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April 30, 2009

Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard University and a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy Magazine looked at how the pandemic swine flu has showed us the extent that cooperation is possible in the international system.  The nations of the world have much common ground–on indicriminant health vulnerability in the case of the swine flu but also on issues such as the global impact of climate change.  Yet health crises such as the swine flu and the SARS outbreak of 2003 have been characterized by more effective international collaboration than many other scenarios in which cooperation is needed.  Walt gives three reasons for this:

1.  The dangers are immediate and somewhat indiscriminate.  Mishandling a pandemic would not only impose major short term costs, it could also affect the political fortunes of incumbent politicians around the world.  The effects of global warming, on the other hand, are longterm.  This makes it easier for politicians to put off action on these issues until future generations.

2.  Pandemics are not an issue where “relative gains” loom large. States don’t see this as an opportunity to improve their strategic position by getting others to bear all the costs or by trying to free-ride (or god forbid, by trying to encourage the disease to spread to one’s rivals). Infectious diseases are too mobile and the world is too interconnected for that approach. If Country A responds vigorously but Country B does not, B is likely to have a more serious problem. But the worse things are for B, the bigger the problem that A might face.

3.  Public health is a highly professionalized and comparatively de-politicized field, and the relevant international and national institutions (e.g., the World Health Organization) have a lot of prior experience.   One might contrast this with the current economic mess, where different national authorities have rather different ideas about the best way to respond and international coordination has been pretty paltry.

Question to the Blogosphere:  Do you think cooperation is possible on global warming as it has been on issues relating to health crises?  What is necessary to make issues like the environment and the economy seem as urgent as the health crises?  Will it require a global crisis on a scale unseen before in the economy or the environment to get real change or is the problem not that the issue isn’t severe, but that it is just harder to coordinate policy on these issues?

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