It’s hard to remember a policy from President Donald Trump that has been as roundly and swiftly condemned as his decision to suspend U.S. funding for the World Health Organization (WHO).
The editor of the prestigious British medical journal the Lancet called the funding freeze a "crime against humanity." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it is "not in U.S. interests." Microsoft founder Bill Gates said it is "as dangerous as it sounds."
Congressional Democrats have called the move unconstitutional.
It’s easy to understand the outrage. In the middle of a pandemic, many poor countries rely on the WHO’s expertise and guidance. The U.S. is the largest single donor to the organization, providing about 15% of its budget.
The freeze may force the WHO to curtail aid at a time when the need is greatest.
As usual, however, there is more to the story. U.S. diplomatic officials tell me that the cutoff in funding came after senior U.S. officials pleaded with WHO leaders to make good on a list of reasonable requests — and those leaders refused.
The U.S. requests included supporting Taiwan’s bid to participate in the World Health Assembly, pressing China to provide U.S. public health agencies with the complete set of early samples of the virus, and providing greater transparency into how the virus initially spread within China. Only after WHO Secretary-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declined these requests did Trump cut off of funding — in an attempt to pressure him to change his mind.
The WHO secretary-general is in a bind.
The organization needs access to China and its public health system, but China imposes conditions on such access. High on the list is the exclusion of Taiwan, which has had great success in fighting the pandemic but which China considers a breakaway province, from U.N. organizations.
For a long time the U.S. — the WHO’s largest donor — looked the other way when China employed these strong-arm tactics. No longer. U.S. officials also tell me that they will try to mitigate the impact on public health by spending the money Trump would have sent to the WHO through the U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies.
The administration is also hoping to rely on large international charities to do this work.
So does this mean Trump was justified in cutting off the WHO funding?
It’s a high-risk strategy.
If Trump’s brinksmanship succeeds in getting WHO officials to force China to be more transparent, then a brief suspension of funding will do a world of good.
If, on the other hand, other countries step in to make up the funding shortfall, then Trump will have isolated and embarrassed the U.S. on the world stage.
The worst-case scenario is that the cutoff in funding inhibits the ability of poor countries to slow the spread of Covid-19.
A pandemic is a reminder of how connected the world really is.
If the spread is slowed in America but rages in Eritrea, the risk of a new outbreak remains. And while it’s possible for the U.S. government to perform some of the roles of the WHO, U.S. government agencies are unlikely to get access to such countries as Iran or Venezuela, both of which are fighting outbreaks.
Trump is correct that the WHO has failed to perform one of its most important functions: Serving as the world’s early-warning system for new infectious diseases.
But his anger is misdirected.
It's China that is still not being fully transparent about the outbreak.
The problem is that Trump has fewer options and less leverage with China, which is a crucial link in the medical supply chain for the U.S. and much of the world.
The result is that, for the moment, the WHO is being punished for China’s deceptions.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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