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Is AIDS a security threat?

Journalist Stephan Faris has a nice essay in the recent Atlantic which looks at why the Pentagon ranks AIDS as a major security threat. The piece quotes from Sue Peterson’s paper (which we discussed at our Princeton meeting last year) that found a statistical connection between AIDS and a decline in socio-economic indicators which, in turn, were correlated with increases in violent conflict and human rights abuses. Faris’ piece reviews some of the security worries associated with AIDS: what happens when you have 25 million AIDS orphans raised without much adult supervision?; the high rates of AIDS in African militaries that may undermine state sovereignty and their deployment as peacekeepers; the risks of those same soldiers passing the virus during deployments; and the general risk of instability if AIDS affects such a large proportion of the population.

There is no shortage of studies looking at the links between AIDS and security (the Council on Foreign Relations has a long study, Tony Barnett at the LSE has another, Stephan Elbe has a long piece in International Studies Quarterly, and P.W. Singer has a piece in Survival). There is also the famous National Intelligence Council report warning of the next generation of AIDS cases in China, India, and Russia. We’ve also blogged (and here) about the links between HIV and security. Despite these purported links, Alex de Waal in his recent book makes a pretty strong case for why AIDS hasn’t been much of a political issue yet which I think also causes us to wonder about whether or not AIDS will become a security challenge.

African publics have not mobilized much on AIDS because they have so many other pressing problems to worry about. As writers on environmental security have noted, depravation on its own does not cause people to fight. If that were the case, we’d see more conflicts than we do. Interestingly, some of the places with the highest prevalence of AIDS in Africa–South Africa and Botswana–have not erupted into violence or human rights abuses. Countries with lower AIDS levels in West Africa and the Horn are the ones experiencing the most conflict. What are we to make of this?

I think there are efforts by advocates in the West to make a stark case for the security risks stemming from AIDS, in part because this way of framing the problem may have more appeal to policymakers after 9/11. I have done similar work on climate and security, and as one concerned about climate change, I can see the temptation. That said, I’m a little worried that it is possible to make too strong a case. I think an important question we have to ask, as de Waal does, is why haven’t we seen more politicization of AIDS in Africa and conflict in countries with high AIDS prevalence? While we tend to think of violent conflict negatively, the shockingly low level of attention by most African policymakers to the disease should be a source of political contestation. Amy Patterson, in her recent book, suggests AIDS is starting to become part of the electoral calculus in Africa, but this is long overdue.

As I have written elsewhere, my own sense is that even if great parts of Africa were to fall apart (as Darfur is), the actual threat to U.S. security would be modest, but it would be a grave moral failure on our part to sit back and watch hundreds of thousands (or millions) die. That’s why I have consistently championed the moral calling by Christian conservatives on AIDS and other issues because I think morality is more likely to serve as a legitimate and sustainable basis of mobilization. That said, people get concerned about these issues for multiple reasons. Security has every right to be part of the mix, but it’s also good to keep these lingering concerns about the links in perspective.

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One Response to “Is AIDS a security threat?”

  1. We have heard a lot about the potential threat of African epidemics in the future conditional tense. But there are several points that belie those threats. Your Botswana and South Africa examples are great. Another would be the millions of deaths in Congo in the early 2000s that failed to register in the public debate on global security. There in the mineral rich heart of central Africa nearly a fourth the size of the USA, conflict raged unabated, ebola erupted, and the international order scarcely noticed.

    Another assumption on HIV and conflict is more complex than the press lets on. Conflict can serve to suppress HIV incidence as populations are more preoccupied with survival than maintenance of longterm concurrent sexual relations (the ideal network for HIV transmission as mentioned previously on this blog).