The Surprisingly Pragmatic Plan for WHO Withdrawal

World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

The Trump administration is walking a tightrope on the WHO.

The president’s Rose Garden statement announcing his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the World Health Organization was replete with Trumpian bluster, inspiring worries of an ill-considered blow to global public health amid a pandemic.

On top of that, leaving international organizations is more complex than just making a speech. As required by the 1948 congressional resolution approving U.S. membership in the WHO, the country is bound by a one-year timeline from the date of official notification of withdrawal. The United States, according to the law, is also on the hook for all remaining membership dues to the organization. Otherwise put, Trump’s May 29 announcement and his official withdrawal notice on July 6 left many questions unanswered.

The Trump administration on Wednesday afternoon made significant strides toward answering those questions, demonstrating that its approach to pulling out of the organization is more pragmatic than many observers might have feared. These worries grew after the administration announced on September 1 that it would not participate in a global COVID-vaccine development program facilitated by the WHO. The steps outlined by officials during a press briefing call, however, will go a long way toward ensuring minimal damage to U.S. interests, the worldwide coronavirus response, and global public health more broadly.

Still, it’s a risky move. Why withdraw at all? Trump targeted the WHO during the early stages of the pandemic, alleging that “China has total control” over the international body. His allegations of total control were hyperbolic and have not been reflected in any of the reporting on the WHO’s failures. But the WHO certainly did, on several counts, botch its response to the pandemic, and it did so in large part to avoid offending the Chinese Communist Party leadership, which has tried to cover up the origins of the pandemic in Wuhan. Just last month, a WHO team visited China to work out the details of an investigation into the virus’s origins. Remarkably, the officials did not visit the city where it started. “Total control” or not, the WHO’s missteps have brought it in line with Beijing’s priorities.

With the WHO’s accommodation of the CCP in mind, the Trump administration, before the president announced the decision to pull out of the organization, attempted to secure reforms from the organization’s directorate. These changes, said a State Department official on Wednesday’s call, would have increased transparency of the WHO’s work, led to more rapid communications, and ensured decision-making based on science rather than politics. Above all else, though, the reforms would have demonstrated the directorate’s independence from Beijing. These overtures were turned down.

During the Trump presidency, the U.S. has left a number of multilateral bodies and agreements, such as the U.N. Human Rights Council and UNESCO. What makes those decisions different, though, is their bearing on U.S. interests. For example, leaving the UNHRC might — if you accept what critics of the move say — limit America’s ability to advocate for desired outcomes at the body. Even allowing that premise, this wouldn’t have immediate, concrete effects on core U.S. interests. Leaving the world’s global public-health agency, by contrast, certainly might.

Though it is tainted by Chinese influence, the WHO plays a key role in a number of crucial global-health issues. During flu season every year, it coordinates surveillance of the spread of the influenza. It also oversees the global public-health implications of humanitarian disasters and armed conflicts. And the WHO coordinates a polio-eradication effort that’s been spearheaded by the United States and viewed as a hallmark public-health triumph.

In the near term, the Trump administration withdrawal plan spares those efforts. Although the United States will officially leave the organization in July of 2021 (unless Joe Biden is elected in November), it will continue to fund a number of crucial programs in the interim. Funding for polio eradication efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue, as well as for programs in war-stricken countries, such as Syria and Libya, by way of a “one-time” payment. And as the world enters a flu season that public-health officials have warned could be deadlier than normal as it dovetails with the coronavirus, the United States will make a $40 million contribution toward immunization and other influenza-related efforts.

In addition, the Trump administration also says that it will not cede America’s seat at the table on WHO discussions that have a critical bearing on U.S. national security, American companies, and U.S. public-health investments. On a case-by case basis, according to the State Department, the United States will continue to attend WHO meetings.

Critics say that this selective approach to multilateral arrangements does more harm than good. Though it seems unique to the Trump era, previous presidents of both parties have also taken a discerning approach to international organizations, and some have even left them when it made sense to do so. In a similar vein, the Trump administration has sought to call attention to the WHO’s failures and encourage reform, while working to ensure that this effort does not compromise important public-health goals in the near term.

For all of its strengths, however, this plan still has its holes. It will tee up a contentious fight with a Congress potentially primed to reject the administration’s plan to divert over $60 million in “assessed” WHO membership dues to UN programs. (This is the Trump administration’s perhaps too-clever attempt to comply with the 1948 resolution.)

One also wonders what will happen once the one-time funding commitments promised by the State Department run their course. The Trump administration seems rather confident that it will eventually find appropriate substitutes to the WHO programs it will continue to fund in the lead-up to withdrawal. More likely, these one-time payments will become recurring payments.

And despite the continued U.S. presence at WHO meetings, its departure does leave more room for China to exert even more influence over the body. Granted, not even Trump hopes that withdrawal will be permanent. He’s said that the U.S. could reenter the organization after it implements the requested reforms.

The Trump administration is walking a tightrope on the WHO issue. It’s right to take aim at the CCP’s influence over the body, and it deserves plaudits for continuing funding for crucial global-health programs as part of the withdrawal plan. But if it remains out of the organization too long, that might ultimately be to Beijing’s benefit.

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