Leaving World Health Organization marks major foreign policy blunder

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President Trump has announced that the United States will withdraw from the World Health Organization. Founded in 1948, it has become one of the most capable international institutions in existence, proving critical in the fight to prevent and contain deadly diseases such as polio, ebola, cholera, yellow fever, and most recently, the coronavirus. While some international institutions have exhibited various forms of overstretch and problems, the World Health Organization has remained true to its mission. This decision for the United States to withdraw has three major consequences.

First, it undermines the global efforts to respond to the coronavirus crisis. This is not a time to pursue ideological vendettas against the World Health Organization. Many mistakenly believe its assistance in the battle against the coronavirus is only limited to tracking the disease and publishing new information on its transmission and treatment. However, the World Health Organization employs more than 7,000 staffers spread across 150 country offices. These workers are multilingual, connected with local governments and private organizations, and trained to work in host nations.

No United States agency can match such capabilities. By preventing a resurgence of the coronavirus in developing nations, the World Health Organization will save lives and decrease the chances that an epidemic will rebound over to the United States. The World Health Organization is more important now than it has been since the ebola outbreak in Africa. This is certainly not the time to withdraw United States support.

Second, it steps back from our important commitment to provide global public goods that benefit all countries, particularly the United States. This has been a fixture in American foreign policy since 1945. Withdrawal from the World Health Organization is indeed the latest in a series of pullbacks from international commitments which confirm the negative appearance that the United States no longer cares to maintain or support the precise system it helped create out of the wreckage of World War Two.

The commitment to free trade and management of international crises through multilateral institutions define that order. It benefits all nations, especially the United States. This is not an order policed directly by the American government, but one that polices itself, reducing the burdens that would otherwise fall on the United States. Leaving the World Health Organization is another abandonment of the system which presidents of both parties built to benefit our country over the last 75 years.

Third, it creates new opportunities for potential challengers such as China and Russia to question American leadership of this order. Nature abhors a political vacuum, so as the United States withdraws from the world stage, other powers will seek to fill the void. While China and Russia are still not yet in a position to directly challenge the United States, their trajectory of growth and aggression suggest that their time could come.

These two nations already regularly interfere with our American policies all around the world, ranging from Chinese cyberattacks on our business and government targets to Russian aggression over parts of Europe and the Middle East. Withdrawing from the World Health Organization at the time when American leadership is so critical hands an easy propaganda victory to our competitors. Whether it is a friendlier rise of Europe or a more hostile rise of China, the United States is opening the door to its own replacement by leaving its international commitments.

Great powers rise and fall, but rarely do they throw away leadership of the international system voluntarily. That is exactly what this administration is doing by pulling out of the only multilateral institution capable of dealing with pandemics like the coronavirus that threaten stability.

Stephen Long is an associate professor at the University of Richmond and an advisory board member for United States Global Leadership Coalition.

Tags Americans Coronavirus Donald Trump Government Health Pandemic World

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