It sounds like the sort of thing that shouldn’t have been controversial or particularly newsworthy: the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly was poised to approve a resolution to encourage breastfeeding, and backed by decades of scientific research, its proponents expected the measure to pass easily.
The New York Times reported over the weekend on what happened when the delegation from the Trump administration “upended the deliberations” by “embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers.”
American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.
When that failed, they turned to threats, according to diplomats and government officials who took part in the discussions. Ecuador, which had planned to introduce the measure, was the first to find itself in the cross hairs.
The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced.
It’s worth pausing to read that again, because it seems like the sort of development that would be literally unbelievable if it occurred in fiction: Trump administration officials made aggressive threats against an ally over a non-binding breastfeeding resolution at the World Health Assembly.
According to the Times’ report, it fell to other countries to champion the measure, but poorer nations “backed off, citing fears of retaliation” from the United States.
Eventually, the delegation from Russia introduced the resolution – and wouldn’t you know it, the officials from the Trump administration were not prepared to threaten officials from Vladimir Putin’s government.
And while the resolution ultimately passed, largely intact, the Americans’ conduct apparently stunned participants at the event, especially after they suggested the United States might cut its support for the World Health Organization.
Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, told the Times, “We were astonished, appalled and also saddened…. What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on best way to protect infant and young child health.”
Taking a step back, we can now add to the list of international agreements and partnerships at which this administration has thumbed its nose at the world.
Just as importantly, Trump World’s record on children and families is increasingly difficult to defend. Obviously, the White House’s “zero tolerance” approach to family separations at the U.S./Mexico border has been the basis for widespread outrage, but let’s not forget that this president has also taken steps to undermine maternity coverage in the health care marketplace, and proposed cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
At a White House event in May, First Lady Melania Trump said, “Children deserve every opportunity to enjoy their innocence. Every child should know it is safe to make mistakes and that there are supportive adults and friends nearby to catch them if they fall…. I am asking you all to join me in providing support and guidance to our children so that we can make a real difference.”
Ideally, her husband’s administration would start acting like it agreed.