Beneath Trump-WHO spat, a US-China race for leadership

Why We Wrote This

Was the World Health Organization too uncritical of China? Its power to challenge member states is limited, say experts, and withholding U.S. funding amid the pandemic only opens the door to greater Chinese influence.

Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/AP
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, at a news conference with updates regarding the novel coronavirus COVID-19, at WHO headquarters in Geneva, March 9, 2020.

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President Donald Trump’s attacks on the World Health Organization are consistent with his criticism of and withdrawal from international organizations and agreements. But the U.S. row with WHO also underscores what many experts say is a troubling lack of global leadership for addressing the coronavirus pandemic, a challenge as grave as anything the world has faced since World War II.

The president’s critics say the move against WHO fits a pattern of Mr. Trump seeking to shift blame for his own failings. But experts in global health say a broader concern is that the withholding of funds sends a terrible message, in particular to poorer countries that even in more normal circumstances depend heavily on WHO.

And if Mr. Trump’s aim in suspending WHO funding is to hold China responsible and counter its quest to come out of the pandemic looking like a leader, the approach is likely to backfire, some say.

“Paradoxically it may be that the Chinese become a bigger player” in global health if they move to fill the void left by a U.S. pullback, says Stephen Morrison, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Late in February, when President Donald Trump was still minimizing the impact he anticipated from the coronavirus on the United States, he had only glowing remarks to make about the World Health Organization’s role in checking the new global threat.

Along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WHO was “working hard and very smart” to help the world bring the novel coronavirus under control, President Trump tweeted Feb. 24.

But these days, with the U.S. topping the list of countries with the most reported coronavirus cases and counting more than 33,000 deaths from COVID-19 – and with criticism mounting of the slow and uncoordinated early response to the pandemic from the White House – the president’s messaging about the United Nations’ premier health organization is very different.

On Tuesday Mr. Trump announced from the Rose Garden that he was suspending U.S. funding for WHO – about $450 million annually, or just over 20% of its budget – and railed against the institution charged with promoting “the health of all peoples” for causing “so much death” by its “mistakes.” WHO had failed to warn the world of the seriousness of the new virus early enough, he said, when it could have made a difference.

Moreover, the president charged WHO with abetting China in a disinformation campaign about the coronavirus’s origins and subsequent cover-up of the outbreak – actions Mr. Trump said worsened the impact of the virus outside China.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Mr. Trump’s attacks on the U.N. structure’s global health agency – created along with so many other multilateral institutions as part of a postwar, U.S.-led international order – are consistent with his criticism of and withdrawal from international organizations and agreements. But the U.S. row with WHO also underscores what many international experts say is a troubling lack of global leadership for addressing a challenge as grave as anything the world has faced since World War II.

The president’s critics say the move against WHO fits a pattern of Mr. Trump seeking to shift blame for his own failings somewhere else.

But experts in global health issues point to a broader concern, saying Mr. Trump’s action sends a terrible message to the world. In particular, they say, to poorer countries with weak health infrastructures that even in more normal circumstances depend heavily on WHO for everything from malaria and polio-eradication programs to maternal and infant health campaigns.

“One of the things the WHO has been very good about is channeling resources to the global south, to countries with fewer resources to address a challenge like a pandemic, so [cutting WHO funding] will be particularly poorly viewed in those countries,” says Ian Johnstone, a professor of international law and expert in international institutions at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts.

“It sends an unfortunate message – one the Trump administration has communicated from the beginning – that it doesn’t have much faith in international organizations and is reluctant to engage in international cooperation.”

Unintended consequences

And even some who are more supportive of the president and share some of his skepticism toward large international bureaucracies say the middle of a pandemic is not the time for the single largest contributor to WHO’s budget to halt funding.

The time to evaluate WHO’s shortcomings in terms of the pandemic will come, they say, but cutting funding now will only weaken any support the U.S. might have garnered for reforming WHO.

Moreover, the Trump administration’s efforts to hold China responsible for its early cover-up of the virus outbreak will be undercut by defunding WHO, says Brett Schaefer, an expert in international institutions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“The U.S. has taken pains to counter Chinese disinformation and focus the world on the fact that Chinese actions and inactions facilitated the spread of COVID-19 and impeded the international response, leading to enormous loss of life and economic hardship,” says Mr. Schaefer. “Those efforts will be immediately overshadowed by an announcement that the U.S. is cutting funding to the WHO even as other nations, both developed and developing, are expressing anger toward China for its role in the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Others say it is simply unrealistic to expect an international organization like WHO, which serves its member states and has very little authority to impose measures on them, to come down hard on a global power like China.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping “is pushing the narrative that ‘I intervened and I stopped this inside China,’ and there’s no way that WHO can contradict that,” says Derek Scissors, China scholar and U.S.-China relations expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“It would be like the [International Monetary Fund] contradicting the U.S. government on its economic reporting and forecasts,” he adds. “You’re just not going to have an international organization like that contradicting its most important members.”

Health experts close to WHO say its officials, including Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, are frustrated that many of the organization’s 194 member states have paid little heed to the global emergency declaration it issued Jan. 30 and subsequent guidance for addressing the pandemic.

Mr. Trump accuses WHO of being slow to inform the world of the gathering threat, but in fact Director-General Tedros, as he is known, has held nearly daily briefings on the health emergency since late January, often issuing guidance and stark warnings on the consequences of not taking swift mitigating actions.

A check on China

Some global health experts say there was a time when the organization did act quickly and decisively with China to halt the spread of a threatening virus. They point to the tough, early actions that former WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, a no-nonsense former prime minister of Norway, took in 2002 that are credited with limiting the reach of the SARS epidemic.

Despite the director-general’s lack of authority to investigate and censure WHO member states, Ms. Brundtland went ahead and held China’s feet to the fire anyway. And now WHO and Ms. Brundtland are widely credited with keeping SARS in check and limiting deaths worldwide to under 1,000.

But Mr. Scissors says the situation in 2002 was quite different, in particular because China was still not the political and economic bigfoot it is today. Others say Ms. Brundtland carried weight as a former prime minister that Mr. Tedros simply doesn’t have.

In any case, if Mr. Trump’s aim in suspending WHO funding is in part to counter China and its quest to come out of the pandemic looking like a leader, the approach is likely to backfire, some say.

“Paradoxically it may be that the Chinese become a bigger player” in global health if they move to fill the void left by a U.S. pullback, says Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Noting that the pandemic is entering a “new phase in which we’re going to see higher impact in low-income countries … in Africa and Asia where WHO remains a central player,” Mr. Morrison says China coming to WHO’s financial rescue now could further muffle any criticism of China’s role in the pandemic.

“The WHO has to be deferential” to its member states,” he says. “It’s deferential to the U.S., and it’s deferential to China.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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