It is such a Trumpian threat: The U.S. President doesn’t trust the World Health Organization to do its job right, so he’s not going to pay for it.
Donald Trump clearly likes the political message that it sends – that he’s pushing back on Chinese influence in a multilateral organization that has put Americans in danger.
Although he sent a letter to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that was supposed to be a call for reform, that’s not really what it was. At least, not in the sense that the United States has determined that the WHO is broken and is now hell-bent on fixing it. It was a threat to leave.
But we know public health really does require some global co-ordination. And Mr. Trump can’t make a U.S.-only World Health Organization.
Still, Mr. Trump has done us all a great service. He has underlined the world’s political problem with China now: We can’t live with it and we can’t live without it.
Mr. Trump has also provided a repeat warning for every non-superpower to see: Don’t count on the U.S. to solve that conundrum.
That’s why all of them have an interest in pressing China for transparency. Australia has done that for weeks, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, initially non-committal, is gradually saying so more directly, and many others have signed on. It’s crucial they demand a standard of basic transparency in a few spheres of common global interest.
There can be little doubt coronavirus highlighted a problem with China’s government. It’s hard to know whether instances of stifling whistle-blowers and delaying medical disclosures to the world were part of a deliberate campaign of deception, but Beijing’s aggressive behaviour in pushing back at calls for transparency is certainly something to worry about. Other countries have misled the world about the spread of the virus within their borders. But China is a rising superpower with influence.
Mr. Trump’s letter – which includes some factual errors and unsubstantiated allegations – blames the WHO for failing to ring warning bells, and accuses it not just of credulousness or incompetence, but of succumbing to Chinese influence.
Even if the accusation is true, it should be pretty clear that you can’t fix a failure in the sharing of global health information and advice by eliminating the co-ordination of health information and advice. The U.S. can’t create its own global health agency and expect that will force China to share information more transparently. Mr. Trump can’t solve that global problem by going it alone.
Of course, Mr. Trump’s letter is full of Trumpian politics. It could be leverage. Mr. Trump’s basic instinct from his real estate days is to refuse to pay unless he gets a concession. In office, he has seen many international relationships as financial transactions. It is also domestic politics, aimed at diverting blame for his pandemic response away from him and onto a rival.
But that doesn’t make the conundrum go away.
Once upon a time, it was the U.S. that would step in to lead the building of multilateral organizations, often designing them. It could lead reforms of the WHO now. After all, the WHO, like most multilateral agencies, is the product of its members, and the U.S. is still the most influential. But Mr. Trump’s election represented a me-first sentiment in U.S. politics, and now it is turning heavily on rivalry with China.
That’s not something that will end when Mr. Trump leaves power. The new superpower rivalry is a potent force in U.S. politics that crosses party lines. That won’t change if Joe Biden is elected president in November.
Perhaps a hypothetical President Biden would choose to act more by spearheading reforms to multilateral organizations such as the WHO – or the World Trade Organization, for that matter. But those efforts are still likely to play out as part of a superpower rivalry. U.S. domestic politics will encourage that, too.
There’s still the question about the next pandemic. In a new cold war, will there be room for co-operation on a few common-interest things such as global health? There will be more skepticism now. Intelligence agencies will expend more efforts on public health. But that’s no substitute. The U.S. isn’t in the mood to solve the China conundrum. It belongs to every other country.
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