Arabian: 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.

by Kami Arabian | 5/21/21 2:10am

This column is featured in the 2021 Spring special issue.

President Joe Biden’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan offers an opportunity for the United States to reflect on the costs and benefits of military intervention. As I argued in The Dartmouth last month, despite spending over $2 trillion, the United States failed to establish peace in Afghanistan. After 20 years of military intervention, the Taliban insurgency that we attempted to defeat still controls or contests half of the nation. So, if Afghanistan has proven the inefficacy of military intervention, how should the U.S. conduct its foreign policy instead? The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the need for a particular alternative: The U.S. should replace its reliance on military intervention with a more humanitarian approach centered on a commitment to supporting public health programs across the globe.

Promoting public health is a low-cost, high-efficacy method of saving lives — one that does not require occupation. Almost a decade before the pandemic hit, government professor Benjamin Valentino argued for this approach in his Foreign Affairs article, “The True Costs of Humanitarian Intervention.” In it, he points out that vaccine-preventable diseases claim about two million lives per year. As of this week, the death toll of COVID-19 approaches 3.2 million — a figure that is four times larger than the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan combined. By investing in vaccinations in the developing world — alongside health education, disaster relief, mosquito netting, and other programs — the U.S. can save a lot more lives with a lot less money. We should accept that Washington does not possess unlimited resources and commit ourselves to the most effective life-saving strategy: one centered around humanitarian assistance rather than endless, ineffective military intervention.

Uganda offers a compelling case study of this approach. In partnership with the U.S. and its global partners, the Ugandan government invested about $18 million into its public health programs before the start of the pandemic. Learning from its experience with the Ebola virus in 2013, Ugandan officials trained more than 10,000 first-responders, drafted protocols for social distancing and installed monitoring infrastructure, such as thermometers, in public places. While these measures were not specifically designed for COVID-19, they still proved to be highly effective in its containment. As a result, while most of the world was ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, Uganda fared comparatively well. With about 42,000 cases so far, the country has faced among the lowest rates of infection in all of Africa. This remarkable achievement led World Health Organization representative to Uganda Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam to proclaim that “COVID-19 found a ready and well-prepared preparedness and response system” in Uganda. If the U.S. had provided similar humanitarian aid to other countries ahead of the pandemic, COVID-19 may have claimed significantly fewer lives in the developing world.

Beyond its moral obligations, the U.S. stands to gain significant financial benefits from a humanitarian approach, since investment abroad could avert the costs of future pandemics at home. In an increasingly interconnected world, a virus can originate in and spread to any country in the world. Thus, when the U.S. invests in the public health of developing nations, it also invests in its own public health. An investment in global health could have saved the U.S. 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 an estimated $16 trillion. This cost could’ve been avoided with better preparation, since a relatively small investment of a couple billion dollars years ago might have saved trillions today.

Historically, military intervention has almost always failed as a means of promoting global well-being. In the last few decades alone, the U.S. has been involved in catastrophic operations across the Middle East and North Africa. It has invaded Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda, toppled the Ba’ath regime in Iraq, and conducted countless airstrikes on former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya. While, admittedly, these operations could be considered successful from a military perspective, they failed in the larger mission of facilitating peace and cooperation abroad. The removal of Gaddafi, for instance, led to a struggle between competing governments; that is, the situation in Libya became far worse as a result of U.S. and NATO meddling. And, of course, Afghanistan and Iraq offer similar case studies. After fulfilling its military objectives in these countries, the U.S. has neglected to provide them with humanitarian assistance in their recovery efforts. As one might expect, this has been poorly received by the international community.

Without a humanitarian approach to save its tainted international image, the U.S. risks ceding leadership to China and Russia. After four years of former President Donald Trump — who, at one point, had a lower rating on global confidence than Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping — the Biden administration can bolster its public relations. Military intervention has been unpopular in the international community, as the U.S. has built a reputation for solving its problems through violence, and its current mishandling of the pandemic has not improved the situation. Poor international perception of this country has stifled cooperation with our regional partners, who have come to see the U.S. in a less-than-ideal light. Meanwhile, Russia and China are fighting to win the hearts and minds of developing countries: China has sold over half a billion doses of its Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines and donated some doses to low-income countries, while Russia has sold millions of doses of its Sputnik V shot at a discounted price. If the Biden administration deploys doctors instead of soldiers, the U.S. could be seen as a force for good in the world.

Where is the U.S. in all of this? More or less absent. Despite the fact that numerous clinics across the country are reporting a rise in unfilled appointments, the Biden administration only recently announced plans to donate AstraZeneca vaccine doses. The first batch is expected to ship in coming months — too little, too late compared to the programs led by China and Russia. The U.S. should have taken an active role in the global effort to curb the pandemic as a central aspect of its foreign policy, rather than treating it as a seeming afterthought.

Military withdrawal doesn’t mean an irrevocable decline in this country’s global standing — in fact, it can have the opposite effect. If the U.S. adopts a foreign policy centered on humanitarian aid, it can be seen as a global leader independent of its military deployments. Hopefully, the pandemic will allow our citizens to realize that health risks are just as bad as — 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 U.S. is not only an economic and military leader, but also a moral one. This is preferable to the familiar 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.