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Foreign Policy

Bad Medicine

Jul 14 , 2020
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The Trump administration has formally begun the process of withdrawing from the World Health Organization by notifying the United Nations and Congress. The process will last for at least a year. The move has already drawn strong criticism from lawmakers, medical experts and allies, and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, promised that he would reverse the decision on his first day if elected.

It was not particularly surprising when the U.S. government made the final decision to abandon the multilateral mechanism: Trump had made his intentions clear in late May when he accused the WHO of being under China’s influence after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and threatened to permanently halt U.S. funding.

Trump’s withdrawal enables him to continue his blame game against the WHO. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in the U.S., his administration has sought scapegoats in an attempt to shift blame for his personal failure to control the spread of the virus. The American people’s confidence in their government is exhausted, and so pulling out of the WHO is another way for Trump to assign blame. The WHO has become his most recent scapegoat after China and the Democratic Party, even in the midst of skyrocketing new cases.

Trump is also pulling the U.S. out is to consolidate his voting bloc. His policy choices in the diplomatic arena are designed to please his electoral base, and domestic politics have thus become a driving factor for the Trump administration to change course in foreign policy.

Trump’s supporters are disappointed about the establishment’s political elites and anxious about losing their “American” identity, as they see it, through changes in demographics and the rise of multiculturalism. Their focus on narrow economic interests eclipses their view of global interests. They believe that the country has not obtained economic benefits from globalization, and many millennials are feeling worse off than their parents. Withdrawing from the WHO is in line with the appetite of these voters and a clear manifestation of Trump’s consistent adherence to what could be called Withdrawal Doctrine.

The U.S. exit will undoubtedly pose risks to U.S. lives, credibility and global health cooperation. The withdrawal, first of all, will hamper America’s ability to obtain significant information from the WHO. For instance, the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System offers its members information on the dominant influenza strains circulating around the world and is used to develop influenza vaccines. Considering that the U.S. is greatly troubled by seasonal influenza, cutting access to the data will create hardships for the U.S. public.

Moreover, the WHO’s Event Information System has for decades sent early warnings to its members about outbreaks of disease around the world. It gives countries a window of opportunity to quickly respond. The U.S. will be ruled out of the warning list and will have to rely on media reports and public WHO announcements instead of the more efficient warnings.

Second, withdrawing from such a vital multilateral mechanism in the middle of a pandemic weakens U.S. strategic credibility in the world. The Trump administration intends to implement the notion of “America first” in response to the pandemic, unconstrained by multilateral mechanisms or international rules. It is also reported that the U.S. is thinking about establishing a U.S.-led multilateral health organization after it exits the WHO. But by dismantling the existing global health organization and rebuilding mechanisms that are more aligned to American interests, the U.S. will have undermined global governance and the current international order that most countries would like to uphold.

Third, the unilateral U.S. action will put global health at risk in the future. It is a fact that throughout the history of the WHO, the U.S. has been the biggest sponsor. During the latest funding cycle, the U.S. contributed $893 million, 15 percent of the organization’s budget and more than twice as much as any other country.

The U.S. cannot immediately sever its relations with the WHO. Even if Biden wins the presidential election and revokes Trump’s ill-advised move, the current notice to withdraw will impact WHO’s operations, including polio eradication, tuberculosis control, access to HIV/AIDS treatment and more. 

From another perspective, however, the “America alone” picture will provide opportunities to reshape leadership within the WHO and boost its solidarity. After Trump threatened to halt funding in April, many countries and donors were determined to fill the funding gap and provided support for the WHO to continue in its leadership role in global health security.

The actions of the U.S. have undermined its legitimacy as a leader of any multilateral effort against the pandemic. Other players, such as the European Union, China, India have stepped into the void, making the WHO less dependent on one large contributor.

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