What’s bothering me particularly about the Mexican swine-flu outbreak isn’t just the gory sense of what the disease does once you get it, but rather how you get it in the first place. H1N1 has an eerily familiar way of sliding into our lives and it reminds me that this latest epidemic looks unnervingly like so many other dangers. The spread of swine flu looks similar to the financial flu that blitzed and crippled our banking system last year. It evokes the virus of Islamic fundamentalism that we now see infecting the planet at an ever-faster rate—and that is terrifyingly unresponsive to traditional medicines of politics or even the best surgical strikes.
Here’s what’s making me nervous about H1N1: It’ a reminder that a dangerous contagion abounds now, not just a disease contagion. And it’s a pretty clear reminder that in his first 100 days at least, President Obama hasn’t yet laid out the full set of plans we need to deal with an age of infectious danger. But the weird coincidence of swine flu and the 100 days offers an interesting set of lessons for the president as he plans for the next 100.
I studied epidemic science in some detail for my book The Age of the Unthinkable because, frankly, we are now living in a petri dish of infectious risk. Here are the lessons I learned and how they fit with the larger problems the president now faces.
1. Virus risk is now everywhere—we can’t avoid it and live the way we want.
Maybe the most unnerving feature of our age is that the things we rely on to make life better often also make it more perilous. Airplanes, financial markets, computer webs—all of these bind us ever closer together and into shared webs of risk and danger.
Scientists call dangers like these “systemic risks” because they emerge from the very way in which the system is organized. Any tightly bound network faces systemic risk, and the more closely a food web or financial web is linked, the more dangerous it becomes. In fact, in one of those weird quirks of our world, the more efficient a network is, the more dangerous it is—this is why financial markets are so efficient at blowing themselves up. Perturbations in linked nets spread with astonishing speed; crises in one area (think the subprime crisis) quickly turn into challenges in another (U.S.-China relations). The lesson: Obama has to begin to think and speak in terms of how he is preparing all of us for flu attacks of all kinds: financial, ideological and biological.
2. Think like an epidemiologist, not a politician.
Confronted with big challenges—economic crises, health disasters—the instinct of most politicians is to hack problems to pieces and then tackle them bit by bit with targeted legislation or departments or high-level envoys. But in an interconnected world, that’s not enough. Every problem is linked to every other problem so our solutions need to be broad-based and aim not only at the particular problem (like bad lending practices), but also at the way these problems effect everything else. And that offers a crucial lesson for Obama: Systemic risk means that simply tackling the parts of a challenge—no matter how brilliantly you do so—can never be enough. In foreign-policy terms, this systemic sense is called a “Grand Strategy,” and it’s the thing most obviously missing from this very active presidency at the 100-day mark.
3. Even the best doctors can’t stop a pandemic alone.
What the president has built so far is an administration that looks like a health-care system filled only with great doctors but without a plan for public health. Today there is no unifying principle that backs the work of aggressive diplomats like Richard Holbrooke or smart operational Cabinet members like Janet Napolitano. In an age of unthinkable pandemic risk, that’s a dangerous problem.
Without a grand strategy, the ambitions of Obama’s Team of Rivals risk slipping into incoherent political struggle. And a big strategy hole like the one we have now encourages our enemies to mistake Obama’s valuable openness for indecisiveness. Worse, it makes it hard to progress in complex areas such as nuclear proliferation or trade and environment talks because we’ll never have a real plan for where to compromise and where to stand firm. And worst of all, we’ll be poorly prepared for other pandemic surprises that lie ahead.
4. The next 100 days: Build us an immune system.
What Obama needs to deliver now isn’t a grand strategy in the old-school style of the Monroe Doctrine, but rather one that looks like a global immune system: fast-moving, capable of quickly working across traditional lines to confront problems, flexible, and with power and responsibility widely distributed. Many of our enemies have such an immune system. For my book, I spent time with Hezbollah. Their resilience in the face of Israeli attack is famous.
Building an immune system for the United States would be a political boost to Obama, helping to reinforce ideas he holds most strongly. Epidemic theory—which studies everything from runs on banks to forest fires—teaches that it’s vital to focus on the weakest, most vulnerable links in a networked system, a lesson that supports Obama’s actions on poverty and on narrowing the rich-poor gap. Another epidemic-crisis principle is the importance of resilience, of the ability of a system to withstand challenge and get stronger—an idea that transforms Obama’s focus on infrastructure, education, and health care from “nice to have” reforms into urgent priorities. An immune system grand strategy would also help end the debate about if Obama is “doing too much.” Confronted with the potential of more destabilizing infections, we can never “do too much” to boost our immunity.
Foreign-policy types often like to joke that “Democrats don’t do grand strategy.” But in a moment of global viral crisis, that’s like saying “doctors don’t do public health.” Ultimately this is work only the president can do, a task that involves at once transcending the tactical minds around him and uniting them in common purpose. The simultaneous arrival of swine flu and the 100 days may turn out to offer a fortunate reminder to the White House: In an age of viral dangers, no medicine is of any use without a clear plan for our long-term health. Obama can learn from the swine flu—and if he wants to succeed, he must.
Joshua Cooper Ramo is managing director and a partner at Kissinger Associates, one of the world's leading strategic-advisory firms. Prior to joining Kissinger Associates, he was assistant managing editor of Time and worked in the advisory and banking business in China.