The case for US military response during international disasters

The scale of the U.S. military’s response to the disastrous Haiyan Typhoon in the Philippines has been impressive. The deployment of USS George Washington along with other smaller vessels has allowed for the delivery of over 600 tons of relief supplies. Moreover, U.S. military transport has already moved thousands of humanitarian workers into the disaster-stricken Tacloban and airlifted almost 5,000 survivors into safety.

As natural disasters and complex humanitarian emergencies are becoming more common worldwide, the U.S. will increasingly be called in to assist during other disasters. What’s more, weak and fragile states with inadequate emergency response capacities, infrastructure and public health services are particularly vulnerable to severe natural disasters. Here, military response is crucial to getting relief efforts up and running during the immediate post-disaster phase.

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But military-led disaster relief is not only a humanitarian imperative – it can also serve a larger strategic imperative as a part of U.S. foreign policy. Compounding the strategic importance of the US military’s role in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are four key reasons.

First, and most obviously, providing disaster relief helps boost U.S. soft power in the world. By assisting in humanitarian emergencies, the U.S. military sends a message that it’s a global force for good. The importance of this kind of ‘soft-power diplomacy’ cannot be underestimated, especially in times when the US is perceived as losing influence in the Asia-Pacific region to China. Responding to disasters can also lead to a more positive attitude towards the U.S. – as was the case following U.S. assistance during the flood in Pakistan in 2010.

Second, disaster relief can help contain some of the negative consequences of major disasters from spreading elsewhere in the world. This is particularly the case in weak states where crises can easily spill over national boundaries in the forms of massive refugee flows, the spread of infectious diseases, or environmental collapse. Case in point: the robust U.S. intervention in Haiti after the earthquake in January 2010 prevented what could otherwise have been huge refugee flows to the U.S.

Third, disaster relief is also an opportunity for the U.S. military to forge stronger multilateral security relationships with other countries’ militaries. In the Philippines, U.S. troops have worked alongside troops from several other countries. As the U.S. looks to expand its presence in the Asia-Pacific in the future, these kinds of activities can serve a clear purpose of building trust and developing military-to-military ties. As the Pentagon currently winds down its military presence in Afghanistan, relief efforts can also provide essential real-life training opportunities for American troops. Moreover, they can serve to legitimize US military presence in certain parts of the world where it is currently disputed.

Finally, military-led disaster relief reinforces the view of America as an indispensible nation. Clearly the only international actor capable of carrying out such large-scale complex operations as the one currently seen in the Philippines is the US military. Few countries are complaining when the US acts as the world’s police in times of real crisis. In contrast, China sent no troops to the Philippines and has so far contributed little in financial aid. The forceful U.S. response also serves to affirm American commitment to allies and partners that the U.S. is there and is willing to assist in times of crisis.

Of course, the military is not the only important actor in international disaster response. Relief efforts must be a whole-of-government enterprise with solid civil-military links. Other international humanitarian actors are also equally important. But, as the Philippines illustrates, in some situations the military is the only institution with the capacity to respond. Without it, nothing else can get done. Given the growing importance of disaster relief, the U.S. military should prioritize these issues even more in coming years. This is not only the right thing to do; it is also increasingly in our interest to do so.

Brattberg is a fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.