its trade partners, specifically in Africa, with assistance from global partners such as the U.K.’s DFID and American juggernauts, such as Harvard University and Johns Hopkins. While motivated by the potential of increasing the power of its own trade economy, the Chinese government has fully embraced global health diplomacy as a means of extending its influence.

While the United States continues its retreat to isolationism, other members of the global community have demonstrated success in their efforts to become involved in strategies of global health diplomacy. Moving forward, it is crucial that Indonesia and China, like other emerging markets, invest more in diplomacy. This strategy is openly embraced in developing nations, as it benefits their own economies, in addition to their health systems.

– Tarek Meah
Photo: Flickr


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