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.
Brooks has constructed an entirely fatuous false dichotomy: the uniform, heavy-handed, slow, and weak response of a global agency, versus the rapidity, efficiency, and experimentation fostered by multivarious national efforts. The point is not that the response to swine flu can be carried out only through either a centralized or uncentralized response. The WHO coordinates individual countries’ responses, making sure that no efforts are ineffective, wasted, or not in line with what must take the form of vigorous international action.
Brooks’ mean-spirited (what is “emotionally aloof from ground zero” supposed to imply?) caricature of his WHO stand-in is entirely exaggerated. Far from a plodding bureaucracy struggling to mount a response, WHO has garnered accolades from various quarters for its handling of the situation. And, more importantly, it’s the only organization around to fulfill the broad transnational coordination role that’s needed in the case of a global pandemic threat.
It doesn’t help Brooks’ case that he evidently misread international relations giant G. John Ikenberry, whom he cites as the proponent of Brooks’ fictional monolithic central response schema. According, at least, to international relations giant G. John Ikenberry (in an email to Dan Drezner):
The problem with David’s analysis is that he thinks the two strategies – national and international – are alternatives. We need both. National governments need to strengthen their capacities to monitor and respond. International capacities – at least the sorts that I propose – are meant to reinforce and assist national governments. This international capacity is particularly important in cases where nations have weak capacities to respond on their own or where coordinated action is the only way to tackle the threat. When it comes to transnational threats like health pandemics everyone everywhere is vulnerable to the weakest link (i.e. weakest nation) in the system, and so no nation can be left behind. [emphasis mine]
That’s a bit harder to misread.
(image of David Brooks, from flickr user DoubleSpeak with Matthew and Peter Slutsky under a Creative Commons license)