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Complex Emergencies and Alliance Strength

Progress of storms and hurricanes (green) and wildfires (orange), 9/16/2020

By Christine Parthemore

Late summer 2020 is serving as yet another reminder that the 21st century will be profoundly shaped by complex and compounding emergencies. In the United States alone, the confluence of severe natural disasters with the COVID-19 pandemic is jarring even those of us who focus on such threats for a living. Multiple hurricanes and tropical storms are proceeding toward the East and Gulf Coasts. The wildfire season across the Western U.S. is creating apocalyptic conditions. As Robinson Meyer described in The Atlantic, “In 2018…I noted that six of the 10 largest wildfires in state history had happened since 2008. That list has since been completely rewritten. Today, six of California’s 10 largest wildfires have happened since 2018—and five of them have happened this year.” At the same time, as of mid-September the nation is still seeing around 39,000 new COVID-19 cases being reported each day as we near a staggering 200,000 deaths from this pandemic. These events are overlaid on the profound shifts resulting from decades of injustice and systemic racism in our society.

I learned much about the challenges of simultaneous, complex emergencies from collaboration with allies like Japan and South Korea. While serving in the Pentagon, I had the honor of helping to arrange Japan-U.S. exchanges to share lessons on all-hazards crisis responses in the years after the devastating March 2011 Triple Disasters (an earthquake and massive tsunami that also triggered a nuclear emergency). Lately, I’ve been following up with friends from Japan to think back to this collaboration—which spanned how our countries prepare for chemical and biological attacks, natural disasters, pandemics, nuclear accidents, and more—and the critical role of working with allies to prepare for crises of all kinds and prevent them when possible.

In early September, I wrote with two colleagues on this subject for Sasakawa USA. In the years ahead, strength in the U.S.-Japan alliance should be a high priority. Working together on these issues can and should be part of that agenda.

In particular in light of the wake-up call on biological threats from COVID-19 and climate security threats both here in the United States and across the Indo-Pacific region, we recommended that the United States and Japan consider expanding collaboration on these issues. In particular, we suggested that our countries could consider a “joint center of excellence to help lead the international community in preparedness for complex emergencies.”

This would build on a long tradition of cooperation in disaster response and preparedness for Japan and the United States, and leverage lessons our countries have learned from past and current experiences with complex emergencies—including from when responses have gone well and when they have not.

Read more in our Sasakawa USA article here.

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