Iraq’s Mosul dam is at risk of collapse, threatening to send a bulldozer wave of water through the most populated parts of Iraq. H7N9 “bird flu” cases are surging in parts of China. Saudi military action threatens to tip millions of Yemen’s people into famine.
The world is full of potential crises, and at some point in the next four years the Trump administration will be faced with a global mega-disaster that will test his presidency. For the Obama administration, the effort to defeat Ebola was just such a test—one that I helped to lead as President Barack Obama’s director for Foreign Disaster Assistance at USAID. And as an emergency manager, the Trump administration’s first month in office leaves me gravely concerned that it may bungle the next major global crisis.
The Ebola response provides a useful case study—and contrast. As the disease was exploding across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in August 2014, I visited Liberia’s capital of Monrovia. I will never forget the palpable fear and uncertainty as the country faced potential social and economic collapse. Riots had broken out over heavy-handed quarantine tactics. Doctors at one of the few Ebola clinics told me of the agony of turning away patients because people were showing up faster than they could be admitted. In the country’s main pediatric ward, the halls were eerily silent because nervous parents had stopped bringing children there. Exponential rates of new infections had overwhelmed every defense the country could muster. It was clear that if left unchecked, the disease would destabilize Liberia, threaten the entirety of West Africa and begin reaching the U.S. and Europe. Hundreds of thousands of lives hung in the balance.
How an administration handles major emergencies like these heavily shapes its legacy. Mismanaging a high-profile crisis can irreparably harm a presidency (see: Hurricane Katrina). But more importantly, it can have dire consequences for Americans at home, American interests abroad and vulnerable people around the world. Getting these crises right is not a partisan matter – there is no particular liberal or conservative policy platform on crisis response, and there have been highly effective emergency managers in both Democratic and Republican administrations. It is instead a matter of competence.
The Obama administration’s Ebola response, coordinated closely with bipartisan leadership in Congress, relied on core elements of competent federal crisis management: understanding the nature of the threat; providing credible and even-keeled public information; working closely with key allies and multilateral institutions; supplying adequate resources; and ensuring strong White House oversight of the government’s strategy, coordination and execution. All of these elements have been undermined during the Trump administration’s turbulent first month—just look at the White House’s chaotically managed rollout of its executive orders, or the needless spats with allies like Australia, France and Sweden. It is not too late to get things back onto a better track— but it will take a rapid course correction by the White House.
A major new global health crisis is a question of when, not if. Every president dating back at least to Ronald Reagan has dealt with major and unexpected outbreaks—HIV/AIDS, SARS, bird flu, Ebola, Zika. In recent years the world has been fortunate that these outbreaks have been either highly contagious (the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic infected up to 200 million people), or highly fatal (the H5N1 “bird flu” strain had a fatality rate of up to 60 percent)—but not both at once. At some point a highly fatal, highly contagious virus will emerge—like the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, which infected one third of the world’s population and killed between 50 and 100 million people.
So how might a major crisis play out under a Trump administration?
Any disaster response starts with a solid understanding of the hazard—whether that means anticipating the course of a super-typhoon or figuring out how a new virus spreads. Developing an accurate understanding relies on scientific rigor, and the U.S. government’s scientists are among the best in the world. NOAA tracks hurricanes, USGS provides much of the world’s seismic data and the CDC and NIH are second to none on infectious disease analysis. Getting the initial hazard analysis right shapes everything that follows—particularly on public health threats.
So far, Trump’s relationship with science has been fraught. During the Ebola outbreak, he tweeted that health workers should be blocked from returning to the U.S., despite the (clearly correct, in hindsight) advice from U.S. government disease experts that barring them would not protect U.S. public health. In the years since, the president has shown little respect for scientific expertise, dismissing the global consensus on climate science and flirting with the anti-vaccine movement. If he disregards the U.S. government’s own scientists when the next crisis hits, he will undercut his administration’s ability to manage it. Botch the diagnosis, botch the prescription.
The president is also eroding the U.S. government’s standing as a reliable source of public information. This credibility has served the country and the world well in past outbreaks: clear, measured public information is critical to avoiding panic and shaping how the population seeks to protect itself. During the Ebola outbreak, President Barack Obama used his position to do some vital myth-busting about how the disease could be spread (including by hosting Ebola survivors in the Oval Office). He also used his strong relationships with other global leaders to convene and mobilize a massive global response. In 2005, President George W. Bush likewise leveraged U.S. credibility to convene global disease experts and lay out a pandemic flu preparedness strategy in the wake of the SARS and avian influenza outbreaks.
U.S. credibility on disaster information has generally been taken for granted. But the Trump presidency could put that at risk. Had Trump’s Ebola tweets in 2014 been turned into policy, the critical flow of medical professionals to the frontlines of the disease would have collapsed and several doctors who were infected would almost certainly have died. And the Trump White House’s comments on petty matters like inauguration crowd size will not aid its credibility when it comes time to share life-saving crisis-management information. A president must project reasoned calm during a crisis, and tamp down on ill-informed fear mongering – something Trump has appeared incapable of doing. If he cannot keep himself from promoting alarmist and misleading messages, he should hand off crisis messaging to those in his administration who can.
He will also need to invest in shoring up his standing with America’s allies and multilateral partners. Effective global crisis response requires unified global action: The U.S. cannot do all the heavy lifting, and should not have to. During the Ebola response, President Obama and his Cabinet personally reached out to a wide range of world leaders to enlist them in the fight. As a result, partners including the UK, France, the EU, and China all played substantial roles to complement the U.S., doing heavy lifting in Sierra Leone and Guinea while the U.S. focused its energies on Liberia. The U.S. also pushed hard on U.N. agencies and NGO partners to step up. Humanitarian agencies responded by mobilizing more than 10,000 staffers to operate Ebola treatment units, run logistical operations and advise communities on how to prevent the spread of the disease. The U.N. was even able to take over large-scale logistics from our military, enabling our soldiers to depart Liberia earlier than expected.
Orchestrating this sort of international mobilization requires the confidence of our allies and a deep understanding of the multilateral toolkit. The U.S. cannot be a leader if no one wants to follow—so President Trump should be more cautious about alienating longstanding U.S. partners. His rhetoric has called into question the U.S. commitment to multilateral institutions from the U.N. to NATO to the EU, and the White House has floated the idea of massive reductions in U.S. funding to U.N. agencies. This is beyond counterproductive. When it is go time on a major crisis, the U.S. will need these partnerships. If those partners see the U.S. administration as disorganized and chaotic—or worse, as an antagonist—it undermines our government’s ability to get the job done.
Then there is the question of resources. Responding to major crises takes both money and people—mostly civilian. Reports are emerging this week that new budget guidance from the White House envisions debilitating cuts of up to 40 percent to State and USAID programs, while further bulking up a Defense Department whose budget is already 16 times larger than State and USAID combined. As the U.S. government discovered during the Bush administration, defense spending is a lower-quality, higher-cost substitute for strong civilian development and diplomacy capacity. This remains a point of strong bipartisan consensus. I saw this first-hand in Liberia, where costs for activities dropped considerably when DoD handed tasks off from their contractors to ours. President Trump’s hiring freeze, foot-dragging on appointing sub-cabinet leadership for State and USAID, and gutting of their budgets would kneecap the very agencies he will need to rely on in a crisis.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, the new administration needs to get its house in order at the National Security Council. Strong NSC leadership is one of the linchpins of any large scale disaster response. Why? Because these responses inevitably draw on expertise and tools from an alphabet soup of different federal agencies, and this requires a strong and strategic traffic cop. On Ebola, my team at USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance served as the backbone of the overseas response, bringing expertise in field-level disaster operations and coordination; CDC brought world-class public health expertise; NIH worked on clinical countermeasures; HHS worked to protect the domestic health-care system; the U.S. Public Health Service deployed frontline clinicians to West Africa; the State Department mounted vigorous diplomatic outreach to mobilize partner contributions; and of course the Defense Department deployed a massive contingent of troops to support the logistical scale-up in Liberia. No single U.S. government agency could have managed the response alone and none could have mounted the right response together if not for a tightly run intra-governmental process.
Process – not sexy, but vital. The Obama White House invested enormous effort – including the appointment of a dedicated Ebola “czar”– into managing the Ebola policy process. This enabled the NSC to ensure a clear strategy was in place, track how federal agencies were executing it and provide a steady stream of accurate information to President Obama on key decision points. Driving a response like this requires an empowered, capable NSC with a direct line to the president. It requires an inclusive strategic planning effort grounded in strong relationships with the frontline federal agencies. And, critically, it requires a White House that is willing to listen to those agencies’ expertise.
So far, high-profile policymaking in this administration has inverted this approach – with a small coterie of the president’s staff ignoring the career experts in the government, circumventing the standard NSC process and making policy on the fly. In a true crisis, such an approach will guarantee failure. The appointment of H.R. McMaster as national security adviser gives some basis for hope that the Trump White House will get the NSC back on track. But McMaster will need the space and backing to bring structure and heft back to the national security policy process. Failing to do so could cost lives in a crisis.
The silver lining to all of this doom and gloom is that all of this is fixable. There is no partisan or political reason that President Trump need ignore the expertise of scientists and career public servants, run a weak NSC process, break with bipartisan consensus on foreign affairs funding, undermine his credibility as a source of public information or alienate America’s friends and allies. But if these problems are to be fixed, the course correction must start now. Global crises do not tend to wait for us to be ready.
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