Report

Can the United Nations Survive the Coronavirus?

In the absence of U.S. leadership, the U.N. is struggling to carve out a role in the face of what may be the greatest threat since its founding.

The empty chamber of the U.N. headquarters
The empty chamber of the U.N. headquarters after it closed to the public "out of an abundance of caution" because of the spread of the novel coronavirus in New York on March 11. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Faced with a lack of U.S. proposals to battle the coronavirus pandemic at the United Nations, French President Emmanuel Macron sought in recent weeks to step into the breach, soliciting support for a virtual summit of leaders of the U.N.’s five big powers to coordinate a plan to prevent the virus from fueling greater conflict.

The French initiative—which included a push to adopt a resolution calling for a halt to fighting in conflicts monitored by the 15-nation Security Council—was one of multiple efforts to fill the political vacuum left by a U.S. administration that has apparently grown weary of its role as the world’s organizer-in-chief. But the proposal has stalled amid a dispute between the United States and China over who is to blame for unleashing the deadliest pathogen in nearly a century. The hospitalization of Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was infected by the coronavirus, has put the plan on ice.

That may also be the fate of the U.N. itself at this juncture. Since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, a host of international dignitaries, including U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and leaders from China and Estonia to Tunisia, France, and Russia, have vied with one another to fill the geopolitical vacuum, putting forward a succession of plans to address the health crisis.

“This crisis has shown that neither China nor the U.S. is ready and able to lead the U.N. system.”

But each effort has met stiff resistance or indifference, raising questions about the ability of the U.N. to function effectively with a declining American superpower unwilling, and seemingly unable, to guide the world through the health calamity, and the capacity of a rising China to forge a concerted international response to a pandemic that started on its soil.

“This crisis has shown that neither China nor the U.S. is ready and able to lead the U.N. system,” Richard Gowan, the U.N. representative for the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy. “The French deserve credit for trying to pull everyone together, but the P5 [the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council] are so fractured that even Macron has struggled to unite them.”

“The Americans have looked petty, focusing on pinning the blame for COVID-19 on Beijing rather than devising a global response to the problem,” Gowan added. “But the Chinese have also failed to offer a compelling vision of how to deal with the crisis, and seem most concerned with defending their reputation.”

The deadlock comes as the U.N. Security Council and the United States are facing mounting international and domestic pressure to coordinate the international response to the virus, as they have done in the face of previous battles against HIV and Ebola. The failure to agree on a way forward underscored the degree to which the international coordination—or multilateralism—has atrophied under the Trump administration.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at a virtual press briefing at U.N. headquarters in New York on April 3, calling for the international community to focus on the battle against its common enemy—the COVID-19 pandemic.

Secretary-General António Guterres speaks at a virtual press briefing at U.N. headquarters in New York on April 3, calling for the international community to focus on the battle against its common enemy—the coronavirus pandemic. Xinhua/Xie E via Getty Images

On Thursday, the council plans to convene its first meeting on COVID-19 in a closed-door briefing by the U.N. secretary-general. The virtual meeting—which initially faced resistance from China on the grounds that the pandemic posed no threat to international peace and security—was organized at the request of nine nonpermanent members of the Security Council, not the United States or its big-power counterparts.

“Historically, American leadership has helped the global community organize, set priorities, and unite disparate and often conflicting national responses to avoid the worst-case scenario,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote Friday to Kelly Knight Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Yet, as Americans and people all over the world continue to face this threat to international health, stability, and security, we have not seen strong U.S. leadership at the U.N. Security Council or elsewhere on the global stage.”

“Frankly, we should be vigilant about cooperating on a public health basis with any country, whether they are a historical ally or adversary of the United States.”

“There is no way to protect ourselves from the coronavirus today, or its resurgence in the fall, if we don’t mount a global response,” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said Tuesday in a conference call organized by J Street, an advocacy group focused on ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “And we have not. We have not. We have not coordinated our actions with allies in Europe—we announced the travel ban from Europe without even alerting the EU [European Union] beforehand, and we are clearly not coordinating our response with our adversaries.”

“Frankly, we should be vigilant about cooperating on a public health basis with any country, whether they are a historical ally or adversary of the United States,” Murphy said.

The Trump administration has invested much of its political capital in assigning blame for the outbreak of the virus, which spread rapidly through American cities, infecting more than 425,000 people and killing nearly 15,000. After initially praising Chinese President Xi Jinping’s response to the crisis, the White House has since pointed a finger at China for withholding vital information about the virus before it spread around the world.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump also singled out the World Health Organization, an organization he had also previously praised for its response, for blame. “The W.H.O. really blew it,” he wrote in a tweet. “For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look. Fortunately I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on. Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?”

In response, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, tweeted he wouldn’t support continued U.S. assistance to “WHO and its Chinese apologists.”

“This is getting absurd,” Jeremy Konyndyk, who served as director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance under President Barack Obama’s administration, where he led the U.S. response to the Ebola pandemic, replied on Twitter. “This is not about WHO’s effectiveness, it’s about finding a scapegoat for the [U.S. government’s] ineffectiveness. Nothing that WHO did or did not do in January/February prevented the USG from recognizing this risk and preparing for it.”

“China and the WHO genuinely deserve criticism for their role in the spread of COVID-19, but that is getting mixed up with American domestic politics and buck-passing as the election looms.”

“It is clear that Trump now sees the U.N. as a useful scapegoat along with state governors, the Europeans and everyone else he has targeted during the pandemic,” Gowan told Foreign Policy. “China and the WHO genuinely deserve criticism for their role in the spread of COVID-19, but that is getting mixed up with American domestic politics and buck-passing as the election looms.”

In the weeks following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, the U.N. Security Council grappled with the challenge of managing a range of global security crises at a time when the virus was finding its ways into U.N. headquarters, forcing U.N.-based staff and diplomats to work from home.

With the big powers divided, Estonia, one of 10 nonpermanent members of the Security Council, stepped forward, proposing the council issue a statement saying the pandemic “may constitute a threat to international peace and security” and urging greater international cooperation in confronting COVID-19. The initiative was quickly squashed by South Africa, which argued that the virus was not a threat to international peace and security, and therefore not the Security Council’s business. China backed South Africa, saying in an email to its counterparts that the U.N.’s health agency, the World Health Organization, should manage the international response.

Behind closed doors, France opened separate negotiations with the four other veto-wielding members of the Security Council: Britain, China, Russia, and the United States. Paris sought to secure support for a Security Council resolution that called for a stepped-up effort to promote cease-fires and peace efforts in a range of countries, from South Sudan to Syria and Yemen.

A screen at the U.N. headquarters in New York shows a virtual joint briefing by the U.N. principal organs to member states on the COVID-19 response on March 27.

A screen at the U.N. headquarters in New York shows a virtual joint briefing by the U.N. principal organs to member states on the COVID-19 response on March 27. Xinhua/Xie E via Getty Images

The French hoped that they might overcome Chinese resistance to a pandemic resolution if they did not explicitly declare it a threat to international peace and security. But the fact that the Security Council—which is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security—had weighed in on the issue would implicitly send the message that it was such a threat, and that the council would have a role in confronting it. The negotiations stumbled after U.S. negotiators—acting under instructions from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—insisted that the resolution make it clear that the pandemic began in China, and proposed calling it the “Wuhan virus.”

Macron, meanwhile, continued to press Trump, Xi, Johnson, and Russian President Vladimir Putin to participate in a virtual summit to chart the course forward on the pandemic at the United Nations. But Chinese officials dragged their feet, saying they couldn’t agree on a date for such a meeting, according to several diplomatic sources. On Tuesday, with Johnson in intensive care at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, the French decided to hold back.

On his last day as president of the Security Council, China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Jun, defended his tenure, saying that the council has been “doing everything possible to tackle the impact of the pandemic.” China, he said, had overseen negotiations over complex procedural and logistical issues required to get the council up and running remotely. Under China’s presidency, he added, the council passed six resolutions, issued six statements, and moderated what he described as the first-ever thematic debate on the need to counter terrorism and extremism in Africa, as well as a measure highlighting the need to ensure the safety and security of U.N. peacekeepers.

“Making the Security Council well-functioning is, in itself, combating the pandemic and lending confidence and strength to the whole world,” he wrote. The council, he added, also discussed the “negative impact by the pandemic” on various crises, urged warring parties to cease fighting, and promoted the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance in trouble spots.

In the absence of Security Council cohesion, the U.N. secretary-general and a coalition of countries have sought to fill the vacuum.

On March 23, Guterres called for a global cease-fire, a popular initiative that has not been taken up by the Security Council, and he has issued a detailed $2 billion appeal designed to shield the world’s most vulnerable from the ravages of the virus.

On April 2, a group of six countries—Ghana, Indonesia, Liechtenstein, Norway, Singapore, and Switzerland—secured support for the unanimous passage of a nonbinding resolution in the 193-member General Assembly that called for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat” the coronavirus. A competing Russian resolution, which called for an end to the imposition of sanctions without a Security Council mandate, was not adopted.

The U.N. secretary-general’s appeal for a global cease-fire and aid package have been the most tangible proposals to emerge from the United Nations since the pandemic began.

“There should be only one fight in our world today: our shared battle against the common enemy of humanity, COVID-19,” Guterres wrote to U.N. member states on April 3 in an update on his efforts to press for a cease-fire.

“In conflict settings, the uncertainty created by the spread of the pandemic may create incentives for some actors to press their advantage, potentially leading to an increase in violence,” Guterres warned in a report that was attached to the letter. “Terrorist groups in particular may see opportunities to strike as the attention of governments and the international community is absorbed by the health crisis. COVID-19 also risks diverting international attention and resources away from conflict prevention and mediation, when diplomatic engagement is needed most.”

Guterres said he was “greatly encouraged” by the many expressions of support from world leaders—including Pope Francis and representatives of the African Union and the European Union—for the cease-fire initiative. But he added it “will take time and sustained diplomatic engagement to agree and then to maintain ceasefires in setting of deep mistrust.”

A Palestinian youth transports food rations stacked at his family home doorway by workers with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in Gaza City on March 31, 2020, as aid is delivered rather than distributed at a U.N. center, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Palestinian youth transports food rations stacked at his family home doorway by workers with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in Gaza City on March 31, as aid is delivered rather than distributed at a U.N. center, due to the coronavirus pandemic.MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images

Guterres voiced concern that initial commitments by governments and armed groups from Afghanistan and Libya to Ukraine and Yemen have not been met.

In Yemen, Guterres noted that conflict had recently escalated, despite pledges by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Houthi rebels to abide by it.

“Regrettably,” he wrote, “the conflict has escalated following drones and ballistic missiles fired by [the Houthis] towards Saudi Arabia, including its capital, Riyadh. Subsequently, the Saudi-led coalition conducted multiple airstrikes in northern Yemen, including in Sana’a and Hudaydah.”

On Wednesday, Guterres welcomed a Saudi announcement that it would unilaterally observe the U.N. chief’s pandemic cease-fire appeal. He called on the Yemeni government and the Houthis to follow suit.

The 10 nonpermanent members of the Security Council—who are shut out of the big-power talks—began their own push for a resolution.

Tunisia, the council’s lone Arab country, proposed the introduction of its own resolution that stressed the “importance of an urgent international urgent action to curb the impact of COVID-19,” called for “an immediate global humanitarian ceasefire,” and urged states to provide technical expertise, testing technology, and training to countries hit by the virus. The draft received support from nine of the council’s 10 nonpermanent members. South Africa has not agreed to support it.

But the measure stands little chance of passage unless the United States and China overcome their differences and offer their support.

“I think that the pandemic could still force the big powers to get a grip and work together better at the U.N.,” Gowan said. “But there is also a risk that we will see further U.N. splits down the road over how to manage a post COVID-19 recovery. Developing countries will demand a huge amount of development aid to make up for their economic losses. The U.S. and other donors just won’t have the cash on hand to help.”

Correction, April 9, 2020: Estonia is a nonpermanent member of the Security Council. A previous version of this article misstated its status on the council.

Correction, April 9, 2020: Sen. Lindsey Graham is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. A previous version of this article misstated his role on the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch