Global healthBorders no longer exist when you talk about health. This rings true at present for a world which has undergone through changes of a global nature which in turn have created as well, global problems/challenges needing effective collective action. Such global problems contain the issues of climate change, economic instability of various forms, human migration, conflict and diseases (pandemics)—which is why there is a need for intensified interaction between and among states done primarily through the age-old art and practice of diplomacy.

Disease and Diplomacy within the context of evolution

The glaring truth is that diseases over the years have continued to evolve but alongside this worsening global problem are the continuous advancements in the field of health. And in order to meet the needs of ensuring international human security in terms of effective global health programs, foreign policy with diplomacy as one of its instruments has been put forth as probably, one of the factors which could help strengthen collective actions that aim to address trans-border issues that continue to plague the modern era.

Fortunately enough, the practice of diplomacy has also continued to evolve from the ancient times up to the 21stcentury. Such transformations in its practice have created a distinction between traditional and new diplomacy. In the study of IR, it is common knowledge that shifts in foreign policy has challenged the practice of diplomacy. Such shifts include the balance of power from Pax Britannica (during which the British Empire was the global hegemon) to Pax Americana (dominance enjoyed by the US starting in the middle of the 20th century), the vital role of Asian geopolitics in the 1940s, the onset of the Cold War which paved the way for the new world order at the time and definitely the creation of international organizations like the United Nations for instance. To note, the rise of the so-called BRICS nations is also considered as one of the many shifts in foreign policy. With the Cold War ending came as well, the geopolitical reconfiguration of the international states system. States now can also engage in other types of diplomacy such as Regional Diplomacy.

So with both health and diplomacy in the process of continuous transformation, diplomats are not only anymore engaging with high-end state officials but with anyone or any group which has the power and resources to operate on a global level. Such multi-lateral engagements with non-state actors (NSAs) correspond to the promotion of utilizing Soft Power in foreign policy instead of Hard Power. Better yet, a combination of the two which is called Smart Power is considered as one of the best tools to engage states and non-state actors in advancing interests vis-à-vis global health policies. It is inevitable to say that health has now become an indispensable part of the global agenda and it comes with the attachment that global health is also a means of furthering foreign policy. With the declining belief in the use of hard power, the question of what other tools are available to pursue foreign policy goals have led to the answer—particularly of industrialized governments, that medical diplomacy could help integrate health policy with their own state policies in order for them to achieve more.

Global Health Diplomacy: Health as a tool of foreign policy?

Yes, Global Health Diplomacy (GHD) is indeed considered as a means to fortifying the relations between and among states. GHD within the context of new diplomacy is considered as tool which can not only promote peace and security (of people’s rights to health access), economic stability and social justice, but investing in it can also elevate the national interests of states through the improvement of health care systems. GHD so far, has been consistently defined as an agent of political change which allows for the achievement of twofold goals which includes first, the improvement of global health and second—the repair of areas in which diplomacy has been unsuccessful in dealing with (GHS Initiative in Health Diplomacy, UCSF 2008).

At the moment, health is now considered as integral and political since many countries have made it to be a reference point in their foreign policies. It is no longer only the responsibility of health practitioners or health ministers since they themselves have come to terms with the fact that they would have to gain a better understanding of global health negotiations operating within a highly-politicized context. From this, it can be safely deduced that GHD has been defined based on its utility applied via soft power. For instance, supporting political programs to improve state relations and creating new alliances deftly puts soft power into use—formal international and bilateral and multilateral negotiations like The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is one example. Other types of activities in GHD include multi-stakeholder diplomacy (i.e. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS) and definitely interactions between and among health actors from one country performing in another country (i.e. USAID in Ghana).

GHD has also been utilized by rising states as they try to address the need for development. A case in point would be Cuba and China which from the 1960s have begun engaging in medical diplomacy. China’s foreign interest at the time includes trading medical staff for long term energy and food supply with Africa. Cuba on the other hand, made engagements with about 70 countries including Venezuela in order to acquire discounted barrels of oil. These are just few of the many displays of soft power use in GHD. Also, while GHD can surely encourage cooperation among states and non-state actors, the true intentions/motivations of governments in placing health at the forefront of collective action often remains vague—may it be on military and humanitarian action or foreign aid and investments.

Concluding the Epidemic: A Challenge for Global Health Diplomacy

In order to manage the growing number of health actors in GHD then, health institutions or international health departments have to be strengthened to uphold accountability and transparency when it comes to health and foreign policy. An example of such mechanisms for cooperation includes The European Union Council’s Conclusions on the EU Role in Global Health as well as cooperation between the governments of UK, Switzerland, Japan and Norway.

As a final point, one of the current quandaries the globalizing world is facing in health is the spread of Ebola. GHD must be put to use in order to accelerate the effective response based on concrete actions of states in order to contain the outbreak. Spreading doom-laden statements about the contagion only serves to undermine and detach states from cooperating with each other. The challenge therefore lies on the international community in stepping-up its efforts to educate the public about health including other preventive measures. As mentioned earlier, the world is indeed rapidly globalizing and with such increased interconnectedness comes more complex health problems. This serves as a wake-up call for the increasing need of effective and efficient global health policies—policies which can hopefully be formulated and implemented through Global Health Diplomacy.