The global reality behind 'local' problems

The global reality behind 'local' problems
© Getty Images

As former members of Congress from Illinois and Florida respectively, we remember the awe and the apprehension we felt during our first few months in Congress. Navigating the labyrinthian hallways, hiring staff, facing a torrent of requests from constituents and colleagues — the wave of responsibility new members face can feel overwhelming.  

We’re writing to offer a global perspective on some of the complex issues you’ll face, sharing what we’ve learned during our combined thirty-two years navigating the same halls. We write this not only as former Congressmen, but as fiscal conservatives and national security hawks who believe in the power of global organizations like the UN to be a powerful force for good impacting your constituents, our country and the world.


Here then, are three reflections for your consideration as you begin your journeys:

Local problems can have global roots.  

These days, few problems stand alone; most are interconnected and complex. Consider opioids. While most know that this scourge transcends state lines and socio-economic classes, few fully comprehend the international nature of the current opioid epidemic.

There’s a reason our president made drugs a prime focus of his trip to the UN General Assembly this past September: the U.S. is among the most severely affected countries in the world when measured by opioid-related deaths. This is not a problem we can solve alone; Illicit opioid production is a worldwide phenomenon, requiring a coordinated, international response.  

The UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has tracked the explosive growth in synthetic opioids, present in 111 countries and territories around the world, so that policies can be better designed to meet the evolving challenge. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the precursor chemicals and opioid “analogues” that are placed on international watch lists. Together the UNODC and the WHO set international standards for prevention and treatment.

As you work within your communities to reduce demand and increase treatment options, understand that the story of supply playing out across the globe will impact your hometown.  

Addressing problems “over there” benefits Americans here.

During your time in Congress, you will hear versions of this question again and again: “Why should we send money overseas? We have enough problems in our own country.”

It’s a fair question. The fact of the matter is that conditions and conflicts overseas, especially those involving extremist ideologies, don’t stay overseas and it is far less expensive to solve problems overseas before they arrive at our border. We learned this bitter truth on 9-11, and by the half dozen smaller attacks inspired by extremist ideologies in the years since.  Americans know it too; defending the nation against terrorism has been Americans’ top policy priority for 15 years straight, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Resources are finite. As fiscal conservatives, you might be surprised to learn we’re proponents of international aid as a critical tool in the fight against terrorism. Whether U.S. funds are used to mitigate the conditions of extreme poverty (prime recruiting grounds for terrorists) or to support UN Peacekeeping operations overseas, international aid can lead to solutions that are quicker and cheaper making it among the best investments our country makes.

Of the 14 UN Peacekeeping missions currently underway, the majority operate in regions where terrorists are angling to gain new ground.  It’s in our national security interests to support efforts that attempt to contain terrorist threats at the source.

It’s in our financial interests, too. While it’s true that the US contributes more than any other developed country to the UN Peacekeeping budget,  it’s also true that UN Peacekeeping from an American perspective, is cost-effective. The bipartisan Government Accountability Office reports that contributing to UN Peacekeeping operations is 8-times less expensive in blood and treasure for the U.S. than it would be to field our own forces. As the former Chief of Staff for the US Central Command put it,

“We can't be, and we shouldn't have to be, everywhere all the time.”

A health threat anywhere is a health threat everywhere.

There are many good reasons to care about the health of others around the globe.

Some consider it a matter of morality, or an expression of American values.  Others point to more practical considerations: Bacteria and viruses don’t respect borders.

It was 100 years ago this year that the Spanish flu swept through the world, killing an estimated 20-50 million people.  In the years since, global health threats have been well understood by American leaders. President George W. Bush initiated a major U.S. interagency and international effort to prepare for a potentially severe pandemic, the “bird flu” virus. President Obama built on those efforts, developing the Global Health Security Agenda coordinated through the WHO and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, among others.  Always critical to these efforts: global organizations, sharing information, leveraging resources and working together.

That’s why Americans should care about the 69% spike in malaria cases in Venezuela. That’s why we need to support the WHO’s efforts to contain ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s why we need to back the many UN agencies, that together vaccinate 45% of the world’s children.

Like it or not, the reality of our age is that we are interconnected and interdependent. Working with multilateral organizations like the UN isn’t optional, it’s necessary for the safety and security of all Americans.

The UN, like Congress, isn’t perfect.  It shares the complexities and inefficiencies of most large organizations--albeit an organization that spans 193 countries and dozens of languages. We pressed for reforms during our time in Congress, and as the nation responsible for bringing the UN into existence, we must continue to ensure that U.S. contributions are used effectively. That means leading from within, through the hard work of diplomacy and engagement.  

As you set out to make your mark, understand the context around America’s challenges. And should your apprehension loom greater than your awe, walk out on the west side of the Capitol during sunset.  Go with the awe.

Former Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (R-Ill.) represented Illinois from 2010 through 2016  and as a U.S. Representative the decade prior. Former Rep. Ander CrenshawAlexander (Ander) Mann CrenshawBottom line Bottom Line The global reality behind 'local' problems MORE (R-Fla.) represented Florida’s 4th District in the U.S. Congress from 2001-2017. Both congressmen are Arthur H. Vandenberg Distinguished Fellows at the United Nations Foundation, where they advise on foreign policy and national security challenges.