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With American diplomacy in decline, our response to an international health crisis flounders

There was a whole-of-government response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, with the U.S. working in close coordination with allies abroad, and communicating effectively with Americans here at home.

Analysis | Washington Politics

In the fall of 2014, the world appeared to be spinning into the abyss. ISIL was sowing terror as it marched across Iraq and Syria. Russian troops were occupying Ukraine while Russian state authorities rewrote the region’s history and maps. Israeli airstrikes mercilessly pummeled Gaza. And Ebola was quite literally hemorrhaging West Africa.

I watched all of these crises unfold from the windowless, 24-hour Watch floor in the State Department’s Operations Center. Watch officers, like myself, and other crisis management staff tracked developments across the globe through public resources and media, as well as outreach to a wide web of U.S. government personnel the world over. We were also a communications center, connecting senior U.S. government officials to each other and their diplomatic counterparts, and we staffed and took notes on our own leadership’s calls.

I was new on the Watch and still learning the ropes. I wondered if the world always looked this bleak from this room or if we were living in particularly trying times. At the same time, this bird’s eye view gave me unique and reassuring insight into our government-wide responses. I cannot help but recognize how deeply it contrasted with what is unfolding today.

Our response to Ebola was by no means an unqualified success. It was unnecessarily delayed, and we had many missteps. The ramping up of our signature contribution — building 11 Ebola treatment centers across Liberia — came too late.

The real value the United States brought to the 2014 Ebola crisis, however, was diplomatic leadership. This soft power tool is hard to quantify in measurable terms, but it was arguably the most critical factor in launching a massive, coordinated international response.

I witnessed this in action during one very busy weekend shift on the Watch floor. It was my debut shift sitting “first on phones.” Though my role was largely logistical, I felt the weight of the moment that day. My job was to schedule, set up, and staff 14 calls between Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts in partner countries. The calls progressed in rapid fire, as my colleagues and I lined them up, monitored them, and ensured all the right supporting officers from across State and other U.S. government offices were included. We then finalized and distributed the call memos, reviewed by multiple people on the calls to ensure the accuracy of messages shared.

This was essential to ensure the necessary follow-up action was taken in every case. It was a clear whole-of-government approach, but State was, appropriately, in the lead. Our top-level response was built on a vast network of diplomatic relationships and extensive on-the-ground knowledge and country expertise. I could see in real time the payoff of diplomatic relationships built and nurtured over years, and of the functional, practiced, and apolitical bureaucracy supporting them.

What rolled out publicly in the weeks thereafter reinforced my initial impression: this is exactly how it’s supposed to work. USAID, the CDC, and other government offices were all active on the ground already, but we were using all of the tools available, and a robust diplomatic response had a key role too. In a public address, Secretary Kerry outlined that engagement and how it was translating into a carefully coordinated international effort that multiplied the impact far beyond what it would have been had every country merely gone it alone.

“No one country, no individual group of nations is going to resolve this problem by themselves,” he said. “It is going to take a collective, global response – all hands on deck.”

Kerry enumerated specific financial and supply needs, including additional health workers. He applauded other countries for stepping up, thanking tiny Timor-Leste for a $2 million donation to the cause, and Cuba for sending health workers. He thanked the United Kingdom, Germany, and France for other contributions. He offered gratitude for the European Union for organizing urgent medevac capacity, and the African Union for training additional emergency responders. He continued by imploring our friends to step it up further, reinforcing the messages he had already delivered personally, one-by-one.

On the domestic front, we were similarly direct and effective. The messages from our government’s medical experts and political leadership were aligned and mutually reinforcing. Their focus was on providing clear information to the public not only about the nature of the crisis and threat but also specifically about how we were responding.

President Obama declared it a national security priority and afforded the response the requisite financial and political support that it required. We had a plan and a strategy, both in addressing the outbreak where it was occurring and implementing preventative measures back home. The State Department mobilized extensive resources to assist American medical professionals who contracted Ebola, bringing them home safely and delivering them to the care they needed.

The messaging was honest, consistent, and dispersed regularly. Questions were answered openly. Our leadership was all on the same page, and our international partners were on that page as well. We were in this together.

In stark contrast to those times of Ebola, today we have slammed our doors shut, at times even on our own citizens. We have kept our friends and allies in the dark, rather than working closely with them for a solution. Doing so could have given us vital lessons learned to better address it back home and bought us more time before we had to face it on a serious scale here. Choosing the opposite has put our partners and ourselves at even greater risk.

The priorities of our public health experts and our political leaders have proven diametrically opposed. Career officers across our government agencies have worked tirelessly, but their efforts have been impeded by the bungled and short-sighted actions of Trump’s politicized response. Our messaging to the world and to our citizens has been haphazard and contradictory, not only impeding an effective public health response but exacerbating fear and uncertainty in the markets — an economic hit we will feel for quite some time.

When America faces an international crisis, an international response is needed. We can lead it, as we did with Ebola in 2014, or we can join and support it. Either way, leadership and coordination at the international level are essential.

Today, America lacks even a national response, leaving states and cities to navigate it largely on their own. To make matters worse, we have actively impeded international responses ongoing elsewhere by being a profoundly weak link. A better response would have begun, quite simply, with better diplomatic relations. Earlier phone calls with our counterparts and greater trust that would have laid the groundwork for earlier and better coordination.

Looking out for each other, we would have been better positioned to look out for ourselves. The costs of not doing so will be high and far-reaching. Don’t mistake this for America First, for America will ultimately pay the greatest price for our folly.

Donald Trump (White House photo)
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