Who needs the WHO?

What’s the best response to a global pandemic? Local responses, international organization responses, or a combination of the two?

Mickey Kaus and Robert Wright debate this at Bloggingheads. Robert Wright argues that neocons often posit that international governing institutions are weak, but then refuse to back changes that might make these institutions stronger. He posits that necons don’t want these institutions to be stronger:


They fisk two articles, one by Anne Applebaum in Slate, which posits that WHO shouldn’t deviate from their general mission to focus on social and economic factors:


And David Brooks column in the New York Times, where he argues that the local apporach is better than the global approach: If the response were coordinated by a global agency, those local officials would not be so empowered. 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.”


Eric Posner at the Volokh Conspiracy: “Brooks writes as though we could have a centralized agency if we wanted but that we have wisely opted for a more decentralized approach. In fact, it is doubtful that we could have such an agency but if we could it would be better if we did. Our current system is very much a second best, and it’s wrong to treat this failure of international cooperation as though it resulted from wise, conservative self-restraint on the part of nation states rather than the limits of the state system.”

Posner ends with: “This is a happy story of the success of international organizations but it also illustrates the limits of international law. An optimal system—the system that would exist if states could fully resolve collective action problems and overcome their conflicting interests—would be far more intrusive. It would have stringent laws and feature an agency that resembles domestic authorities that have draconian powers to quarantine and otherwise interfere with people’s freedoms when a disease outbreak strikes. And in international regimes where science does not provide an objective grounding for states’ interests, even the minimalist type of international cooperation illustrated by WHO won’t be possible.”


Two others posts that Posner cites:

Kenneth Anderson in Opinio Juris:


David P. Fidler at the American Society of International Law:


David Brooks cites G. John Ickenberry in his column. Daniel Drezner happens to have Marshall Mcluhan G. John Ickenberry right here (no, literally, he does and he makes the joke, too) and Ickenberry says Brooks is falsely positing an either/or situation where they are not in fact alternatives:


The Wonk Room at Think Progress also has a reply to Brooks:

“Why do you need those international architectures, like, in this case, the World Health Organization (WHO)? There are many reasons, but to name a few:

1. To track the spread of the flu globally, and see how it is mutating as it goes, you need flu samples from around the world. Some countries, for political reasons, would not offer them freely to the US. Only a politically neutral body like the World Health Organization can collect those (and sometimes, not even it can).

2. The WHO helps create and foster the very networks among scientists and government officials around the world that Brooks cites as useful.

3. Some countries don’t have the capacity to mount what Brooks calls a “bottom-up, highly aggressive response.” Some organization needs to help create that capacity and call attention to its absence as a weak link in the global chain. If every country had a CDC like ours, there would be less reason to worry. But they don’t. Not even close.”


And finally, The University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog’s Anupam Chander:


Anything else about this topic? Put it in the comments.

UPDATE #1: Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy.

UPDATE #2: More Bloggingheads, with Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner.

UPDATE #3: John Boonstra against Brooks.

UPDATE #4: Marc Siegel in Slate


1 Comment

Filed under International Institutions, Public Health

One response to “Who needs the WHO?

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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