On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that he is halting American funding to the World Health Organization which comes to $553 million out of a $6 billion budget. What is going on, and what are the possible geopolitical consequences?
Possibly the most important lesson of the coronavirus crisis is humility, that we don’t control everything, and that we learn by trial and error, but also that countries cannot cope with this global crisis alone, not even the strongest among them. Collaboration is necessary to combine insight and capabilities, not only for health issues, but for the economic and social jolts that are coming our way. Diplomacy and multilateral organizations such as the WHO, which is headquartered in Geneva, are crucial to expedite and coordinate best practices. President Trump sees it differently. The slogan “America First” also seems to apply during the coronavirus crisis.
Those who watch the daily press conferences around midnight our time, day after day, will agree. They are not about COVID-19; they are about Trump himself. After all, The Donald has a problem: He responded too slowly to the steady spread of COVID-19 after it was discovered in Wuhan.
Trump previously disbanded the special office that his predecessor Barack Obama created to combat the Ebola and Zika crises and to avoid possible pandemics. Trump’s own intelligence agency and certain advisers warned him of the imminent danger in January. The president waved them all off.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has insisted that the growth of the American economy, and especially the stock market, is a measure of his success. It seemed like he might be reelected until an invisible virus disrupted his presidency.
In February, he still praised the Chinese approach, showing some admiration for its authoritarian nature. Today he says that the WHO was late and gave the wrong advice, such as suggesting that a travel ban to and from China would not stop the virus. It all depends, of course, on how you look at things.
Trump’s travel ban caused chaos, and the time that he proclaimed was gained was hardly used to develop tests and respirators. Ultimately, the states responded to the crisis instead of the federal government. Trump’s image, his most precious commodity, was threatened.
The human mind has great difficulty grasping the implications of “exponential growth.” This has been noticeable in our country, and in others. The growing American death toll, which already exceeds 26,000 people, has an air of presidential powerlessness and blunder. The egocentric — unfortunately, there is no other word for it — then starts searching for a scapegoat.
To the vast majority of American society, the WHO is an unknown Moloch — an entity that requires costly sacrifice. Obama strengthened the multilateral health framework because he realized that pandemics were a substantial threat to our global society. His vice president and now Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in the African Ebola crisis of 2014–2016 and the Zika crisis in South America of 2015–2016. Early detection and containment, accelerated data exchange, building a crisis center in Geneva, and strengthening a proactive approach and policy advice were all central to this approach.
By freezing funding to the WHO, Trump threatens to undermine not only American support but global support for health policy. At the moment, the damage seems contained. Trump’s decision is in line with the typical but eccentric Trump strategy to force a “better deal.” China supposedly has too much influence on the WHO, but the Chinese contribution to the organization is much smaller than that of the United States. European countries must, together with countries such as Canada and Japan, send a political signal by creating an additional COVID-19 budget entry for the WHO.
A lack of American leadership may have major implications for the post–COVID-19 era. Chinese President Xi Jinping may also be aware of this. Beijing will be able to gain more influence through multilateral benevolence. The geopolitization of COVID-19 is raging and threatens to become as contagious as the virus itself.