Allies bite their tongues after Trump withdraws from WHO

President Trump’s move to withdraw the U.S. from the World Health Organization (WHO) has received only muted criticism from allied nations as they look to preserve American cooperation amid the global challenges posed by COVID-19.

These allies are holding back despite widespread frustration with the president’s continued attack on global partnerships and the U.S. global actions on the pandemic, including imposing travel restrictions soon after its onset.

Yet allies are also mindful they need U.S. cooperation in combating COVID-19 in areas such as contributing to the medical research on the virus and are keen to preserve open channels of communication with Washington, D.C. 

“The U.S. has made it clear that it will continue to provide resources for the global health effort around this,” said Arthur Sinodinos, Australian ambassador to the U.S, referring to COVID-19.

“I don’t think it can necessarily impact directly on that because the work of the WHO will also continue, and other countries indicated they will step up if there is a gap,” he added.

Sinodinos made his remarks during a recent virtual roundtable hosted by the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council, which brought together representatives from America’s closest democratic allies in Europe and the Pacific.

Deborah Birx, a senior member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, spoke at the event from the U.S. perspective, reassuring allies that Washington is not shunning its friends.

“When many of my European colleagues, who I know well, were confronting this virus, they would drop everything to give me the specifics of what they were seeing,” she said.

“That global cooperation, which sometimes is not visible at the highest stage, works every single day, and every single day we’ve been able to be in communication,” she added.

The informal group of the U.S. and European and Asian-Pacific nations is collectively known as the D-10. It has held annual, private meetings since 2008 and is typically made up of senior diplomatic officials engaged in policy planning.

The pandemic has elevated these discussions, and Washington-based ambassadors have met twice a month since April. The event with the Atlantic Council marked their first public gathering.

Ash Jain, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and a former State Department official who helped launch the D-10 effort in the George W. Bush administration, said the public meeting signaled the importance of pushing for global cooperation.

“We felt that convening this group publicly for the first time made sense because the pandemic is such an acute issue right now,” he said.

Diplomats in private say they want the U.S. to be present in multilateral institutions, to engage in global conversations and take up a leadership role as the largest economy grounded in democratic principles.

But in public, they are striking a balance between criticizing Trump’s go-it-alone approach while encouraging cooperation.

“It should not be every nation for itself, and I think Europe’s experience taught us that very quickly in the crisis,” Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union’s ambassador to the U.S., told the Atlantic Council.

“We started out in an uncoordinated way in Europe and very quickly we found out that that was not working for anyone,” he added.

Rebecca Katz, Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, says the apparent muted criticism from allies is a cautious approach over an uncertain future.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has announced that if he is elected, he would reverse Trump’s decision to leave the WHO, which isn’t expected to be fulfilled until next year.

“There’s a lot of trying to hedge a little bit because this doesn’t go into effect until July,” Katz said. “The uncertainty on actually what may or may not happen, I think, is contributing to folks not being terribly vocal about it.”

Experts warn the lack of U.S. funds will handicap the organization in helping coordinate the response to the pandemic and leave a void that will likely be filled by China, which is not a member of the D-10.

“The argument that the Trump administration has been peddling is that U.S. withdrawal from the WHO is emblematic of its commitment to the American taxpayer and that Washington should not sink its resources into an organization that does not serve U.S. interests,” said Kristine Lee, associate fellow with the Center for a New American Security in its Asia-Pacific Security Program.

“But the reality is that ceding ground in these organizations is far more detrimental to American interests. It is giving Beijing free rein to shape the international narrative about the origins of the virus and to promote solutions that advance the Chinese Communist Party’s narrow economic and security interests,” she added.

Trump has been unrelenting in his criticism that China holds too much influence over the WHO and that Beijing covered up the extent of the threat of the virus in the early days of the outbreak, sparking a war of words with the Asian country.

The fear that China could grow its influence in the WHO is echoed by diplomats, but they argue that the response should be to strengthen reforms within the organization while preserving the WHO’s efforts to combat the pandemic.

Ricklef Beutin, the German Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, said at the Atlantic Council’s D-10 meeting that criticism of WHO may be justified and even welcomed but added, “We feel that it is not a good idea to hamper the organization while in the full thrust and brunt of this pandemic.”

“Our feeling is the world would be a better place if we all worked to make the organizations that we have, and especially the World Health Organization, better,” Beutin also said.

The goodwill the U.S. has built up over decades of investing in global public health infrastructure, both in research and development at home and in contributions abroad, still make a powerful player in the global response, Katz of Georgetown noted.

“Clearly, the U.S. has a large cohort of scientists, epidemiologists, drug developers and people who are working day and night to support the response to the pandemic and to come up with effective medical countermeasures,” she said. “There’s still much that the U.S. can contribute and should contribute to global collaboration.”

But the U.S.’s difficulties in confronting COVID-19 domestically — with the largest case count in the world — has raised fears the country is abdicating American leadership, resulting in a more damaging outcome than Trump’s withdrawal from the WHO.

“We are not global leaders in the response to this pandemic,” Katz said. “Our numbers are kind of unfathomable. It’s hard to say that we should be providing public health guidance to the world right now.”

 Corrects story on July 14 to note Ricklef Beutin, the German Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, was talking about WHO

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Joe Biden WHO

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