When President Donald Trump mused that he may withhold America’s generous annual contribution to the World Health Organization because of the poor leadership of its director general, he failed to mention one inconvenient fact: His administration initially supported Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in 2017.
Three years ago, Ghebreyesus was seen as a flawed but qualified candidate for WHO director general. As Ethiopia’s health minister from 2005 to 2012, he had experience dealing with several cholera outbreaks.
But he was also accused of covering them up by one of his rivals for the position.
Ghebreyesus is one of many world leaders who deserve blame for failing to prepare for the pandemic. It’s a long list that includes Trump himself as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But the Ethiopian doctor and former health minister is in charge of what is supposed to be the world’s early warning system for infectious diseases. He could have applied more public pressure to Chinese officials when the virus was first discovered. Instead, he praised China’s handling of the outbreak and downplayed the emergency until late January.
At the same time, it’s a mistake to put too much emphasis on Ghebreyesus.
He was dealing with China, which has a history of concealing information from the WHO even when it’s not engaged in a trade war with the U.S. In 2003, during the SARS outbreak, it took more than two months for the organization to get doctors and researchers into Guangdong Province, the center of the epidemic, after the local government there reported it to Beijing.
The WHO has to walk a fine line when it comes to authoritarian regimes like China. "It has to balance gaining access to China with not offending the Chinese officials that control their access," says Tom Bossert, who served as Trump’s first homeland security adviser. "And that complicates their ability to remain and appear credible in their objective analysis of China."
In other words, the problem is not just a failure of leadership on the part of Ghebreyesus. It’s China’s determination to use its power in international organizations to advance its national interests instead of addressing global challenges.
There is a pattern of China seeking to place officials in charge of such organizations who will show proper respect to China and look the other way at its transgressions.
When China disappeared the Chinese national serving as president of Interpol over an internal political dispute in 2018, the organization’s executive director was reduced to pleading with Chinese authorities for an update on his whereabouts and safety.
To this day, China remains a member of Interpol in good standing and has paid no real consequence for abducting and detaining its elected leader.
For too long, the U.S. government has ignored China’s intimidation of these institutions, on the belief that its participation in the international system would tame it over time. As the coronavirus pandemic has proved, this theory is no more than wishful thinking.
None of this is to say that China should be kicked out of the WHO, or that the U.S. should suspend its contributions to it. Most new infectious diseases begin somewhere in China. It’s to America’s and the world’s benefit to keep China inside the organization.
What’s required is a savvier kind of diplomacy. Instead of just complaining about China’s participation in these global organizations, the U.S. should seek to counter China’s influence — by, for example, supporting the placement of officials that will hold China accountable for its transgressions.
The State Department is now starting to do just that. Last month, for example, the U.S. opposed China to help elect Singapore’s Daren Tang to lead the World Intellectual Property Organization. The next elections for the International Telecommunication Union, which will set the technical standards for the world’s 5G communications network, will be another test of this tougher diplomacy.
That is the right strategy for the short term. In the medium to long term, however, the U.S. must also seek opportunities to pressure China’s regime to loosen its grip.
The political openings that the West hoped would follow China’s rapid economic growth over the last three decades have not materialized.
China’s gaming of international institutions is neither a response to America nor a reflection of its own autocratic impulses. It’s simply what authoritarian regimes do. Open societies support rules-based systems that benefit the world. Closed ones support rules-based systems only when it’s convenient.
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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