The million or more deaths from Malaria each year, millions of people infected by preventable water borne diseases and the approximately one billion people in extreme poverty doesn’t negatively impact our national security, strictly defined, as much as say the ungoverned tribal regions of Western Pakistan being lousy with Taliban and Al-Qaida. And, if you talk privately to most people who say that extreme poverty of “tropical diseases” are threats to America’s national security, they’ll –after enough drinks — probably admit that they’re playing fast and loose with what “national security” means. The reason people do this, however, is that America tends to act in the international arena when it thinks that the action will make us safer — and when we do act, we act big. This is why NGOs, activist and academics in work in the areas of development and international public health have re-tuned their message — governments are more likely to listen if you’re presenting something that’s not just killing hundreds of thousands of foreigners, but is a threat to the US.
Zeitlin is right that our government tends not to act overseas unless it sees an international problem as a potential security threat (or at least as a cause of later security threats). I suppose it’s understandable that people who want the U.S. government to take some action on a variety of international woes would try to cast those problems as threats to the United States. It also doesn’t make Obama’s apparent inability to prioritise real security threats over high-minded concerns for the well-being of foreign peoples any less troubling. If he doesn’t believe that public health problems in other countries affect our national security, he is trying to play the public, and if he does believe it he is very confused about what our national security interests include.
It also doesn’t make these claims any more true, and it seems to me that this sort of “dishonest altruism,” as Zeitlin calls it, will come back to hurt any cause that attempts to frame itself as an aid to national security. This seems to be a more likely danger for such “altruism” in the wake of an administration that tried to justify anything and everything that it did under the banner of national security and antiterrorism. If activists and academics cannot make the substantive case that there is some sufficiently good reason for our government to act on this or that question of development or public health by itself, it is implausible that they will be able to win any sustainable support or action from the government by tying themselves into knots to come up a national security rationale.
It’s also all very well to talk about global interdependency, but this is just another way to spin intervening in someone else’s business as part of our self-interest. What this kind of thinking will lead to in practice is not a U.S. government engaged in ever-greater levels of international cooperation, as I imagine many people would like to see, but instead one that uses every kind of international problem as a pretext for meddling and intruding on other states’ internal affairs. Setting a standard of national security interest limits government action overseas to some extent, though we have already seen how expansively “national security” can be defined by ambitious policymakers (especially when it is joined to talk of “values”). If the definition of national security is permitted to be inflated even more by extending it to climate change or health epidemics or education, there will be no end to the occasions for U.S. meddling. If future interventions do for combating epidemics what the invasion of Iraq has done for regional stability and nonproliferation, we should be very worried about anyone who wants the U.S. government to take an active interest in the question. (As the last few years have shown, government is equally incompetent on both sides of the ocean.)
This convenient invocation of security is worth bearing in mind when some people begin hyperventilating about certain liberal claims that climate change is a greater security threat than terrorism. This has been a favourite punching bag of some folks on the right, who will, in the same breath, very seriously say that we are in the middle of WWIV against the “existential threat” of Islamofascism. In fact, climate change doesn’t represent that much of a security threat, but then (and here’s the kicker) the threat of terrorism has also been vastly overblown. The climate change activists who are now talking in terms of national security are simply seeing the terrorism alarmists and raising them with some extra exaggeration. “The threat you worry about isn’t existential, but the one I worry about really is!” This is accompanied by vocal critics on the opposing side: “The threat you describe hardly even exists!” Terrorism alarmism and climate change alarmism both overwhelmingly benefit the state at our expense. They continue to exist because each kind of alarmism has a dedicated constituency that is quite happy to yield to the state’s demands in order to, in one way or another, “save the world.”