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Trump is trying to leverage control over the WHO while criticizing China for doing the same

May 20, 2020, 15:55 IST
Business Insider
Business Insider

President Donald Trump (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping.Business Insider/Getty Images

  • In a Monday letter, President Donald Trump threatened to end US funding and membership to the World Health Organization if it did not make "major substantive improvements" in 30 days.
  • The letter specifically called on the WHO to "demonstrate independence from China" and said the organization is "so clearly not serving America's interests."
  • While Trump is not alone in his criticism of the WHO's relationship with China, his letter suggests that he expects the same sense of loyalty from the WHO that he had denounced China for.
  • "The tone of the letter suggests that the WHO must become independent from China by becoming more dependent on — and subservient to — the United States and its interests," one expert said.
  • Experts also say Trump's attack on the WHO is weakening the agency and pushing it further into China's arms.

President Donald Trump upped his attacks on the World Health Organization on Monday, writing in a letter to its director that he would end US funding and membership if the agency did not make "major substantive improvements" in the next 30 days.

In the four-page correspondence, which was shared on Twitter, Trump accused the WHO of failing in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and cozying up to China.

"The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China," Trump wrote. "My Administration has already started discussions with you on how to reform the organization."

"I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organization that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving America's interests," he added.

The WHO has declined to comment on Trump's letter, but defended the agency's role in the COVID-19 outbreak.

The World Health Organization logo at its headquarters in Geneva, as seen on February 24, 2020.FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Trump's censure of the WHO began last month, when Trump announced he would suspend roughly $400 million in US funding to the WHO. Until then, the US was the largest financial contributor to WHO.

On Monday, Trump also refused an invitation to speak at the WHO's virtual gathering, accusing the organization of being a "puppet of China."

"I think they've done a very sad job in the last period of time," the president had said.

Trump is not alone in his disapproval of the WHO's performance during the coronavirus pandemic — critics have accused the organization of assisting China's efforts to suppress information on the coronavirus, which originated in the city of Wuhan late last year.

In particular, the Trump administration has criticized the WHO's claim in mid-January that there was no known human-to-human transmission of the virus.

John Lee, a senior fellow at the United States Studies Center in Sydney and the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, told Business Insider that WHO's leadership had developed "an unacceptably intimate and cozy relationship with Beijing" in recent years.

The World Health Organization logo in Geneva next to their headquarters.FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Trump weakens the WHO while telling it to be 'independent'

While experts acknowledge gaps in the WHO's diplomatic handling of the virus, and have noted China's attempts to exert influence over the agency, Trump's letter indicates that he expects the same sense of loyalty from the WHO that he has denounced China for.

"One thing that strikes me about the letter, which is remarkable, is a deep irony," said Suerie Moon, director of research at the Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, and an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

"Trump is right that the world needs a stronger, more independent WHO, but his move is exactly what weakens it —when governments baldly use money and other means of leverage to try to influence WHO's decisions or actions."

Moon said that Trump's assertion that the WHO needs to "demonstrate independence from China" while demanding that the organization serve "America's interests" is paradoxical.

"He can't have it both ways," she said. "Either you build an organization equally able to criticize China or the US when they don't act in the interests of public health, or build an organization that is not able to criticize either — which is what we have today."

World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 28, 2020.NAOHIKO HATTA/AFP via Getty Images

Trump is pushing the WHO into China's arms

David Fidler, adjunct senior fellow for Cybersecurity and Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Trump is in fact demanding that the WHO become "subservient" to the US in a power play against China.

"The tone of the letter suggests that the WHO must become independent from China by becoming more dependent on — and subservient to — the United States and its interests," he told Business Insider.

According to Fidler, Trump's threatening letter not only hurts US credibility but may even further push the organization into China's arms.

"The US government has never depended only on information provided by the WHO in terms of protecting the health of the American people," Fidler said

"President Trump's letter makes the United States appear weak and gullible in blaming the WHO for how the organization interacted with China. "

Fidler continued: "Threatening to permanently cut off funding and leave the organization is the best way to ensure that the WHO becomes more dependent on China and its interests — an outcome no one in global health should welcome, even if it helps keep the WHO afloat without the United States."

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