President Donald Trump's decision to halt funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) in the midst of a global pandemic is not only reckless and irresponsible, but will also exacerbate the threat to global public health. In the single stroke of a pen, President Trump has put millions of lives around the world at risk and jeopardised global human security and US national interests. The decision will have catastrophic consequences and will add to the ongoing global humanitarian crisis. It is meant to placate the supporters of Trump in an election year and during an economic crisis, which may become a make or break issue in his re-election in November. It is a testament to Trump's myopia about global politics, which has been the marker of his foreign policy from day one of his presidency.
Domestic considerations, precisely his focus on his support base, as the driver of his policies—domestic and foreign, have brought disastrous consequences for the United States in the past years. That he and his supporters seem to have very little regard for data, science and diplomacy is on display here, once again. The decision, surprising as it may be, is consistent with Trump's previous actions and his contempt for multilateral institutions. The so-called "America First" policy, which has essentially become the "America Alone" policy, is behind the decision and will further isolate the US from its allies and engender aversion of many towards the US.
President Trump, whose negligence can be described as a contributory factor in the deaths of thousands of US citizens from Covid-19, was facing intense security before the decision came. Evidently, the action is intended to deflect the legitimate criticisms. Media reports have documented how the actions of the administration, particularly of Trump, have delayed the response to the pandemic. Trump's decision in May 2018 to disband the Global Health Security and Biodefense unit, established under the Obama administration, is just one example in the long list of negligent behaviours that have plagued the Trump administration. There were two intelligence reports in January and February of this year which warned of a pandemic and the lack of preparedness. One of Trump's advisors and one of his close confidants, Peter Navarro, warned that the coronavirus crisis could "cost the United States trillions of dollars and put millions of Americans at risk of illness or death."
Yet the President downplayed the risk, continued to send misleading messages, and tried to blame the Democrats for the "hoax". All of these led to the mounting numbers of deaths. As reported by the New York Times on April 11, "The chaotic culture of the Trump White House contributed to the crisis. A lack of planning and a failure to execute, combined with the president's focus on the news cycle and his preference for following his gut rather than the data cost time, and perhaps lives." Ignoring scientific data and expert opinion on issues of great significance is not new in the Trump era, but in this instance, it is costing lives on an everyday basis. In short, experts knew, advisors advised, but President Trump relied on his instincts. People of the country are now paying the price.
Trump's allegation that the WHO has been accepting the Chinese official narrative without any scrutiny, and mismanaged and covered up the spread of the virus, can also be lodged against him. His various comments throughout February and his praise for Chinese transparency in a tweet on January 24 are cases in point. Trump praised China fifteen times between January 22 and February 29. While there are good reasons to question how the WHO handled the pandemic, Trump's intention is far from that. Instead, he has used it as an excuse for posturing rather than pressing for more transparency from China. If he had been interested in transparency of the Chinese authorities, he could have raised it with President Xi during his telephone call on February 7. Undoubtedly, the lack of transparency of the Chinese authorities, particularly in the early stages of the spreading of the virus in Wuhan, warrants scrutiny. But President Trump has not demonstrated any such desire. The WHO cannot be the means to hold China accountable. The timing is wrong. Global support is necessary for such an endeavour, which this step will not engender. Defunding the WHO serves no purpose. Additionally, his decision of halting US funding for the WHO, which makes up 22 percent of its budget, will help China's efforts to expand its influence within this and other multilateral organisations.
In the past years, the global standing of the United States has eroded and its influence waned, thanks to the changing global political landscape, the rise of China and Russia, the abject failure of leadership of the Trump administration on global issues, the distance with allies through unilateral foreign policy, and withdrawals from various multilateral arrangements. The failure to contain Covid-19 has revealed a serious weakness, not just in public health infrastructure, but in the entire political system of the US. On the contrary China, on the heel of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been engaged in an aggressive diplomacy since the epidemic began, taking active measures to rewrite the narrative—absolving its responsibilities in the spread of the virus and remaking its image as a "friend in need."
The decision to defund the WHO shows the absence of empathy and a disregard for the people of the world—none of which helps the United States. The ongoing global pandemic and the imminent global economic crisis will require global effort and cooperation among countries. The global leadership position will not remain vacant. This myopic policy of the Trump administration sends the message that the US is abdicating its claim to the leadership.
Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, and a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, USA.