12/23/2014 02:23 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

Medical Diplomacy Against Global Turmoil: Battling Tsunamis, Earthquakes and Ebola

The United States was there after Asia's tsunami ten years ago. It flew humanitarian aid to Pakistani flood victims with military helicopters in 2010. U.S. Marines dug Haitians from the rubble of a deadly earthquake. And now, America is on the front lines of the fight against Ebola in Africa.

One extra benefit of working in the humanitarian sector after a major disaster is that by treating the sick and the injured, we can do more than help survivors - we can also enhance the image of our own country overseas. Of course, this is not our primary goal; we are on humanitarian missions. But at a time of global turmoil, when national borders are frayed and developing nations are challenging U.S. influence, this so-called soft power is more important than ever before.

One aspect of this approach is what I call medical diplomacy, long recognized by the United States. The U.S. government often uses the unique capabilities and global reach of our armed forces to bring relief and aid to people suffering in disasters, health crises and epidemics around the world. And while Washington is still the dominant player, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is showing that diverse nations now understand the need to tackle global health crises. China, for instance, has played a generous role, sending medical teams and laboratory workers to Africa -- a continent that is increasingly important to Beijing as a source of raw materials, fueling its development as an economic superpower.

As an example of medical diplomacy in action, I'm reminded of one operation that my organization, Project HOPE, joined in 2004 -- the Indonesian tsunami disaster. It doesn't seem possible that a decade has passed since we saw those terrible images of surge tides sweeping ashore across South and Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004. More than 230,000 people were killed.

I'll never forget the story of one young Indonesian boy, Iqbal, who was miraculously found floating at sea two days after the tsunami. His case opened my eyes to the extraordinary power of American medical assets when allied with the resources of the U.S. Navy -- and also the way in which vast operations like this can shape the image of our nation in the world.

When Iqbal, who was 12 at the time, reached our Project HOPE doctors on the hospital ship USNS Mercy, he was suffering from what physicians on the ship were calling "tsunami lung" --severe aspiration pneumonia caused by inhaling a great deal of seawater and mud.

Under the constant care of Project HOPE volunteer doctors and nurses, Iqbal spent his first week and a half on the Mercy supported by a respirator. Gradually he began breathing on his own. Soon after, he began walking. He eventually made a full recovery, and returned to Banda Aceh with his uncle. Iqbal's courage and strength were a testament to the human will.

The Mercy - which has 1,000 beds, 85 intensive care units, and 12 operating rooms - also carried 210 HOPE medical volunteers. More than 4,000 doctors and nurses applied to be a part of that team, taking care of 50,000 patients after the disaster. We also brought in more than $7 million in medicines and supplies donated by global pharmaceutical companies.

A BBC poll showed that 70 percent of the people in Indonesia, a Muslim country, had a hostile view of the U.S. before the tsunami. But public opinion improved post-tsunami, according to a poll by the Heritage Foundation which reported that almost 70 percent of Indonesians viewed the U.S. more favorably because of its disaster relief efforts in the country.

HOPE and other NGOs frequently work with the U.S. Navy, which deploys the USNS Mercy to Asia and Oceania and the USNS Comfort to the Americas to fly the flag of American medical diplomacy overseas. We've helped to save and improve countless lives. The numbers are truly impressive: the missions have visited 42 countries since 2004, caring for more than 827,000 patients, providing nearly two million health services, almost 11,000 surgeries, and conducting over 240,000 training sessions for local health professionals.

Another hugely successful example of medical diplomacy - is the decade long U.S. effort to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, known as PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Since its debut, PEPFAR has financed antiretroviral drugs for more than 5.1 million people. It's not a stretch to say that millions of people in Africa are alive today because of the generosity and expertise of the United States.

Now the U.S. is helping against the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The Obama administration argues that this is not just a medical crisis but a national security threat, since the disease has the potential to cripple already unstable African societies and create conditions where extremists can thrive.

So the brave doctors and nurses, troops and organizers who leave these shores to treat Ebola victims are doing much more than helping the sick - they are in effect, unofficial envoys, directly supporting U.S. foreign policy goals.

Secretary of State John Kerry said at the recent Global Health Security Agenda Summit in Washington that West Africa needs more than emergency relief. It needs a long term commitment from the developed world.

"In the short term, yes, we need emergency containment," he said. "But in the long term, we need to help the hardest-hit countries build the kind of health systems and infrastructure that will allow them to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to the next infectious disease, to any other outbreak, to stop those outbreaks in the first place before they become epidemics."