The World Health Organization is caught between the United States and China. Europe has so far not found the power to do anything about it.
President Donald Trump has firmly refused to wear a face mask throughout the coronavirus pandemic. He prefers to take the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure, contrary to warnings from his own government’s drug agency. His interactions with the World Health Organization seem similarly erratic.
In the midst of the crisis, rather than managing it and consequently helping the organization, he is threatening to withdraw U.S. funding. The country that contributes the largest mandatory payment to the WHO has already frozen bank transfers. And now Trump has also issued an ultimatum, stating that the WHO must commit to “major substantive improvements” within 30 days (although he does not specify what improvements must be made) or it will lose the funding. It must also “demonstrate independence from China,” a WHO member country that enjoys the same rights as the U.S., and is at the same time of growing importance to the organization.
Trump’s four-page letter is somewhat reminiscent of Rezo’s video “The Destruction of the CDU.”* It contains thoroughly thought-provoking, pertinent criticism of the way the WHO has handled the crisis, as well as justifiably suggesting that during the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 under Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, the organization demonstrated it can do things differently, when not reducing itself to a mere technical agency and an apolitical service provider. Yet considering the associated threat from Trump, it is doubtful he intends to initiate reforms that are also considered essential by the Europeans.
Trump is turning the WHO into a venue for a geopolitical conflict with China and exploiting the crisis in order to hide his own failings and help his election campaign, which is almost as beneficial to the worldwide effort to contain the pandemic as drinking or injecting disinfectant to combat the virus (a theory recently spouted by Trump). It may work for him in terms of domestic politics, however; opinion polls suggest that more and more Americans, above all within Trump’s own camp, believe that China and the WHO are primarily responsible for the devastation in the U.S. This could be enough to win an election that will ultimately be decided in a handful of swing states.
Trump Wants Exclusive Access to a Vaccine
The president is, however, also gambling away the rest of his role as international leader, something that his State Department complains about every day, and this makes it easy for China to fill the vacuum. While Trump attempts to secure exclusive access to a potential vaccine for the U.S., his adversary, Chinese President Xi Jinping, is buttering up the world with big promises: $2 billion for developing countries, and assurance that Beijing will share a potential vaccine with the rest of the world.
The Europeans, who believed they could avoid this clash and find a resolution within the WHO by way of compromise, are standing in desperation between these two poles. They got the United States involved, but they underestimated the impact of the “America First” doctrine that is displayed in Trump’s letter and which has already manifested itself in America’s dealings with other international organizations and agreements. And the Europeans got China involved, a country that from the very beginning has refused to tolerate investigation or criticism of any kind regarding the actions of the government and, ultimately, the Communist Party.
The pleas from the European capitals and Brussels for multilateralism and rule-based international order are justified. But they seem powerless, as though they wanted to use faith healing to combat the coronavirus crisis. With the donor conference, Europe has finally taken on something of a leading role in developing a vaccine. There are enough small and medium-sized countries which fear being crushed in the rivalry between the U.S. and China, and wish for nothing more than an alternative between these two poles.
Europe may well be predestined for that role, but unfortunately, it is too divided, too weak and too self-absorbed.
*Translator’s note: This is a reference to a video released in 2019 by German YouTuber Rezo criticizing the governing political parties in Germany, in particular the Christian Democratic Union.
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