When Donald Trump accused the World Health Organization of being Beijing’s “puppet” and China of being responsible for a “mass worldwide killing,” he added a dynamic to his demagoguery that is not, despite everything, without foundation. The paradox is well understood, however, that Trump, in absolving himself of responsibility in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, perpetuates this dynamic by his excessive unilateralism.
In the pre-Trump world, the tendency to disinvest from the United Nations organization as a whole was already well underway in the West, despite multilateralist professions of faith in the institution. Further, for all the expansionist logic, China has not been asked to occupy the field.
In the heightened context of the pandemic, the case of the World Health Organization is a prime example of this dynamic. In denouncing the WHO’s complacence with Beijing, Trump threatens with rude isolationism to cut the American contribution, some $550 million per year, to the intergovernmental organization, which will, in fact, once again leave more room for China.
And it is thus that the WHO’s virtual high mass, celebrated earlier this week by its 194 member states, did no more than highlight the crisis in which the organization finds itself. A conference which, in the end, was less an opportunity to concretely affirm the urgency of global cooperation than to witness, against the backdrop of a commercial race to a vaccine, another chapter of the Chinese-American conflict. That there was a commitment to a hypothetical “impartial, independent and comprehensive” investigation into the management of the pandemic will not reassure anyone hoping for healthier international collaboration.
A series of papers published in Le Monde in recent weeks on the global governance crisis cruelly clarified by the pandemic stresses that, while the United States is in all respects breaking with the “multilateral method” used in international relations since 1945, China is using this same multilateralism to disguise its goals of domination. In the case of the WHO, Beijing played a good game of patiently exploiting the weaknesses of the organization to expand its “soft power,” particularly in Africa, using it “as a platform to sign bilateral agreements with multiple entities: laboratories, hospitals, research centers, programs, and international funds.”
What’s more, the situation at the WHO resembles that of the entire U.N. organization, and, in particular, its Security Council, a body that has essentially become the terrain of power struggles among armed forces. Public opinion, that had for a long time not expected greatness, recognized the paralysis, if not the outright nuisance, of an institution supposedly defending “international peace and security.” As president of the Security Council in March, China did everything to prevent talk about the pandemic. And two months after the U.N. secretary-general’s call to support a resolution for a “global cease-fire” to better fight the disease, the council hasn’t lifted the littlest finger.
Between the opacity of a Chinese dictatorship that plays on all fronts and the White House resistance to multilateralism, the traditional international order has increasingly found it difficult to hold its own. How then should it be recomposed? Barack Obama timidly commented in his time on the new reality of a multipolar world, in a context where the Americans could no longer bear the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, and tried to adapt the United States to it without renouncing all international leadership. If Joe Biden is elected president, will his election change anything in the global balance? Or are we still condemned to stare daggers at each other, both locally and internationally?
The pandemic calls for a revolution in our relationship to nature and health. To say that “it will all work out” is to pretend that humans can control everything. In developing countries, the continuing health crisis foreshadows dire food shortages. For the future of the world, Louise Arbour, former high commissioner for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, recently argued in our pages for a “renewed form” of multilateralism and international cooperation: “The disaster in which the world is plunged is both cause and consequence of inequalities among and within countries.” Against the Trumps and the Xi Jinpings, there is a place for “ambitious and avant-garde” leadership in which, she writes, Canada has a role to play. Very true. So, let us play it. A simple return to normal would be falsely reassuring.
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