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Weekly World News: Pirates and Pandemics

A woman called me at work tonight because she had bought Tamiflu to attend her brother’s wedding in Mexico. The bride had just postponed the event out of fear for her family’s safety; my caller wanted to know if she could return the medication unopened for a refund.

Disease, like war, has a way of making us panic. The swine flu epidemic, which apparently started in a small Mexican village, has become something of a viral 9/11 — more deadly (it seems) than SARS or bird flu. Perhaps that is due to the sensational news coverage, but it speaks to an instinctive fear we all have about plague.

Mexico City is now on full pandemic alert. The epidemic has spread to the United States and other countries. A virus respects no boundaries — particularly in the age of instant communication and rapid travel. And no, it need not be carried by the illegal immigrant; this virus probably came to New York with a perfectly good visa, like Mohammed Atta.

And also like 9/11, a discussion about world order is bringing out Teh Wacky™. Glenn Beck, for whom pattern always suggests conspiracy, insinuated today that the epidemic is a plot to confirm Obama’s choice for Health and Human Services Secretary. Up next: will Obama pull off his rubber mask like a Scooby Doo villain?!

But New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks is not a purveyor of Teh Wacky™. Say what you want about him, he’s smart enough to acknowledge the transnational nature of 21st Century threats:

So how do we deal with these situations? Do we build centralized global institutions that are strong enough to respond to transnational threats? Or do we rely on diverse and decentralized communities and nation-states?

My own answer? All of the above! International institutions can foster the kind of scientific and informational exchange that leads to better understanding of epidemiology. Local institutions translate that global networking into local prevention and treatment solutions. Brooks’ answer aims to delight critics of internationalism, but subtly acknowledges the critical need:

The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself.

Swine flu isn’t only a health emergency. It’s a test for how we’re going to organize the 21st century. Subsidiarity works best.

“International bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself…how we’re going to organize the 21st Century.” Brooks, like most critics of IGOs (International Governmental Organizations), argues against stronger institutions because:

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.

Brooks hits the heart of the global governance problem: any large institution that must account for broad diversity will inevitably be slow to act. The United Nations is the best-known example, but you could say the same thing about the US Congress. In fact, maybe that is a good model to explain both the potential benefits and limits of global federalism. Brooks again:

It is a fact of human nature that in times of crisis, people like to feel protected by one of their own. They will only trust people who share their historical experience, who understand their cultural assumptions about disease and the threat of outsiders and who have the legitimacy to make brutal choices. If some authority is going to restrict freedom, it should be somebody elected by the people, not a stranger.

Again, Brooks is on the money. Global bureaucrats entering Mexico City homes and enforcing quarantine restrictions in a babel of languages is a prescription for chaos. When Beck raises the spectre of those same global bureaucrats coming to Podunk, USA, he is magnifying a very legitimate problem with IGOs to hysterical levels of paranoia.

The question, then, is how do we build IGOs that can respond to, and prevent, disasters without turning into monsters? Consider another newsworthy international problem — piracy:

Just a few months ago, foreign warships would catch suspected pirates cruising around in speedy skiffs with guns and ladders and then dump them back on the Somali beach because of sticky legal questions…Now, the piracy suspects are getting a one-way ticket to Mombasa, a historic port town where Kenyan officials are all too eager to punish the seafaring thugs imperiling their vital shipping industry. Under recent, innovative agreements with the United States, Britain and the European Union, Kenya has promised to try piracy suspects apprehended by foreign navies. In return, the other countries have agreed to improve Kenya’s antiquated courts.

These sort of ad-hoc arrangements work fairly well for one region at a time. A solution for piracy in the Malacca Straight might involve Singapore, for example. Yet there are limitations, and ironically they are the product of local-global variance. The article quoted above includes a lawyer:

Mr. Kadima, a former magistrate himself, takes issue with this. Kenya has not ratified international maritime conventions, he said, and the recent agreements signed with other countries were not approved by Kenya’s Parliament and therefore are not enforceable.

“You can’t just go around making up laws, you know,” he said. “There is a process.”

Indeed! What we are watching is a process. ‘Organizing the 21st Century’ is a process. Each new international problem brings its own process of resolution to the whole picture of global governance. And that process may take up the whole century, but here’s the really scary part: it will set the stage for the entire millennium.

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