Friday, August 26, 2005

More Lethal than War

In a comment on this recent post, Elizabeth Obenchain wrote:

Though an intellectually complex and bureaucratically complicated endeavor, I think that the threat of global pandemics such as avian flu or BSE, similar to environmental degradation, deserves to be examined within the scope of "national" security. These non-traditional threats are not only dangerous and destructive as single entities; they are by nature inter-related with the causes of failed states, which, as many of your recent posts would argue, are fast becoming the breeding grounds for fundamental global insecurity in the traditional sense.

I absolutely agree. Of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (and here I allude to the highly figurative portrayals of War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death rather than to a premillennial interpretation of the passage in the sixth chapter of Revelation where the imagery appears), Pestilence has always been more destructive than War.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes an epidemic in 430-29 BC that killed a quarter of the Athenian army. In 1351, the Vatican put the number of bubonic plague deaths in Europe since 1347 at 23,840,000, or roughly a third of the continent's population. When the Spanish explorer Cortez reached the New World in 1519, there were an estimated 30,000,000 Amerindians in Central Mexico. Fifty years later--largely as a consequence of the smallpox virus brought by the Spaniards--the indigenous population of the region was only 3,000,000. Finally, the Spanish influenza that swept the world in 1918-19 killed approximately 100,000,000 people--six times the number that died in World War I and almost twice as many as died in World War II, the deadliest conflict in human history. (Incidentally, these examples are drawn from Chapter 6 of the forthcoming Seeking Security in an Insecure World. Dan Caldwell and I argue--as Elizabeth did--that disease is a prime example of why we need to widen the security agenda.)

How to widen the security agenda without making the term "security" meaningless is, of course, a problem. The term is important (and not to be abused) because attaching it to a social problem typically insures that lots of money will be thrown at the issue. Where infectious disease is concerned, I have no problem "securitizing" the issue. After all, every single day, 8,000 people die of HIV/AIDS. In many countries, HIV/AIDS deaths have significant impacts on education, health care, and even national security. Both President Clinton (in April 2000) and Secretary of State Powell (during his confirmation hearings) have called HIV/AIDS a "national security threat," so perhaps we're almost there when it comes to widening the security agenda to its proper dimensions.

This is, frankly, a topic that I have neglected on this blog. I'll try to say more about it in the coming weeks.