The Next National Security

07/07/2010 02:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Jack d'Annibale and Richard Arthur

Last week, the USNS Mercy hospital ship completed its mission to Cambodia as part of the United States Navy's Pacific Partnership. Among the 29,000 patients treated by Navy doctors and Cambodian medical staff was a small boy who underwent a successful surgery. During pre-op, an attentive sailor spotted the boy's mother struggling to walk through a passageway on the ship. After a timely diagnosis and successful cataract surgery, mother joined son in post-op recovery with vision restored in both her eyes.

In spite of these stories, the Mercy's civic assistance mission did not generate prominent headlines. Granted, humanitarian work is far less sexy than, say, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan getting fired for mocking civilian officials in a magazine article. However, it's crucial to keep the Mercy in mind, as it illuminates what is sure to be a vital element of our national security posture for years to come. For centuries the U.S. Navy has practiced gunboat diplomacy; today it is adding a new skill set, "hospital ship diplomacy."

In the last days of 2004, the USS Lincoln Carrier Strike Group raced to tsunami-ravaged Indonesia. Round-the-clock relief missions saved tens of thousands of lives in the aftermath of the disaster. They also radically changed Indonesians' attitudes toward America. Polls revealed the people of Indonesia -- the world's largest Muslim country -- gave the United States a 90 percent approval rating -- a mighty step up from a traditional rating of 45 percent. Though it's hard to put a price tag on this sort of goodwill, it's surely a valuable possession in the fight against radicalized violent Islam.

Embracing the relief mission's impact, the Navy soon launched an ongoing program that would eventually fall under the umbrella of Pacific Partnership. In 2006, the Mercy steamed into the South China Sea -- the first proactive deployment of a U.S. Navy hospital ship in history. The vessel has been leading humanitarian missions in the Pacific sphere since, treating roughly 150,000 people in 10 partner nations. Similar training missions are now regularly conducted by the USNS Comfort in the Atlantic.

Last week, the passageways of the Mercy bustled with Sailors, Marines, Soldiers and Airmen, as well as personnel from the State Department and USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. Together, these Americans, working alongside Cambodian officials, foreign officers and NGO partners, fanned out across the countryside, treating and healing the sick, repairing and updating medical clinics, rebuilding local schools and drilling community water wells.

Each surgical procedure and engineering feat added to the expertise and skill of American and Cambodian doctors and community leaders. The surgeries on the Cambodian mother and son not only changed their lives for the better, but also prepared local doctors to restore and save other lives in the future. The impact of the Mercy's few days spent anchored in the coastal waters of Cambodia will be felt for a generation to come.

The successes of this diverse group of American emissaries speak to an underlying strategy championed by the Obama administration. In recent remarks at the Brookings Institution, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touted the administration's "whole of government approach" to foreign policy, that defense, diplomacy and development are part of an integrated mission to increase security and prosperity, both at home and abroad.

While the Pentagon and the State Department are usual suspects when it comes to advancing American interests, USAID is not so well known. Founded in 1961 by President Kennedy, USAID is the U.S. government's principal foreign aid agency. President Obama has put new emphasis on international development, calling it a "moral, strategic and economic imperative." In his recently released National Security Strategy, the President promises that USAID will promote security and economic growth by assaulting the conditions where criminal and terrorist activity thrive -- rampant poverty, hunger, illness, illiteracy and political unrest.

Building on this new, energized approach to development, USAID's administrator, Dr. Rajiv Shah, promises an entrepreneurial spirit and unprecedented level of transparency when it comes to agency spending. In short, Dr. Shah has promised the American people the biggest possible bang for their international aid buck.

However, there are some who believe that a dollar spent to improve conditions in a foreign land is mostly a dollar wasted, particularly in these times of financial constraint. Nothing could be further from the truth. International development amounts to less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Plus, when spent well, humanitarian dollars reap huge returns to the economic and security interests of the United States of America.

Consider South Korea. In 1953, postwar Korea was shell shocked and starving. Universal primary education was a dream, resources were scant, and the average income per person was a meager $890 per year. America's development dollars helped build that nation's infrastructure, school system and economy from the ground up. Today, primary education in Korea is at 100 percent, the average annual income is $17,000 and South Korea is one of America's strongest allies.

Consider the value of development aid for a U.S. soldier standing post in South Korea. How much more dangerous would his mission be today without a strong and free South Korea? Consider the electrical machinist in Minneapolis who is earning a good wage and providing for his family because his employer does business with South Korea's free market economy.

Yes, South Korea's success story has been decades in the making. Yes, development is a painstaking, long-term enterprise. But, as Secretary Clinton recently remarked, "It's the right thing to do and it's the smart thing to do."

In the coming weeks, the men and women of the Mercy will continue their mission, returning to Indonesia and Timor-Leste, doing their part to lay the groundwork for what could be a wave of 21st-century success stories like South Korea.

The risk and personal sacrifice of humanitarian and civil assistance missions are shared by our servicemen as well as USAID personnel and contractors. Their stories of service and sacrifice compose a larger vision of strong, principled, progressive American leadership writing a new chapter in world affairs -- a story of countless mothers and sons living in wellness not sickness, in prosperity not poverty, in triumph not tragedy.

Why do they believe in this vision? Why do we?

It's the smart thing to do. It's the right thing to do.


Jack d'Annibale is the Founder of R.W.L. Public Strategies and a Truman National Security Fellow.

Richard Arthur is a naval officer, filmmaker, television writer and fellow for the Truman National Security Project. His views do not necessarily represent those of the United States Navy.