Diseases and National Borders
As the spread of swine flu has taught us yet again, today’s problems cannot be contained by national borders.
But even if we admit that our problems are global, perhaps we might still insist on purely local solutions. That is the argument of David Brooks this morning. In his provocative New York Times column “Globalism Goes Viral,” Brooks argues that rather than an “infrastructure of international cooperation,” a “decentralized” response is best.
Brooks begins his argument by contrasting the swift response of Mexican and American local authorities to the swine flu outbreak with his vision of the “globalist” alternative:
“If the response were coordinated by a global agency, those local officials would not be so empowered. Power would be wielded by officials from nations that are far away and emotionally aloof from ground zero. The institution would have to poll its members, negotiate internal differences and proceed, as all multinationals do, at the pace of the most recalcitrant stragglers.”
This so-called “globalist” alternative is certainly not the one promoted by the international lawyers I know. The “infrastructure of international cooperation” does not imply subservience to a dictator in Geneva. Rather it requires coordinating our responses so that, inter alia, (1) states share information with each other; (2) states continue commerce with each other, and do not exploit health fears for protectionist reasons; (3) states take steps before crises to improve their capacity to respond to such crises; and (4) experts from around the world collect and analyze data from around the world and offer measured responses to contain the crisis.
When Brooks wrote his opinion piece, he presumably did not have the benefit of many of the details in today’s paper. The Times describes the World Health Organization’s leading role in coordinating the response to the crisis and the temperance of its action: “While confirmed cases of swine flu increased only slightly on Monday, the World Health Organization voted to raise its global pandemic flu alert level, but at the same time it recommended that borders not be closed nor travel bans imposed.” But wait, how could such a lumbering global organization, destined to move “at the pace of the most recalcitrant stragglers” act with such speed to issue measured recommendations after a vote? Because the decision was made, the Times tells us, by the “W.H.O.’s emergency committee, after meeting until 10:30 p.m. in Geneva.” (David Fidler has done a nice summary of some of the international law aspects of the WHO’s response to the swine flu.)
The WHO’s response is the response of a real international agency, not the specter of an alien overlord that some—let us call them “Nationalists”—would conjure.
Consider what a fully “decentralized” response—one without any international cooperation—might look like. First, countries with the disease might seek to hide evidence of local outbreaks, containing them as best possible, but doing so stealthily, so as not to deter foreign tourists. Second, countries that did not yet have the disease could simply raise the drawbridge over the moat—barring people who might have come from countries where the disease had been identified. Third, countries without the disease might bar food from those jurisdictions where the disease had been spotted, much as Russia has done with pork, even though the evidence suggests that the swine flu cannot be transmitted by eating meat. Fourth, countries with little disease could bar tourism to countries where the disease had hit harder—just as the United States has done with Mexico, and the European Union with the United States.
Russia, we might recall, has not yet entered the World Trade Organization. Thus, its blatantly unscientific refusal to allow pork imports from affected countries cannot be challenged before an impartial tribunal.
Lest one believe that the World Health Organization stands exempt from the critique of the Nationalist lawyers, an article in the year 2000 by Nationalist lawyer exemplar John Bolton demonstrates otherwise. In an article in the Chicago Journal of International Law titled “Should We Take Global Governance Seriously?,” Bolton criticizes “the Globalist mindset,” complaining, inter alia, about the World Health Organization’s 1981 recommendation that states promote breast feeding and require companies that produce breast-milk substitutes to provide adequate information:
Although nearly two decades passed before the Convention on the Law of the Sea entered into force, its underlying theory that the seabed was a part of ‘the common heritage of mankind,’ became fixed in the Globalist mindset, and spread to many other fields. … In 1981, the World Health Organization (‘WHO’) adopted a Code on the Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes by a vote of 118-1, the Reagan Administration casting the sole dissenting vote.
The WHO was responding, of course, to shameful marketing practices of companies peddling milk substitutes to poor women in developing countries where the water to be mixed with the powdered milk was unhygienic (unless boiled), and where breast milk was often readily available. But Bolton still found the WHO’s actions—taken on a vote of 118 to 1—a threat to American sovereignty.
Today, as Harold Hongju Koh takes the floor of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his confirmation hearing for the office of Legal Adviser to the State Department, we should recognize that we have the most control over our own destinies when we collaborate with the people of the world on our many shared projects.