Editor’s Note: Hajer Naili is a former journalist and expert in humanitarian and displacement crises. She is currently the communications and media manager at The Soufan Center. Naili tweets at @H_NAILI. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Without waiting for the end of the 30 day-grace period he had given the World Health Organization (WHO), President Donald Trump announced on Friday that he was “terminating” the US relationship with the organization. This decision comes just 11 days after he threatened to permanently revoke US funding in a letter he had addressed to the WHO leadership.
By not giving the WHO time to consider some improvements, Trump demonstrates bad faith and a desire to scapegoat an international organization. His feud with the WHO is yet another diversion, aimed at distracting the American public from his catastrophic failures to prevent more than 100,000 Covid-related deaths in the United States.
But it’s also an opportunity for the President, a longtime skeptic of multilateral organizations, to kick a critical international institution to the curb. The problem, of course, is that politicizing multilateral institutions undermines the ability of these organizations to reach broad and consensual decisions, with the risk of rendering them irrelevant. It also infringes on their ability to act independently and with impartiality.
While Trump’s animosity toward these kinds of organizations has little to do with coronavirus, the pandemic has provided him with the perfect cover to question their legitimacy. After all, the WHO has been far from perfect in its response to the pandemic.
But then again, Trump got it horribly wrong himself. He failed to heed early warnings from medical and security experts for weeks. Alerts from high-ranking government experts began as far back as January, yet, it took another 10 weeks for the President to take action and issue concrete guidelines for the public.
Trump claims that he started taking action on January 31 when he announced a restriction on all incoming travel from China. Yet such a measure was inadequate to help the country prepare and prevent widespread infections. By then, the United States had already recorded six cases of Covid-19 across the country.
Even after that, the President suggested that the pandemic was a partisan-fueled hoax and continued to be dismissive of the public health threat posed by the novel coronavirus. He was reported telling administration officials not to “panic,” according to an investigation by the New York Times, and displayed a similar attitude in public when he told reporters in late February that the virus would simply vanish by April: “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
We are past the month of April, the virus is still among us with a death toll exceeding 100,000 and instead of admitting his own failures, the President is seeking to harm an international agency that has no power of retaliation.
Multilateral organizations were created to serve a global agenda and to respond to world crises and challenges, including wars and conflict. There is no question that the US has been the largest donor to the United Nations and its specialized agencies. In 2018, the US paid about $10 billion to UN entities. This represented slightly less than one-fifth of the total revenue ($56 billion) of the UN system. For the 2018-19 fiscal year, the US contributed 15% of the WHO’s budget or slightly more than $890 million.
But weaponizing funds can pose a threat to the existence of multilateral organizations, especially when the threat comes from the most significant donor, the United States. For instance, the loss of US contributions is likely to be a major blow to disease control objectives that were considered priorities for America, like the treatment and elimination of the diseases known as the “Big Three” ― AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
Other countries have already pledged additional contributions, but it is unlikely to be enough. China announced an additional $30 million in funding, Finland pledged an additional €5 million ($5.5 million), and Ireland announced it will quadruple its contributions to reach €9.5 million ($10.5 million).
More to the point, though, cutting funds as a tool to sway decisions and pressure reforms within the UN organizations won’t yield the expected results. On the contrary, history has shown that strong US engagement is actually the best approach to reform the institution. One example is the major restructuring of the part of the UN Secretariat that deals with peace and security. The UN reform led by former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and approved by UN state members, was intended to make the organization a more efficient bureaucracy better able to prevent crises.
In addition, by disengaging from multilateral organizations, the US loses its right to be around the table and leaves a vacuum for other powers to fill, like China. And Beijing is certainly rising to the occasion. During this pandemic, Beijing has been providing aid and sending planes full of masks and medical equipment to countries like Serbia and Italy. In March and April, Beijing also dispatched teams of doctors to 16 countries.
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Even though the UN is far from perfect, the institution is now facing a funding crisis, created by one of its founding member states ― and core UN values of independence, impartiality, justice, and universalism are in peril. By dismissing these values, member states threaten the international order and hinder global cooperation.
The current pandemic should resound like a clarion call for enhanced multilateralism, as the world stares down global threats that ignore borders and require more coordination than ever before.