Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama's NSS and Global Health

Cynthia Schweer of the FPA Global Health blog notes that Obama’s NSS talks more about global health than Bush’s 2006 NSS (Obama mentions it 35 times compared to Bush’s 5).  But does this actually represent an increased devotion on Obama’s part to solving global health issues?  Obama’s NSS does contain this statement:

The United States has a moral and strategic interest in promoting global health. When a child dies of a preventable disease, it offends our conscience; when a disease goes unchecked, it can endanger our own health; when children are sick, development is stalled. That is why we are continuing to invest in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Through the Global Health Initiative, we will strengthen health systems and invest in interventions to address areas where progress has lagged, including maternal and child health. And we are also pursuing the goal of reducing the burden of malaria and tuberculosis and seeking the elimination of important neglected tropical diseases.

But then again, Bush’s NSS contains this statement:

Helping the world’s poor is a strategic priority and a moral imperative.  Economic development, responsible governance, and individual liberty are intimately connected.  Past foreign assistance to corrupt and ineffective governments failed to help the populations in greatest need.  Instead, it often impeded democratic reform and encouraged corruption.  The United States must promote development programs that achieve measurable results – rewarding reforms, encouraging transparency, and improving people’s lives.

And also this statement:

Pandemics require robust and fully transparent public health systems, which weak governments and those that fear freedom are unable or unwilling to provide.  Yet these challenges require effective democracies to come together in innovative ways.

The United States must lead the effort to reform existing institutions and create new ones – including forging new partnerships between governmental and nongovernmental actors, and with transnational and international organizations.

And in fact, I’m reminded of statements made at the 19th century Berlin Conference which kicked off the Scramble for Africa, leading to this:


As Otto von Bismarck said at the conference:

All the Governments invited here share the desire to associate the natives of Africa with civilization, by opening up the interior of that continent to commerce, by furnishing the natives with the means of instruction, by encouraging missions and enterprises so that useful knowledge may be disseminated, and by paving the way to the suppression of slavery, and especially of the slave trade among the blacks.

In the Berlin Act, the product of the conference, the participating powers jointly expressed similar intentions:

WISHING, in a spirit of good and mutual accord, to regulate the conditions most favourable to the development of trade and civilization in certain regions of Africa, and to assure to all nations the advantages of free navigation on the two chief rivers of Africa flowing into the Atlantic Ocean;

BEING DESIROUS, on the other hand, to obviate the misunderstanding and disputes which might in future arise from new acts of occupation (prises de possession) on the coast of Africa; and concerned, at the same time, as to the means of furthering the moral and material well-being of the native populations;

So while I’m not convinced that Obama’s NSS represents a genuine shift from Bush’s 2006 NSS, I’m also not convinced that it represents a shift from late 19th century U.S. policy.