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date: 28 March 2017

Infectious Disease as a Foreign Policy Threat

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

The last 30 years has seen the global consequences of newly emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, starting with the global spread of HIV/AIDS, and including the emergence of Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers, SARS, MERS, novel influenza viruses, and most recently, Zika. Academics have also come to better understand the impact on society of tuberculosis, malaria, and neglected tropical diseases, including how these diseases influence the social, economic, and political environment in a nation. The specter of intentional use of infectious disease remains present—despite international treaties and norms, particularly as technological barriers to access are reduced. The world has come to realize that infectious diseases not only impact population health, but have clear consequences for international security and foreign policy.

Foreign policy has been used to coordinate responses to infectious disease events and to advance population health around the world. Conversely, collaboration on infectious disease prevention, preparedness, and response has been used strategically by nations to advance diplomacy and improve foreign relations. Both approaches have become integral to foreign policy, and case studies help to elucidate how health and foreign policy have become intertwined and are used with different levels of effectiveness by governments around the world.

In 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama called upon global partners at the Global Health Security Agenda Summit to “change our mindsets and start thinking about biological threats as the security threats that they are—in addition to being humanitarian threats and economic threats. We have to bring the same level of commitment and focus to these challenges as we do when meeting around more traditional security issues.” With world leaders increasingly identifying disease as security threats, infectious diseases—like no other time in history—are becoming an integral component of foreign policy