Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts On the Sidelines: Trump Gives Up the WHO—and Makes America Weaker
On the Sidelines: Trump Gives Up the WHO—and Makes America Weaker

On the Sidelines: Trump Gives Up the WHO—and Makes America Weaker

On May 29, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the United States would leave the World Health Organization (WHO), a move that will further erode American influence with the organization. The decision also will further empower China, undermining the supposed reason for the American action, and is yet another example of his unpredictable behavior over the past four years. Trump has shown his affinity for “big” moments that undermine American interests at home and abroad.

The speech lambasted the Chinese government’s actions against Hong Kong and malfeasance and cover-up of COVID-19. As has been the case since his election, Trump obfuscated facts and the truth to push aside blame and personal responsibility. The speech itself has largely already been forgotten due to his incitement of violence against protestors over the weekend, but it is a perfect case study for how he has approached foreign policy since taking office. The speech addressed legitimate concerns about the activities and behavior of the Chinese government internationally, domestically, and in Hong Kong—and even the behavior of the WHO; however, his meshing truth with lies and conspiracies calls into question how such steps will be implemented and whether or not the international community will support his moves.

Since taking office, Trump has ceded ground to Beijing in international organizations, particularly United Nations-affiliated groups. Instead of using these organizations to combat China, his policy has been to flip the table when things aren’t going his way and quit—opening the door for greater Chinese influence and baffling U.S. allies and partners who are left to pick up the pieces. Since his inauguration, Trump has left the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO, Paris Climate Accord, Joint Comprehensive Plan on Action (JCPOA), and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—and now the World Health Organization. Not all of these decisions were made over concerns about China or its influence. Again, important concerns about these groups and agreements were raised, but quitting was not the correct path. Quitting has befuddled and angered U.S. allies who are left to decide how to proceed. The United States has traditionally served as the “wrangler” to get international support for these efforts. Now, the opposite is occurring: allies have to try to wrangle the Trump administration into staying.

In his May 29 speech, Trump said, “China has total control over the World Health Organization, despite only paying $40 million per year compared to what the United States has been paying, which is approximately $450 million a year.” There are legitimate concerns about the influence that China has within the WHO and other organizations, but it does not have “total control.” Leaving allows other countries—in this case, China—to step up and demonstrate its ability to lead and fill funding gaps. In April, Trump announced a funding freeze for the WHO; China then announced it would contribute an additional $30 million (it had already announced a $20 million donation in March). The way in which the WHO handled in the initial days and weeks of the outbreak and its refusal to voice criticism against China sparked Trump’s outcry and led to his writing a letter to WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on May 18. In that letter, Trump gave the WHO a 30-day warning to reform its practices or the funding freeze could become permanent. Less than two weeks later, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the WHO. He didn’t even follow on his own game plan. Instead of working with other countries that are frustrated with the WHO’s response to the initial outbreak and its praise of China, Trump took the more destructive path. His decision undermines a chance to reform the organization at a critical juncture.

It goes without saying that leaving the WHO during a pandemic is incomprehensible—but so is advising citizen to use bleach and light to cleanse your body of COVID-19. The WHO is the leading international body in information sharing for COVID-19 and all other diseases. It is working with scientists around the globe to develop a vaccine. As other countries are starting to emerge from their lockdowns because cases are decreasing, the United States continues to struggle to get a handle on it. Two days before Trump announced the WHO withdrawal, the country crossed the 100,000-death marker.

By leaving the WHO and cutting funding, Trump is further harming the country and the world in the pandemic fight. You cannot influence an organization from the outside. The Trump administration spent weeks campaigning for Taiwan’s inclusion in the annual World Health Assembly meeting before Taiwan removed itself from consideration when it was clear that it wouldn’t get enough votes. Taiwan has been pushing for inclusion for four years because its government understands the importance of the WHO. Now, Taiwan has lost its greatest advocate for inclusion.

This behavior makes the United States look like an unstable partner. U.S. allies and partners cannot create a coherent response to incoherent behavior. Trump’s decision makes America truly alone.

As with the other five instances of Trump giving up, the world continues on without the United States. Trump didn’t kill the TPP by not joining. The eleven signatories created the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is now the third-largest free trade area in the world. They did it without the United States, and other countries are hoping to join it. After Trump left the Paris Climate Accord and JCPOA, European nations were forced to take the lead. The UN Human Rights Council didn’t fall apart. In fact, China now holds a seat on it. Beijing—which locks up human rights activists and lawyers and has interned over one million Uyghurs in concentration camps—will shape the human rights conversation within the UN for the next few years. The United States can only look on and complain from the sidelines.

Throughout 2020, Trump has claimed that he is “tough” on China to contrast himself from Democratic candidate Joseph Biden. The way that Trump speaks and the way that he acts show different results. He’s not hurting China; his decisions have made China more influential at a critical juncture in the pandemic—at the expense of U.S. interests.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.