Matt Rourke, AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, speaks to members of the media after a Republican presidential debate at the Chubb Theater, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Worldwide economic crises do more than just raise unemployment rates and lead to problems with budgets and politics in the world's wealthiest nations. They strike at the world's poorest nations, as well; and when hopelessness and despair gain the upper hand in these places, it can boomerang across the globe with dire consequences.

Few worldwide initiatives have the success record of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria. In just one decade, this fund has set those three major diseases on the run in sub-Saharan Africa and other impoverished parts of the world. Recent medical discoveries have developed ways to halt the continued spread of AIDS and dramatically reduce the cases of tuberculosis and malaria, but those breakthroughs may not have much chance to save many lives.

That's because the Global Fund announced recently it won't make any grants to fund programs for at least two years. For one thing, the euro is in chaos and decline, which has reduced the fund's budget by about $400 million. Italy hasn't paid the $168 million it pledged in 2009, according to Business Week. Spain has frozen its contributions indefinitely. Holland reduced its contribution, as did Ireland, and Iceland ended its payments all together.

Each of these nations has good reasons for reducing its contribution. Many European governments are simply hoping to survive long enough to regain a financial toehold, but as a result they are creating a crisis that can't easily be ignored.

The United States has pledged $4 billion to the fund over three years, which would amount to $1.9 billion in 2013. As so often is the case, the United States has assumed a leadership position in generosity toward the world's struggling people. This is true when it comes to both governmental and private donations. Now it's time for the nation to take a more active leadership role.

The United States has its share of economic problems, but its $4 billion commitment is small compared to its overall budget, miniscule compared to the $1.2 trillion increase in the debt ceiling currently on the table, and yet would be vital to world security.

Rick Santorum, the current GOP presidential hopeful, put it well during a debate on national security last November. Speaking of the Global Fund, which he strongly supported in the Senate, he said the battle against serious disease over the past decade may have saved the planet untold suffering. "Africa was ... on the brink," he said, in a transcript provided by the advocacy group Results. "On the brink of complete meltdown and chaos, which would have been fertile ground for the radical Islamists to be able to get a foothold."

Instead, the fund has prevented 4.1 million tuberculosis deaths and is providing 6.6 million people with AIDS treatments. Access to such treatment has improved by more than 3,000 percent in impoverished countries since the fund began a decade ago this month.

Results is calling for the Obama administration to assemble an emergency meeting of donor nations this spring to find ways to ensure that the fund and its programs are able to continue and to provide new medicines where they are needed most. That is a reasonable suggestion.

Even in times of worldwide economic distress, the most advanced nations of the Earth must understand how providing meaningful help to the most impoverished nations is a matter of national security.