By Oscar Duffy
In an effort to prove a point to the world about how much he blames China for Covid-19, Donald Trump completely cut ties with the World Health Organisation (WHO) last week. While the decision seemed like an inevitability after it had been telegraphed for the last few months, it’s the kind of shockingly bullish and isolationist decision that will no-doubt come to define Trumpian politics and his tenure in office: rash decision making and policies which throw the baby out with the bathwater.
But besides being a classic example of his own governing style and his “America first” tendencies, the decision will have major global implications. Countless medical groups have come forward since the announcement to protest the President’s decision. Former head of the US Centre for Disease Control Thomas Frieden remarked that the US’ role in initially creating the WHO means that the withdrawal leaves a huge hole in the organisation, something that will prove detrimental to global health. Furthermore, as a current leading contributor (yearly payments reach as high as $119 million + bonus contributions), the WHO will be a shell of its former self without the US influence.
Specialist medical groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics has specifically warned that the decreased funding will be disastrous for children’s health around the world, with diseases like Polio poised to surge without the US’ financial contributions and efforts at prevention. David Heymann currently leads the Polio eradication programme, and despite being near completion, that result could now be impossible without the US as a strong donor.
So what now, both in terms of not only health implications but also political? Trump insists that the motivation for withdrawal stems from the WHO supporting the Chinese government despite Covid-19 originating in the country. When looking at the President’s specific words, it fits very much in with his general electoral strategies. The 100,000 plus deaths are no fault of US handling of the virus, but of China’s own “malfeasance”. America is a victim of China in the eyes of the President, a stance leading many pundits to view the dynamic between the two states as reminiscent of Cold War posturing. China haven’t let the opportunity to repudiate the US pass them by. They have labelled the US “habitual quitters”, and clearly, Beijing plans on positioning itself as the new leaders of the WHO. The US seemingly no longer has the Wilsonian impulse of globalised institutions funded and led by themselves, favouring a staunchly isolationist inward-looking model. Yet in pursuit of this US-centric policy, the only country really benefitting is China themselves.
This is because looking deeper into the Sino-US dynamic shows how the decision on WHO membership has implications on less powerful nations, specifically Taiwan. Many have noted that Taipei has been applying for observer status to the WHO for years, something difficult considering the one-China policy currently means they are not an officially recognised nation. The US has advocated for Taiwan’s participation as a means of propping up the democratic alternative to Beijing’s communist party. US withdrawal and China’s ascension to the status of unopposed leader will do nothing but quash Taiwan’s attempt at legitimacy through the health agency, something possibly bringing them one step closer to being consumed by their aggressive neighbour. Thus, Trump is tampering with a complex web of relations between the US and several global partners with this move. His advisors may see scapegoating China for American deaths in the pandemic as an electoral strategy too attractive to pass up, but the country is sacrificing its leadership credentials in global institutions. The country may already be in decline, but Trump sure knows how to hurry along America’s demise.
Image: Charles Deluvio via Unsplash