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Pacific Partnership and the Human Security Imperative

Expensive weapons systems may grab headlines, but human security initiatives have a vital role to play in U.S. strategy.

By Gregory M. Noddin Poulin for

Natural disaster, pandemics, abject poverty, environmental degradation – all human security issues and all a growing threat to regional and international security. Where the U.S. military has sought to respond to these challenges in the Pacific theater, the operations have shown the ability to enhance stability and security while fostering ties with regional governments.

Despite this demonstrated success, human security operations remain an underused component of U.S. diplomatic and military strategy. Funding for human security is often overlooked in favor of politically exciting weapons systems. With mandatory budget cuts, known as sequestration, the Pentagon is facing a $500 billion cut in its budget allocations over the next decade. Even with this new constraint, the military must not overlook the importance of human security.

To date, the U.S. approach to human security has mostly been limited to responding to natural disasters, such as the Haiti earthquake in 2010. This limitation is due in no small part to a “plans-reality mismatch”: rather than expanding human security operations, the military is predominantly concerned with developing new weapons systems that, ultimately, prove unnecessary.

Even as politicians squabble over government spending, the Pentagon continues to fund exorbitant programs, often making spending decisions for political, rather than strategic or budgetary, considerations. This plans-reality mismatch is perhaps epitomized by the ballistic missile defense program and F-22 Raptor fighter jet. These two programs are an ineffective defense against nonexistent threats that divert limited resources away from less expensive and more effective programs. The F-22 Raptor was originally slated to cost $149 million per jet. Nearly a decade behind schedule, costs soared to over $400 million per aircraft, making it the most expensive fighter jet in history. Shortly after the F-22 became operational in 2005, several Air Force pilots refused to fly it due to health and safety concerns, leading the entire fleet to be grounded. Despite being marketed as the most advanced fighter jet ever conceived, the F-22 never saw combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, or during military operations over Libya. After investing $63.7 billion in the program, the Pentagon cancelled all further purchases in 2012, after procuring just 188 of the 750 jets it had originally planned.

As for Defense Department plans for an anti-ballistic missile shield, the Pentagon invested $149.5 billion on ballistic missile defense between 1985 and 2012, not including the $9.7 billion it spent in 2013, according to the Missile Defense Agency. Tasked with what has been described as “hitting a bullet with a bullet,” the system is designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles headed towards the U.S. However, it failed to intercept eight of 16 controlled test missiles – with the last successful test intercept occurring five years ago. Systemic failures in the program led 50 Nobel laureates to pen an open letter to Congress expressing doubts that the system could be effective. One of those voicing his concerns was University of Texas physics professor and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, who concluded: “Our missile defense program is an expensive, ineffective defense against an implausible threat.” Yet ballistic missile defense has remained at the forefront of a flawed defense strategy.

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In the years to come, the U.S. will be increasingly forced to confront non-traditional security challenges, including human security threats, which will require non-traditional military responses. Operations in the Pacific theater have produced notable gains in regional stability, for both indigenous populations and American interests. In 2003, just 15 percent of Indonesians held a favorable opinion of the United States. Following the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, and subsequent U.S. response, including deployment of the hospital ship USNS Mercy to assist in relief efforts, America’s approval rating in Indonesia soared to 38 percent.

Since 2004, the U.S. has successfully engaged in human security operations throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Dubbed the Pacific Partnership, the U.S. and partner nations have worked to provide humanitarian and civic assistance, as well as cultivate diplomatic, economic and military relationships with the local populace and governments of Pacific nations.

The most recent Pacific Partnership mission in 2012 was led by one of the U.S. Navy’s two hospital ships, the USNS Mercy. Over the course of five months the Mercy traveled more than 20,000 miles, visiting Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. The mission included over 1,200 personnel from every branch of the U.S. military, the departments of State and Justice as well as over a dozen nations and 11 non-governmental organizations. The organizations collaborated to provide medical care to 50,000 patients, including immunizations, optical care, dental treatment and surgery. Additionally, more than 7,000 domestic animals received veterinary care. Captain Jonathan Olmstead, officer in charge of the civil service members aboard the Mercy, noted the importance of the Pacific Partnership: “My most profound memory was watching six surgeries – all of which were performed in a 30-minute timeframe while we were anchored off the Philippines. We saw four children and two adults receive life-changing procedures including cataract transplants, tumor removals, and other corrective surgery. That's when it really hit me why PP12 (Pacific Partnership 2012) is so important.”

In addition to medical and veterinary care, the Pacific Partnership 2012 hosted 62 expert exchange seminars teaching medical care, disaster preparedness, and food and water safety to indigenous populations and local governments. Civic operations meanwhile included more than 100 community service projects, including delivery of 144,000 pounds of supplies requested by host nations.

Speaking about the vital role of human security and the Pacific Partnership, Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, noted: "You're building trust, bonds, and how to communicate. We give it a fancy term, interoperability — it's more than just technology. It's cultural. It's this business of building trust with like-minded nations." Abe Denmark, senior director of the National Bureau of Asian Research, elaborated on the importance of human security operations: “The image of American power going abroad and bringing benefits to people all around the world who otherwise wouldn't have access to this kind of care — to this kind technology — it builds the image of American power, of American soft power, in a way that's almost unquantifiable.”

The Pacific Partnership model demonstrates the importance of U.S. human security operations, and how readily it can be replicated and expanded beyond the Indo-Asia-Pacific theater. Allowing the U.S. to provide humanitarian assistance and stability to virulent and developing regions around the world, while simultaneously enhancing its standing and regional influence without becoming bogged down in long-term commitments.

Importantly, all host nations during the Pacific Partnership 2012 have a strategic regional importance to U.S. interests in the Pacific theater. Vietnam borders China and shares a vital coastline along South China Sea trading routes, the Philippines has struggled with Islamic extremist groups, including Al-Qaeda, while Indonesia hosts the world’s largest Muslim population. Working with the global community toward the common goal of enhancing stability through access to the most basic medical and civic services is integral to fostering and strengthening indigenous and intergovernmental relationships as well as regional security.

While U.S. human security operations have been almost exclusively limited to the Pacific theater, China has begun using human security to enhance its global sphere of influence, with operations throughout Asia, Africa and the Caribbean – often to improve relations with mineral and resource rich-nations. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) commissioned its first humanitarian ship, the Peace Ark, in 2007 – five years before it commissioned its first aircraft carrier. The Peace Ark has become a vital component of China’s foreign relations strategy throughout Asia and Africa. PLAN has been deploying the Peace Ark on humanitarian missions virtually identical to the Pacific Partnership, throughout the Horn of Africa making stops in Kenya, Tanzania and Djibouti; as well as the Asian nations of India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Brunei and Indonesia, visiting as far west as Cuba. By deploying the Peace Ark as a central element of its soft power strategy, the Chinese government has been cultivating diplomatic and economic relations with governments in developing and emerging markets throughout Asia and Africa. Successful Chinese human security operations further demonstrate the vital importance of a strong U.S. human security presence in the developing world. Washington’s failure to expand human security will likely result in Beijing filling the void, expanding China’s regional influence at the expense of America’s.

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To expand human security, it is imperative the Pentagon strikes a balance between spending on weapons systems and allocating funds to non-traditional security threats. Human security offers the U.S. military arguably the most cost effective and efficient means to enhance both stability and U.S. regional influence. With looming defense budget cuts due to sequestration, it could be easy to neglect funding for human security or overlook it in favor of large-scale weapons systems. In 2012, the U.S. spent $645.75 billion on defense allocations, with funding for human security virtually nonexistent: representing approximately one-hundredth of 1 percent of total military spending. The cost of the Pacific Partnership 2012 totaled $20 million, compared with the more than $200 billion invested in the anti-ballistic missile system and F-22 Raptor, two systems that have proven ineffective and unnecessary. While these systems receive the most attention, the importance of human security must be recognized. Sequestration provides the Pentagon a unique opportunity to realign its budgetary considerations away from needless weapons systems and make available the modest funding required to expand human security operations beyond the Pacific theater.

While the U.S. maintains the strongest, most technologically advanced military in the world, the drive to remain at the top has, at times, led the Pentagon astray. As the world paradigm shifts away from a hegemonic power toward a multipolar world order, the U.S. can maintain and enhance its stature as a global power through soft power and human security operations. While primarily conducted in the Pacific, human security operations can readily be expanded to other regions, including South America, Africa and the Middle East – as the Chinese have done adeptly. This approach could enable the U.S. to cultivate relationships with foreign governments and militaries without becoming bogged down in long-term commitments.

Human security is no substitute for a technologically advanced fighting force. However, when responsibly funded weapons programs are augmented by human security operations, the two can work to reinforce one another. Expanded human security operations will allow the U.S. to enhance its national security by building and repairing America’s image abroad through contributions to underdeveloped regions. As the U.S. is increasingly forced to respond to nontraditional security threats around the globe, human security will play an ever more critical role in cultivating economic and diplomatic relationships with global militaries and governments, as it has in the Pacific.

Gregory M. Noddin Poulin is a visiting graduate student at Harvard University where he studies government and globalization.