U.S. President Donald Trump’s broadside against the World Health Organization is another blow to international institutions designed to help nations confront global crises — and may leave countries even less prepared for the next one.
Trump’s move on Tuesday to suspend WHO funding amid a pandemic that has cost at least 130,000 lives is the latest salvo in a broader struggle between the U.S. and China over global leadership. Both countries are courting other nations and public opinion as they cover up their own shortcomings in the pandemic and position themselves for the post-virus world.
China — widely criticized for missteps early in the outbreak — has ramped up efforts to send medical supplies to hard-hit nations, even as reports emerged that much of that gear was faulty or expired. The U.S., meanwhile, announced $300 million in aid to countries fighting the virus but rebuffed requests for the most essential gear while receiving donations from the governments of Egypt, Taiwan and Vietnam among others.
That scenario, in which the world’s richest country hoards items to fight the pandemic at home, while China falters in trying to inherit the leadership role, reflects a grim reality in the months since COVID-19 was identified. There’s no global leader in the fight against the virus, and countries that would normally look to Washington or Beijing for help are finding they have no one to rely on. Both sides are falling short.
“The Trump administration can royally screw up on this, and so can China,” said Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s going to be a reckoning” for both countries, he added.
Trump’s move against the WHO — which the White House accused of “parroting” early claims by China that the virus wasn’t transmitted between humans — could cost thousands of lives if it limits the organization’s ability to help vulnerable populations in places like Libya and Syria, according to an internal State Department assessment.
China denounced the action against the health organization, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying it “will weaken the WHO’s capabilities and undermine international cooperation.”
Trump has chafed at the WHO’s early opposition to travel restrictions — a move he made to limit flights from China in late January — as well as Beijing’s refusal to allow U.S. scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention early access to Wuhan, where the virus emerged.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that it obtained internal documents showing Chinese officials waited six days in January before President Xi Jinping warned the public of the dangers of the coronavirus outbreak. The delay let millions of people travel from the epicenter in the city of Wuhan elsewhere in the country and the world, according to the report.
While China’s Zhao said he hadn’t seen the report, he added that Beijing updated the WHO in a “timely” manner and called accusations the government wasn’t transparent “unfair.”
But Trump’s decision also underscores the pressures facing global bodies, from NATO and the World Trade Organization to the United Nations and European Union. And many of those pressures are increasingly fueled by the rivalry between the U.S. and China.
“The last time the world faced a crisis, which was not of the same dimension, but also a very tough crisis, was the financial crisis in 2008,” Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations, Christoph Heusgen, told the Security Council. “At that time there was both the leadership and the power to bring about a united response to this crisis. And here we do not have it. We do not have leadership and power coming together.”
The U.N. Security Council has been unable for weeks to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, in contrast to previous efforts to provide a unified response to Ebola outbreaks. Part of the dispute this time centered around U.S. efforts to refer to the disease as the “Wuhan virus” and a Chinese official’s discredited claim that Americans may have helped introduce the disease in China.
The U.S.-China feud extends throughout the international system built in the aftermath of World War II. Just as the COVID-19 outbreak was building, the two nations were contesting leadership of the World Intellectual Property Organization, and last year they had a similar feud over the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization.
“The Trump administration has long been pulling back from international institutions but then grumbling that the Chinese have gained too much influence,” said Richard Gowan, the United Nations director at the International Crisis Group. “Chinese and U.S. tensions are gradually poisoning a lot of different multilateral institutions and I don’t see how you go back to the status quo ante.
The tensions aren’t always consistent. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who spent weeks referring to the “Wuhan virus” in his public appearances, scaled that back after Trump and Xi spoke by phone late last month. On Wednesday he spoke with Yang Jiechi, a senior Chinese diplomat, praising Beijing’s efforts to expedite sales of medical equipment to the U.S.
“The secretary stressed the need for full transparency and information sharing to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent future outbreaks,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. “He also noted the aid the American people delivered to the people of China in January — and continue to offer — and the high importance we attach to China’s facilitation of medical supply exports to meet critical demand in the United States.”
Despite some cooperation, Trump has repeatedly cited the U.S. role as the biggest contributor to the WHO as one reason he’s so frustrated by China’s influence in the organization, a line of argument that echoes his complaints about the UN and organizations such as NATO, which he’s long said rely too much on American funding.
While diplomats and experts acknowledge that China has gained clout within many international organizations, analysts say that trend has been reinforced by a lack of U.S. interest in investing its resources in these organizations.
“The big thing the Chinese have going for them is U.S. disinterest and hostility toward the idea of global leadership,” said Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
The longer-term damage to international cooperation may extend beyond viral outbreaks, hobbling the response to acts of terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change, among other threats, experts say.
“The currents of populism are so great now that leaders are no longer inclined or rewarded for behaving in terms of international cooperation,” said Stewart Patrick, senior fellow on Global Governance and Multilateralism at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There is a growing risk that these organizations could weaken and atrophy. There just aren’t enough leaders out there taking an enlightened view of the international interest.”
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