FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

The really big challenges facing humanity today – global warming, pandemics and terrorism – recognize no political borders. They overwhelm governments – yet nation-states continue to bear the burden of combatting them.

Unfortunately, we have no other choice. National governments are the only effective instruments we have, even as they might be subject to the vagaries of national interest, local sentiment and partisan politics.

For instance, when the United Nations decides peace-keepers are necessary in one part of the world, the international body depends on the willingness of individual nation-states to contribute the forces necessary for the mission. In the case of failed states, the situation could be tricky.

The Syrian civil war has dragged on for nearly five years now, reducing most of that nation’s cities to rubble and forcing millions to become refugees and migrants dependent on international charity. No solution could be found to end it. The radical ISIS refuses to participate in peace talks. Russia supports the Assad regime nearly unconditionally.

The situation in Syria stumped the western powers. Condemnation of the Assad regime plays into the hand of ISIS. Crushing ISIS will likely enable the brutal Assad regime to survive.

Meanwhile, Syria has nearly decomposed as a nation. Its cities are laid to waste. Its historical treasures destroyed. Its people are in a diaspora.

So thorough has Syria’s devastation been, it is now difficult to imagine the place could ever be restored as a functioning nation-state. Syria has died.

The ISIS, for its part, has mutated and multiplied virulently, delivering terror across the world, from the US to Europe to western Africa to Indonesia. A fanatical movement without borders has proliferated after a nation died.

Western nations have been condemned for inaction in the face of all the horrors associated with the Syrian civil war. Those nations, however, do not have an available mechanism for intervention. They are accountable to their publics who do not take kindly to the prospect of a full-scale invasion of a failed state.

On hindsight, the key element of international failure ought to fall on the two regional powers whose cooperation might have changed the outcomes and prevented descent into this quagmire: Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Centuries of animosity and religious rivalry prevent these two regional powers from arriving at a common effort to keep order in their part of the world.

The third regional power, Turkey, is hampered by the fact that the Turks are not Arabs. None of the troubled Arab countries relish the sight of Turkish armed forces rolling in to restore order. It smacks too much of a revival of Ottoman domination.

Syria’s civil war will likely go on and on until there is no one left to bomb. There is no mechanism to resolve it.


Last year it was the Ebola virus in western Africa that terrified the world. This year, it is the Zika virus emanating from Brazil’s jungles the has alarm bells ringing.

Ebola required an international effort to contain. While Swiss laboratories hurried to find a cure, the US inserted army contingents in the most severely affected areas to establish clinics for volunteer doctors from every continent.

At the height of the epidemic, Ebola infections were registered across the globe. The facility of modern travel has the underside of quickly converting epidemics into pandemics.

The Zika epidemic now threatens to be more explosive than Ebola. In a matter of weeks, infections spread from Brazil to Central America. The other day, a case of sexually transmitted Zika infection was recorded in the US. This is a strange virus that can reside in a man’s semen after traces of it disappears from his blood.

With its low-grade symptoms, it is difficult to detect infected persons early enough. Traditional immigrations procedures cannot stop the infection from crossing borders.

The most dangerous outcome of Zika infection are babies infected at the womb. It produces a birth deformity called “microcephalus” – babies with small heads and smaller brains. Several Latin American countries are now reduced to pleading women to avoid pregnancies until after this epidemic is eradicated.

The epidemic throws a large cloud over the Olympics that will be hosted by Brazil in a few months. It could potentially cut turnout or even force cancellations if the epidemic is not effectively curtailed.

At the forefront of the fight against Zika is the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN-affiliated agency tasked with coordinating public health efforts across the globe. The hindrance to WHO efforts, apart from limited resources, is the fact that no cure has yet been developed against infection from the virus.

Without a cure, the war against Zika will have to be principally an attack against the mosquitos that carry the virus. It is the same mosquito that carries dengue. In Brazil and neighboring countries, there is now a massive effort to clear mosquito breeding grounds.

The long effort against malaria has been helped by new technologies that enable us to genetically modify the mosquitoes themselves. Those technologies may now be deployed to contain the spread of Zika.

Still, the prospect of a global pandemic stares us in the face. There are not enough means in the hands of international agencies to enable them to lead the battle. Much of the effort will be borne by governments, with their own limitations and variable commitments.

As in the effort to reverse climate change, years of consensus-building were required before the historic Paris accord was reached late last year. Sovereignty remains a potent idea often standing in the way of global governance.

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