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Senior Fellow Kenneth Dekleva writes about America’s medical diplomacy for Fast Company Magazine


February 3, 2021 

It wasn’t until I joined the State Department in 2002 that I fully appreciated the power of America’s medical superiority. For all the problems with our healthcare system, the United States is far ahead of most countries in biotechnology and pharmaceutical innovation. Our top hospitals and universities are largely unrivaled. Hollywood may be our most visible global export, but medical science has a bigger impact.

As a senior physician-diplomat, I got a rare, up-close view of how this influence is quietly wielded around the world. In Moscow, I visited clinics and hospitals to discuss strategies for responding to mass casualty events. In New Delhi, we worked with the Indian Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Bangalore with USAF medical partners to provide outreach, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. In dozens of countries over my 14 years of service, we coordinated with international partners to serve American diplomats, to learn from host nations, and to plan for crises like a global pandemic. 

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic may be upending this dynamic. Historically, America’s medical “soft power” is wielded in two ways. For people of means, the United States is a top destination for medical tourism, a place for VIPs to receive top notch health care. It is thus a prime national security asset and valuable intellectual property. We also export health care solutions, in the case of the global poor, via NGOs such as the Gates Foundation, US government programs such as PEPFAR, diplomatic exchange programs, and satellite programs in partnership with leading American academic medical centers. This has often entailed establishing hospitals, clinics, and other health facilities in countries lacking such resources.

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Kenneth Dekleva is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.