Despite pandemic, Trump abandons ties with World Health Organization

Today's announcement may be counter-productive and disappointing, but the White House telegraphed the decision.
Image: SWITZERLAND-WHO-HEALTH-VIRUS
The World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on April 24, 2020.Fabrice Coffrini / AFP - Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Donald Trump has spent the better part of his presidency lashing out at some of the leading global institutions that help represent the pillars of international stability. Over the course of his term, the American president has lashed out at bodies such as the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, and the World Trade Organization as foes, fools, or frauds.

The World Health Organization, of course, recently joined the list, and today, Trump announced his intention to abandon support for the WHO altogether. The Associated Press reported:

President Donald Trump said Friday that the U.S. will be terminating its relationship with the World Health Organization, saying it had failed to adequately respond to the coronavirus because China has "total control" over the global organization.... The U.S. is the largest source of financial support to the WHO and its exit is expected to significantly weaken the organization. Trump said the U.S. would be "redirecting" the money to "other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs," without providing specifics.

Today's announcement may be counter-productive and disappointing, but the White House telegraphed the decision. It was last month when the president announced his decision to cut off funding for the world's public health body in the middle of a pandemic, arguing that the WHO failed to "share information in a timely and transparent fashion."

The argument crumbled soon after, as it became clear that U.S. officials knew what the World Health Organization knew about the coronavirus crisis in real time.

The White House tried to strengthen its case early last week, sending a relatively detailed letter to World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, intended to summarize the president's case against the WHO's recent efforts. Because Team Trump is careless when it comes to due diligence, the official letter included a series of "false or misleading statements."

In theory, the degree to which the White House embarrassed itself should've caused administration officials to rethink its offensive against the World Health Organization. Instead, it appears the president did the opposite: last week's letter gave the WHO a 30-deadline to advance a series of proposed reforms. Just 11 days later, Trump announced plans to abandon the organization.

Though the president seemed eager to pitch this as a move intended to punish the WHO for having sided with China, Trump's decision will almost certainly strengthen China's hand with the body as the United States continues to retreat from the global stage.

A Vox report added last week, "A weakened WHO will struggle to combat not just Covid-19 but also future pandemics. The organization has more than 150 field offices worldwide, and its staff helps track new illnesses and coordinate the global response for it. The body doesn't actually send people to treat the sick directly. Instead, it basically serves as the world's disease intelligence aggregator and assists countries with their own strategies. With less money coming in from the US, though, it's likely the WHO will struggle to fund those intelligence-gathering and assistance processes, meaning the world could be more blind to the next pandemic and less capable to defeat it. That, in turn, would make everyone on Earth less safe -- and perhaps even require the US to spend more money down the line."

As a policy matter, the White House could've begun the challenging task of using diplomacy and public-health influence to help steer the World Health Organization and improve U.S. influence. It appears Trump, however, found it easier to simply walk away.