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WHO Becomes Battleground as Trump Chooses Pandemic Confrontation Over Cooperation

Critics say fighting the coronavirus has become secondary as U.S. seeks to hamstring the World Health Organization, turning it into a 2020 election issue along with Chinese trade.

U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force in Washington on April 14, when he announced plans to halt funding for the World Health Organization. Alex Wong/Getty Images
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The Trump administration is seeking to enlist the support of key allies to restore Taiwan’s status as an observer at the World Health Organization, setting the stage for a fresh confrontation with China as the world struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic, according to diplomatic sources and notes of internal meetings at the global health agency.

The United States and Japan are asking key like-minded nations, including Australia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, to co-sign a draft letter to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, requesting he invite the Taiwanese delegation to the World Health Assembly, the United Nations health agency’s key decision-making body, which is expected to meet virtually in mid-May.

The WHO initiative has a limited chance of success since nothing irks Beijing more than support for Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province, and China is likely to retaliate against any move by Tedros or by other governments to include Taiwan in deliberations on public health. But the Trump administration’s bid provides the latest sign that Washington is placing a higher priority on eliciting criticism of China, its chief geostrategic adversary, than exploring ways the two superpowers, or other governments for that matter, could collaborate in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

There is considerable support in Washington and other foreign capitals for Taiwan—a country of 24 million that has responded effectively to the pandemic—to participate in World Health Organization discussions.

But some of Washington’s key allies fear Chinese reprisals if they promote Taiwan’s case, and critics suspect the White House initiative is part of a broader diplomatic campaign to keep the world focused on the failings of China and the World Health Organization to distract attention from its own shortcomings.

“It’s destructive diplomacy, and it’s not just going to hurt some faceless bureaucracy,” said Ilona Kickbusch, a German political scientist who serves as an adjunct professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. Kickbusch, who previously worked for WHO, said the U.S. attack on the health agency has put off its negotiating partners, which feel Washington is not acting in good faith. “It’s over, the U.S. has given up its leadership position, and people don’t trust them anymore,” she said.

For the United States, the gambit would test the willingness of Tedros and key allies to stand up to China, which Washington emphasizes has suppressed information about the virus and its origins, intimidated and censored its doctors and researchers who spoke out, and imposed some of the world’s most draconian travel restrictions on its citizens with virtually no public pushback or criticism from the U.N. health agency. On the contrary, Tedros and other top WHO officials have repeatedly showered unrestrained praise on China, portraying Beijing’s often authoritarian public health response as a model for the world in language that mimicked Chinese government talking points. “In many ways, China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response. It’s not an exaggeration,” Tedros said on Jan. 30. “The speed with which China detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome and shared it with WHO and the world are very impressive, and beyond words.”

The United States has little to show for its efforts, facing stiff opposition from allies and rivals to any attempts to lay blame for the disease’s spread on Beijing or WH0For the past month, U.S. diplomats in Geneva, New York, and Washington have invested enormous political capital in highlighting the Chinese origins of the new coronavirus and casting a harsh spotlight on the U.N. health agency’s uncritical praise of the Chinese government.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated U.S. plans to conduct a review of WHO’s response to the pandemic to determine whether to continue financial support for the health agency. “We’re the biggest contributor to the World Health Organization,” Pompeo said on April 29. It failed in its mission here. And so we’re conducting a review to figure out how best to use American taxpayer money to deliver real outcomes.”

But the United States is struggling to win support for a proposal to conduct an early review of WHO’s response to the pandemic to test White House allegations that it abetted China’s initial efforts to conceal the seriousness of the virus in the critical first weeks.

On April 29, the United States distributed a proposal to “immediately initiate an independent expert evaluation, in consultation with Member States, to review lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19,” according to the confidential proposal, which was reviewed by Foreign Policy. The evaluation would address the “adequacy of WHO and Member State actions … since the outbreak began; a full assessment of the timelines, accuracy, and information sharing aimed at containing the outbreak of the source.”

The United States has little to show for its efforts, facing stiff opposition from allies and rivals to any attempts to lay blame for the disease’s spread on Beijing or the U.N. health agency.

Many of Washington’s allies agree that WHO has shown excessive deference to China, but they believe it has played a vital role in organizing the international response, producing testing kits, and providing advice to states on how to stem the spread. They say a cut in U.S. funding would be reckless, weakening the world’s leading health agency in the middle of a pandemic and jeopardizing a whole set of programs that fight polio, HIV/AIDS, and other infectious diseases.

Australia, which initially supported a U.S. call for an early review of WHO’s response to the pandemic, signaled this week in a closed-door meeting with WHO delegates that it is prepared to wait until the crisis has abated before such a review to be conducted, according to diplomatic sources.

Representatives of governments from Africa, Asia, and Europe have rallied to Tedros’s defense, arguing that the U.N. health agency needs the support of the international community as it grapples with the worst pandemic in a century.

During an April 16 briefing of key member states by Tedros, Andrew Bremberg, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, found himself playing defense as representatives from African, European, and other Western countries, including Canada, Sweden, and Namibia, expressed confidence in Tedros’s leadership, while the European Union underscored WHO’s central role in preventing the spread of the virus. France, meanwhile, voiced regret over the U.S. decision to withdraw funding, which President Donald Trump announced two days before the briefing.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news briefing on the coronavirus in Geneva on March 11, the day the WHO classified the outbreak a pandemic.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news briefing on the coronavirus in Geneva on March 11, the day WHO classified the outbreak a pandemic. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Bremberg said that while the United States remains committed to battling the pandemic, it has concerns that other countries—an apparent veiled reference to China—have not demonstrated a commitment to sharing information in a “timely, complete, transparent, and accurate way,” according to an account of the meeting.

Bremberg insisted that the U.S. decision to withhold funding to the World Health Organization was not intended as a personal attack on the organization, and that the United States recognized the tireless effort of WHO staffers to combat the virus. But he said Washington believes WHO leadership has been unable or unwilling to demonstrate its independence.

Bremberg was largely silent on the need for an independent investigation into WHO’s response to the coronavirus, something that Senate Republicans insist is necessary to persuade Washington to keep funding the health agency. But diplomats say that Bremberg has been quietly trying to persuade countries that an immediate investigation could take place without harming the international response to the pandemic. Such an approach, he argued, could deter China from misbehaving in the future.

WHO traditionally carries out reviews of the international response to pandemics, as it did after the 2014 Ebola pandemic. And Tedros has pledged to conduct an “after-action” report once the crisis is over.

“For us to be distracted and asked to do an inquiry right in the middle of everybody working flat-out to try to keep people together to do what’s necessary with this virus is frankly inappropriate.”

“What we will do in the World Health Organization, as always happens, is a very detailed and forensic examination of exactly what happened on what days. Who knew what, who told who what. And that will be the right thing to do,” David Nabarro, WHO’s special envoy for COVID-19, told the BBC’s HardTalk. “We have a massive global emergency, and it’s absolutely essential that we all focus on that. For us to be distracted and asked to do an inquiry right in the middle of everybody working flat-out to try to keep people together to do what’s necessary with this virus is frankly inappropriate.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent review of the international response to the coronavirus pandemic and suggested that WHO members sign on to an agreement to allow health inspectors, modeled on U.N. weapons inspectors, to investigate infectious disease outbreaks.

It remains unclear whether the United States would support the Australian proposal, which could potentially expose Washington itself to an embarrassing assessment of its own response to the pandemic. The United States is now home to nearly a third of the world’s confirmed coronavirus cases, with close to 60,000 deaths.

China sent a clear signal that it would not support such a review, warning the Australian government that it risks a boycott of Australian products in China, according to Australia’s Sky News. Canberra subsequently signaled it may be distancing itself from Washington’s push for a swift investigation. During a virtual meeting Monday hosted by the EU, Australia indicated a formal review of the pandemic could wait until after the crisis has abated.

The EU, meanwhile, has introduced a compromise proposal that would call for conducting an evaluation of gaps in pandemic preparedness and lessons learned from the international response to the coronavirus pandemic “at the earliest appropriate moment.” Diplomats say such an evaluation would not occur until the pandemic has subsided and would focus more broadly on the international community’s response to the virus, not just on the origins of the virus.

In the end, there will likely be some form of review, the diplomat said, “but not on terms the U.S. wants that will produce a smoking gun that links WHO and Chinese colluding in some grand cover-up.”

“The call for review is only on training wheels and not likely to find wider momentum,” one senior diplomat said. “I do not feel that Washington is gaining much traction here. No one except the U.S. believes that they should pull out the firefighters while they are fighting this fire to question them” as part of an investigation. In the end, there will likely be some form of review, the diplomat said, “but not on terms the U.S. wants that will produce a smoking gun that links WHO and Chinese colluding in some grand cover-up.”

U.S. lawmakers have split along partisan lines, with Sen. Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and several fellow Republican senators appealing to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to convene an independent panel of experts to review WHO’s response to COVID-19, writing that “WHO appears to have shown remarkable deference to the Chinese government throughout this pandemic.”

A top Republican strategist and candidate advisor, Brett O’Donnell, drafted a 57-page memo urging candidates to blame China for “covering up” knowledge about the spread of the coronavirus, a centerpiece of the Republicans’ 2020 campaign. The memo—which was published by Politico and distributed to Republican campaign operatives by the National Republican Senatorial Committee—also targets the U.N. health agency in a section titled “Hit—WHO.”

“The WHO aided and abetted the Chinese hit-and-run, and advanced their cover up of the facts—they acted as the handmaiden of the Chinese Communist Party,” is one key line of argument for Republican candidates outlined in the memo.

But there were signs of unease in Republican ranks about the wisdom of choking off WHO’s funding in the midst of a pandemic. On April 16, Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, told a local radio station that he hoped Trump wouldn’t follow through on his threat to cut funding. “If the coronavirus has taught us anything it should have taught us that we are not isolated from the rest of the world,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, have lambasted the president for mounting what they view as a self-serving attack on the U.N. health agency to distract attention from his own failings.

“President Trump’s decision to halt funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) in the midst of a global pandemic is counterproductive and puts lives at risk,” Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in an April 27 letter to Secretary of State Pompeo. “The WHO’s efforts to help slow the spread and flatten the curve have been invaluable.

“The Administration’s response, on the other hand, has been calamitous. A growing record of public reporting points to the President’s policy of denial, deflection, and delay, despite ample intelligence and expertise that warned of this pandemic’s lethal potential” Engel said. “For the entire month of February, the President, along with some of his closest advisors, led the American people to believe that this crisis was under control.”

The World Health Organization was established in 1948, shortly after World War II, to promote global health and to coordinate the international fight against disease, from polio and malaria to HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and the coronavirus. The agency faced criticism of what was largely viewed as a slow, ineffective response to the 2014 outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa.

WHO has faced a new round of criticism, particularly from the White House, for its failure to criticize China for its initial response to the virus, which was marked by the suppression of critical information about the nature of the virus and the intimidation and censorship of health specialists who sought to raise the alarm. Critics have seized on a Jan. 14 tweet from the official WHO account reporting that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.”

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen poses for a photograph with soldiers and other officials, all masked amid the coronavirus pandemic, during her visit to a military base in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on April 9.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen poses for a photograph with soldiers and other officials, all masked amid the coronavirus pandemic, during her visit to a military base in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on April 9. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

The White House attack against WHO began in early April, a time when Trump was facing mounting criticism for a sluggish response to the coronavirus in the United States, which has emerged as the global epicenter of the virus. The White House said that WHO ignored a Dec. 31 warning from Taiwan that the pathogen was being conveyed through human-to-human transmission, a clear indication that the virus would be spreading widely.

In an April 8 press conference, Trump threatened to cut off funding to the World Health Organization, arguing it withheld information on the virus’ spread in China and displayed a pro-Chinese bias in its public statements. Trump also took offense that WHO responded to his decision to ban entry of non-U.S. citizens from China in February with a recommendation that countries not close their borders and prohibit travel to places afflicted by the virus. U.S. officials have noted that Tedros has not similarly criticized China for imposing a draconian travel ban inside Hubei province at the height of the pandemic, preventing millions of Chinese citizens from leaving the region. By April 14, the United States announced it would place a hold on funding to WHO “pending a review of the organization’s mismanagement of the novel coronavirus outbreak.”

Tedros and his team have mounted an aggressive effort to defend their handling of the crisis.

Tedros and his team have mounted an aggressive effort to defend their handling of the crisis, posting a timeline of key developments in the pandemic and holding daily press conferences and weekly briefings with ambassadors in Geneva.

In a press conference last week, Tedros denied that Taiwan had provided WHO with any evidence of human-to-human transmission. “So we didn’t receive the existence of human-to-human transmission from Taiwan on Dec. 31,” he told reporters.

He also cautioned world leaders not to take advantage of the pandemic to score political points.

“Don’t use this virus as an opportunity to fight against each other or score political points, it’s dangerous, it’s like playing with fire,” he said. “We’re seeing the tragedy, and we need global solidarity.”

But the United States has continued to invest its diplomatic energy in holding China publicly accountable for missteps and blocking moves by counterparts to show appreciation for WHO.

Earlier this month, the United States held up passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution promoting a series of cease-fires from Libya to Yemen by insisting the measure refer to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus,” a reference to the city where the virus first emerged. France and other governments persuaded Washington to drop the demand, noting that Beijing would veto any characterization of its role in the origins of the pandemic. Whatever merits there may be in holding China accountable for its shortcomings in the early stages of the pathogen’s release into the human population, diplomats argued, it would be better to strike a compromise with China.

A staff member cleans the floor after all patients left Leishenshan Hospital in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on April 14.

A staff member cleans the floor after all patients left Leishenshan Hospital in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on April 14. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Since then, U.S. negotiators in New York have raised a new hurdle, insisting that the resolution, which was drafted by the French and now includes amendments from the council’s nonpermanent members, strike any reference to WHO’s critical role in organizing the international response. China has responded by pressing for even stronger language supporting the organization.

Earlier this month, the United States failed to block the 193-member General Assembly from adopting a legally nonbinding resolution promoting universal access to life-saving vaccines, therapeutic medications, lab tests, and other essential equipment needed for poor countries to battle the coronavirus, and asserting the “right of every human being, without distinction of any kind, to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

The resolution was adopted by consensus.

The United States, which does not have veto power in the General Assembly, made it clear that it opposed key provisions in the resolution that voiced support for the U.N. health agency. But it did not exercise its authority to block consensus, a move that would have forced the U.N. membership to vote on the resolution. Instead, the United States waited till the measure had passed before appealing to General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande to block the resolution’s adoption. But it was too late.

In a formal statement issued after the resolution was passed, the United States said that while it generally agreed with the goals of the Mexican-drafted resolution, it wanted to disassociate itself from a provision acknowledging that WHO is playing a “crucial leading role” in battling the virus. It also objected to a request for the U.N. chief, in collaboration with WHO, to set up an interagency task force to brief the General Assembly on its efforts to promote global access to such medicines and equipment.

“While the United States acknowledges the WHO should play a role in the efforts to end this outbreak, we remain seriously concerned with the lack of independence that the WHO has shown since the beginning of this pandemic,” according to a U.S. statement. “We have serious concerns about how the World Health Organization has responded to the pandemic and the creation of layers of UN bureaucracy devoid of controls to ensure independence, accountability, and transparency.”

In a written response to questions from Foreign Policy, a State Department spokesperson noted that U.S. agencies have provided WHO with $400 million in FY 2019, and noted that that previously obligated funding would not be impacted by the Trump administration’s 60-90 day halt on funding, pending a review.

“The United States invests a great deal in international organizations such as the World Health Organization — much more than any other nation,” the State Department spokesman wrote. “We will never apologize for demanding that these organization serve their intended role and that American tax dollars be well spent and accounted for.”

The United States, meanwhile, has continued to press for a standoff with China.

In a virtual meeting, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar voiced support for “expanding Taiwan’s participation in the WHO,” according to a Taiwanese government readout of the 30-minute meeting with Taiwan’s Health Minister Chen Shih-chung.

Taiwan was granted observer status at WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, in 2008, but Beijing blocked its participation in 2016, following the election of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, who pledged to preserve the island’s sovereignty despite China’s effort to exercise ever greater control over it. Tsai was reelected president in January in what was seen as a rebuke to China’s increasingly heavy-handed policies to exert greater influence over the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The U.S. move to support Taiwan’s return to the World Health Assembly comes more than a month after Trump signed legislation urging the U.S. government to advocate greater Taiwanese participation in international organizations. It also places the U.N. health agency squarely in the middle of a global battle between two superpowers. In a sign of the sensitivity of the subject, a senior WHO official, Bruce Aylward, tried to dodge a question from a Hong Kong reporter about whether WHO might reconsider Taiwan’s membership in the health agency. When the reporter pressed Aylward to answer, he appeared to end the video call.

The United States, meanwhile, has put the World Health Organization on notice that it risks further jeopardizing U.S. funding for the organization unless it quickly changes its tone. “When you see the influence that the Chinese Communist Party had as they were debating how to handle this virus in January of this year, and when you think about those things and the risks those pose to the world,” Pompeo said, “it is an obligation to reconsider whether that vehicle is the right one to deliver pandemic response systems for the world.”

This story has been updated to include remarks from a State Department spokesperson.

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