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Quitting the WHO

How the blundering U.N. health agency came to be in China’s pocket—and what U.S. withdrawal will mean.
June 11, 2020
Quitting the WHO
A couple wearing facemasks dance in a park next to Yangtze River in Wuhan, China's central Hubei province on May 27, 2020. - China's foreign minister on May 24 said the country was "open" to international cooperation to identify the source of the disease, but any investigation must be led by the World Health Organization and "free of political interference". (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

On Monday, news outlets around the world reported that a World Health Organization (WHO) official described transmission of the coronavirus by “asymptomatic” individuals as “very rare.”

This was shocking news, since risk of transmission by infected people who haven’t yet developed symptoms had previously been considered very high. More than a third of infections, it had been understood, could be traced to interactions with someone who was infected but not yet experiencing symptoms. Indeed, this was the rationale for so much of the regime of the mask-wearing, physical-distancing, business-closing rules we’ve been living under.

Or, at any rate, it would have been shocking news if it were true. Scientists around the world expressed surprise. Reporters and policymakers scratched their heads. And over the next few days, WHO scientists and spokesmen sought desperately to clarify and correct. It seems that the WHO official had spoken imprecisely: The data suggests that transmission is very rare from people who are infected but who never develop symptoms. But transmission is not at all rare among people who are “pre-symptomatic”—who don’t yet have but will develop symptoms. The days of confusion and doubt could entirely have been avoided.

It was a huge, high-stakes failure of scientific communication. It was yet another blemish on the record of the WHO. And it was a reason not to regret President Trump’s decision to suspend U.S. funding of the U.N. agency.

Explaining that decision in April, the president said that the WHO is badly managed, has become an arm of the Chinese Communist Party, and bears some responsibility for the scope of the pandemic.

He’s correct on all counts.

Trump spent weeks praising the Chinese government for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak before belatedly awakening to the reality that both China and the WHO had made matters worse:

The WHO helped the Chinese Communist Party cover up the facts of the pandemic in the early days. One of its senior officials awkwardly refused to acknowledge Taiwan as a sovereign country or even talk about it. The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is a Sinophile who has talked positively about the rise of China and has expressed his intention to engage China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (a geopolitical challenge to the Westerners who want to contain China’s growth). Within days of his election, Tedros met with the Chinese health minister and reaffirmed his support for One China Policy (which is relevant to the WHO only by the means of refusal to admit Taiwan). A few months later, he released a statement on the WHO’s website about his new vision for a strengthened partnership between the WHO and China.

So how did the WHO become a wholly owned subsidiary of the CCP?

Trump might have known the answer to this question had he been paying attention earlier in his administration.

In 2017, the World Health Assembly met to elect a new director-general for the WHO. The assembly’s membership of 194 states is more or less the same as that of the United Nations. Meaning that a large bulk of these members are third-world countries—most of which have corrupt governments and rely on foreign aid of one sort or another.

And for the last dozen years, the Chinese have been spreading money around and buying influence without the United States bothering to push back.

William & Mary College’s AidData project is the most comprehensive database of Chinese foreign aid doled out between 2000 and 2014. From 2000 to 2008, the United States was the largest granter of foreign aid. But from 2008 on, China surpassed America in grants to other countries.

And when you look at where the aid goes, the skewing looks larger than it at first appears: Roughly one-third of all U.S. foreign aid goes to five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. China, on the other hand, spreads the wealth around. Between 2000 and 2014, Africa—the continent with the lowest income per capita and per nation and the greatest number of countries—received $354.3 billion in aid and investment from China, compared to the United States’s $394.6 billion. But China’s investment rate, following the Belt and Road Initiative, has increased, while the United States’s investment and aid has been either stagnant or declining since the Great Recession. This means that since 2014, China has been the greatest investor in Africa. And that’s just Africa; China is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into Asia and Latin America, too.

In 2017, when the votes were being cast for the new director-general, America’s secretary of state was busy firing seasoned diplomats and fighting with Congress to cut foreign aid (a fight he ultimately lost). At the same time, China was spending a pledged $60 billion in Africa.

The president of the United States was insulting our Latin American friends, while China was settling on a five-year plan of $500 billion trade (plus another $250 billion investment) in Latin America.

China’s then-ambassador to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi, was a career diplomat. The United States’s ambassador to the United Nations was a political show horse who had no foreign policy or diplomatic experience whatsoever.

The United States did not make any official endorsement in the decision for a new head for the WHO, but there were rumors that the Trump administration favored the British candidate, Dr. David Nabarro. In October 2017, the Times of London reported that “Chinese diplomats had campaigned hard for [Tedros], using Beijing’s financial clout and opaque aid budget to build support for him among developing countries.” Around the same time, a Washington Post noted the same thing, adding that China was trying hard to defeat Nabarro.

Should America have understood that Tedros was a bad actor from the start? Umm, yes? Shortly after taking over the WHO, he lavished praise on Zimbabwe’s monstrous dictator, Robert Mugabe—a longtime Chinese ally—before then appointing Mugabe a WHO “goodwill ambassador.”

People who take governing and diplomacy seriously have long understood that personnel is policy.

Donald Trump does neither of those things.

There’s a common theme to the last three years: American politics and foreign policy have been in disarray. Trump’s supporters seem to believe that this disarray is actually a good thing—“disruption” that has put “America First.” But this year has made obvious the high cost of that disruption. Because while America has spent the Trump years picking fights with its old allies, China has been making new ones.

And it turns out that allies are valuable after all. For instance, America might have been saved a great deal of pain had it bothered to cultivate the necessary players to ensure that the WHO was a responsible organization.

Ideas have consequences, and one of the consequences of the idea of “America First” is that, in practice, it translates into “America Alone.” You can make do with that sort of posture when the world is calm. But when a crisis hits, isolation is little more than an illusion.

American leadership has always been a hard bargain. We pay a real price—in both blood and treasure—so that we can win allies, be seen as indispensable, and thus exercise some control over events.

To renounce our leadership, as Trump has done—quite on purpose—means relinquishing the measure of control over events that a century of Americans have purchased.

And, as President Trump has recently discovered, this, too, carries a price.

Withholding funds from the WHO is the right thing to do—but Trump picked a maximally bad time to do it: at the height of a global pandemic, when the world’s scientists are relying on the WHO’s data and expertise. Done wisely, suspending funding could be part of a plan to regain some measure of control over—and encourage responsibility from—the organization. At the end of the day, however, America has only one vote in electing the organization’s lead; we need the assistance of other nations in picking a competent director-general. The way Trump has chosen to execute his move is merely a further U.S. retreat—creating a vacuum that China will fill.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.