The military of the future does not fight wars and hunt terrorists—it fights the spread of disease.
At the start of 2015, President Obama made a State of the Union speech thanking, in one sentence, the doctors, nurses, and soldiers responsible for helping control the spread of Ebola. More tellingly, he went on to connect international health with poverty—right in the middle of his discussion of American national security.
The scary reality of international terrorism was that non-state actors like extremist groups and religious or nationalistic radicals could replace traditional armies and interstate combat. After 9/11, the new century seemed doomed to be defined by this sort of asymmetric warfare, where organized militaries clashed with terror networks and radicalized citizens carrying out destructive plots without regard for country borders.
But terrorists are not the only non-state actors that, according to America’s leaders, pose a potentially catastrophic threat anymore. The globalized economy has shrunk the world; international trade has made borders more porous, with businesses sending goods and people back and forth, and the ever-increasing demand for raw resources has merged developing economies with the third world. Even if not everyone shares equally in the benefits of the new world order, everyone is clearly playing a role in its vast, complex network.
That means disease has more opportunity than ever to spread—hence the media circus surrounding the Ebola crisis beginning in 2014. Many called for a stricter control on international travel, especially surrounding the worst-affected countries in West Africa. Whether or not that would have been effective, between the 21-day incubation period for the disease and pure complexity of international exchanges, it was hardly a manageable prospect.
Yet the military managed to play a role in erecting impromptu infrastructure and providing critical security, training, and tracking of the virus that proved essential in the international response to the outbreak.
There are two driving justifications for this (and other similarly health-focused deployments) worth noting: first, that the U.S. Army was not so overwhelmingly needed in a traditional combat zone that they could not engage with Ebola in West Africa. And second, they had the organization, size, and resources to immediately deploy.
For better or for worse, no other governmental agency can match the military in terms of simple responsiveness. Between the funding levels of the military (which mean part of the expense of any limited action is already paid for), and the historical need for mobility and adaptability, the military already has the market on global health management effectively cornered.
The same features that have made America’s fighting forces formidable and successful around the world provide a strong endorsement for this use of the military—but not without some serious caveats.
First and foremost is the imagery of colonialism. Whatever justifications are offered for non-combatant activity, it is hard to ignore the risks of overstaying or overreaching. Considering the relics of colonialism are in part to blame for the state of much of the world’s most impoverished and vulnerable states, the presence of the military becomes especially delicate.
The bipartisan support of the move to deploy troops alongside healthcare workers shows that this use of the American military is relatively non-controversial at home. But managing international perceptions and relationships presents its own unique challenge, and risks escalation that could turn violent.
A greater leap of faith on the part of both politicians and the general public comes in acknowledging the association between global poverty and disease. Proper hygiene is hardly possible without basic infrastructure, like clean water and sanitary waste disposal. Containment is all but a fantasy in failed states and poverty-stricken regions where ad hoc decentralized systems rule in place of corrupt, complacent, or otherwise ineffective local government.
Elevating healthcare standards—and access—in the very places deadly disease is most likely to gain a foothold is obviously more than a region-specific challenge. The world, effectively, has become too small for that. The military can respond to emergencies, certainly, but endemic problems like poverty require calculated, longer-term strategies that are unquestionably not under its purview, or traditional effective capacity.
By connecting national security with global health—and, by extension, poverty—the U.S. has obligated itself to pay greater attention to the plight of the world’s poor, and the nations where they live. The Ebola response proved that this is not merely lip-service; America’s military has already joined this ‘fight.’
So while international agreements and protocols flounder and fail to coordinate pollution control and climate change, health emergencies see ‘boots on the ground’ to spearhead a defense. As the President said, this provides an important lesson not just for the U.S., but for the world: the U.S. is going to treat global health threats as national security threats, and respond accordingly.
Providing security when there is no enemy is quite a leap from an occupation or peacekeeping mission. It is also a model the world is likely to see implemented more.
Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations at Amherst College, and has split his time between New England and the Pacific Northwest ever since. He has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism, currently serving as a marketing consultant and blogger. He can be reached via email here or on Twitter @EdgarTwilson.