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5 Foreign Policy Lessons from a Virus You Shouldn't Worry About Pt. 2

(This is a continuation from Wednesday's post.)

Lesson #3: America needs to focus less on America

Focusing on Ebola in America may actually cause more deaths, because it focuses attention where it actually shouldn’t be (America) rather than where it should (West Africa). Radiolab recently updated one of my favorite episodes of the show, “Patient Zero”, with an update on Ebola. (If you don’t listen to Radiolab, you should.) This line stuck out to me [emphasis mine]:

“I think the most important thing we should be doing is not letting the public health vs. civil liberties issues in the US distract us from West Africa. As the case count gets higher, it has more chances to mutate and therefore, more opportunities to adapt. So we need to end this outbreak in west Africa before this virus learns too much about us.” David Quammen (Min. 52:45)

Ebola could become more dangerous if it, ironically, becomes less dangerous. If the disease mutates in a way that allows more victims to live and live longer, it could become a pandemic by not burning out too quickly. To mutate in this way--the worst case scenario--the virus needs to infect many, many hosts. This outbreak, which has been brewing since December of last year, could have been stopped early on. Since it hasn’t, Ebola has had more opportunities to become more dangerous.

But the news media is focused on Ebola in America rather than helping people in Africa, where the real threat of a pandemic looms. (Though again, I’m not afraid.)

Lesson #4: We shouldn’t use the military.

Of course, when the U.S. finally did decided to respond to West Africa, who did we send? The military! With tents! While we appreciate a U.S. response to the Ebola epidemic, it boggles our minds that the U.S. never has a non-military option. USAID couldn’t have supported this mission? Or someone else in the State Department? And of course, the Pentagon put the price tag at a starting point of $750 million dollars.

America consistently believes that the military can solve all the world’s problems, so we fund the Pentagon to the near exclusion of any other department. This means, in times of crisis, we only have the military. This is probably the wrong response to many problems and it is exacerbated by the worst problem...

Lesson #5: We really, really, really need to start investing in countries in the long term.

What do we mean? Many politicians--let’s be honest, Republicans--are really concerned about Ebola. Despite the warnings of professional medical workers, they wanted to shut down travel from Africa and institute incredibly draconian measures to stop the spread of Ebola to the U.S.

You know what would have been more effective? Spending money (like that $750 million from above) a decade ago (when the economy was strong) to help countries face Ebola now. We should have spent money on foreign aid to develop the medical infrastructure in these countries so they’d have been equipped to handle this outbreak.

You know who hates foreign aid? Oh right, the same people who are afraid of Ebola.

We fight terrorism the same way. We wait until a crisis bubbles up--like ISIS, Boko Haram or Syria--then we lose our minds. Instead of helping these nations build their economies that repel terrorist groups naturally, we wait until a crisis happens, and then overreact.

three comments

Actually, one lobby group is a big fan of foreign aid: Israel, which is the largest recipient of American aid in the years since 1945. I seem to recall seeing a figure that Israel has received more aid than all of sub-Saharan Africa in that timeframe, though I can’t put my finger on a source and that should probably be fact-checked.

But that doesn’t really address the problem, does it.

Actually, I think a more effective way to help countries is to open up trade. Reduce subsidies to domestic businesses; reduce tariffs on imported goods from developing countries; reduce practices that amount to dumping on developing nations and effectively destroying nascent local industries. Then redirect that foreign aid money into cushioning any impact on domestic producers as a result of these policies to help them transition to new fields. The net result will be healthier economic systems in the developing world (with concurrent growth of local tax bases and growth of local health and social system capacity) and more competitive industries at home.

The enemy: entrenched interest groups. Ironically, many of those same groups that benefit from existing subsidies preach free market economies.


Carlton Meyer was in my opinion right when he pointed out that the military used Ebola as a justification for establishing a large and likely quasi-permanent base in Africa – with a puny quantity of hospital beds.
The USN could have sent its hospital ships at a fraction of the expense, establishing no base and providing many times as many hospital beds – complete with perfect conditions for quarantine.

One or two hospital ships reinforced by CDC personnel and per ship a former ambassador to West African countries as head of the ship’s mission would have been sensible. Instead, the pseudo-empire builds forward outposts. This was predictable since they established the AFRICOM bureaucracy, which naturally wants to grow and enjoy attention.

You do overestimate the efficacy of development aid to Africa very much, though.

@ SO – I don’t want to launch into a whole debate over the efficacy of foreign aid. (As Michael C proposed on Monday, aid can come in the form of trade agreements, small business loans, etc)

But I do believe in the value of aid. I mentioned this on the blog a few years ago, and it sparked a whole argument, but if you look at the countries where America has focused its aid—for strategic reasons—Turkey, South Korea, Israel, they tended to do quite well economically.

Also, and I may be naive, but I believe aid groups are finally starting to get smarter about aid. I think we may be turning a corner.