Its a fortnight since the United States President Donald Trump, in his usual unpredictable manner, announced his country’s withdrawal from the World Health Organisation (WHO), on the specious grounds that it favoured China.
If he expected the WHO to turn contrite and request him to reconsider his decision, that has not happened. At most, senior officials of the organisation have regretted the move. The top medical journal Lancet called it “madness and terrifying both at the same time”.
Trump’s European allies were miffed at his decision, but they have not stood in line begging him to stay with the WHO. In fact, it is not even clear whether Trump has the powers to withdraw the US from the WHO, under his country’s laws. The overriding opinion is he has exceeded his brief. For, the withdrawal has to have Congressional approval and the government needs to have given WHO a year’s notice and cleared all its dues before it gets out.
Trump has probably done the world a favour by “walking out” of the WHO. The US should consider doing the same with all other international institutions – if not withdrawing, at least diluting its role. The reason is simple. Trump’s move indicates self-interest above anything else.
Consider the situation: The world is grappling with a pandemic of a kind that no one living today has experienced in their lifetime. Top economies are in danger of going bust, thousands have been put to hardship and there is no way of knowing how many will die before the pandemic is halted.
In this scenario, for a supposedly responsible government to back off from its commitment indicates selfishness of the highest order. As Editor-in-Chief of the Lancet, Richard Horton, tweeted, “The US government has gone rogue at a time of humanitarian emergency.”
Since the end of World War II, the US has tended to dominate most major international institutions, including the United Nations, the World Bank and the IMF. Using the power of the dollar and the political clout that goes with it, the establishment in Washington has barely kept secret its dominance of every major global institution.
As the worn-out cliché goes “there is no free lunch”, and the US provides the best example of this. In Trump’s logic, the US donates $450 million every year to WHO, and he wants the maximum “bang for every buck”.
The United States on occasions has at least deigned to sugar-coat its dominance over the rest of the world. But Trump, in the last four years, has shown no inclination for such niceties. Take the case of the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Trump, to please Israel and Saudi Arabia, discarded the agreement as if it were toilet paper. He has similarly dumped the Paris Climate agreement, and withdrawn from UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Council. Trump is also forever squabbling with the WTO, NATO and even the United Nations.
The world has changed dramatically over the last 75 years since the end of the Second World War. The Soviet Union no longer exists, China is almost on par with the big powers around the world, the once-vanquished Germany is sitting pretty, while the erstwhile superpower United Kingdom has slipped among nations in the top bracket.
Europe is largely united, like never before. Emerging nations like India, Brazil, and South Africa are clamouring to be counted. Trump’s action brings up just one question: Why does the world need the US’s largesse?
While yes, it could be unsettling to edge out the US from any major organisation, the voluntary act of Trump in getting out of WHO is a great opportunity for the rest of the world to turn this into a test case, where all nations contribute equitably and more than make up for the US’s absence and money.
A health professor Ilona Kickbusch, at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, is quoted by Forbes magazine as saying, “No matter how this plays out in the end – the US move provides the opportunity for other alliances of countries to reform the WHO, make it stronger and less dependent on one large contributor – multilateralism should be just that. Think India, European Union, South Africa and the alliances of smaller states,” she says.
Clearly, Trump is upset with the spread of COVID-19 in the United States in an election year. The country ranks number one in the world with over two million cases and at least 115,000 recorded deaths due to the disease. All the carefully crafted strategies of his campaign team have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, and he finds himself in the middle of a combat that could nick his chances of returning to power.
The US president seems to be trying his best to divert attention to China and blame Beijing for the pandemic, hoping the American voter will buy his argument. To convince his supporters and potential voters that his views are not merely rhetorical, Trump by all accounts went ahead and announced cutting off ties with the WHO.
According to him, and this view has been widely challenged, the world health body sided with China and misled the rest of the world about the pandemic in the initial stages of its spread.
Trump, in his eagerness to shift the blame, does not seem to have thought through his decision. For in reality, it is not the WHO that depends on the US. It is actually the other way round.
The logic is simple. One key prerequisite for a nation to be a superpower is for it to have a finger in every pie. This has enabled the US to exert dominance over the rest of the world overtly and covertly. By wanting to leave the WHO, Trump has possibly scored a self-goal that hopefully will not be squandered by the rest of the international community.
As the Australian media outlet abc.net puts it, quoting global health politics researcher Jeremy Youde from the University of Minnesota, “If the US is really concerned that other countries like China are too influential in the WHO, then freezing its funding just creates a vacuum thanks to the loss of American leadership — and that’s a void that China or other countries could fill.”