The USNS Mercy, a former oil tanker converted into a 1000-bed floating hospital, joined this week with components of U.S. 7th Fleet to participate in the Pacific Partnership. The Pacific Partnership is a multinational mission to provide medical and dental services to the people of various Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean nations, held every year since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.
Unfortunately, the Mercy is one of only two such hospital ships in the United States Navy capable of providing health services abroad. When the United States conducts peacetime operations around the world—and though it often goes unreported by the media, the U.S. is doing so constantly—it uses the United States Armed Forces. American military personnel build do peacetime work from building schools and bridges to providing medical care for disaster victims.
While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, it is a dangerous overstretch of U.S. resources in an increasingly chaotic world. Sure, the image of American soldiers or sailors delivering pencils to barefoot Malaysian children helps with PR; but in a theater where there is a constant threat of confrontation with the Chinese Navy and Air Forces, should U.S. assets be spared for humanitarian work?
Here at The American Interest, our editor Adam Garfinkle has advocated the establishment of a U.S. Global Health Corps, which would carry out the same basic mission as the Mercy but to do it independently of the Department of Defense. That way, key resources can be reserved for their specific tasks, granting U.S. policymakers more flexibility when health crises and military flashpoints occur simultaneously.
The U.S. has a genuine commitment to improving the lives of peoples around the world, born of our intrinsic Wilsonian temperament. We should ensure we can perform these missions of mercy with the greatest possible effectiveness and least possible cost to our other priorities. Reorganizing our foreign policy apparatuses to make room for a Global Health Corps would be a smart thing to do—and would dramatically increase the resources available to the USNS Mercy in carrying out its mission.