Report

Trump Cuts U.S. Ties With World Health Organization Amid Pandemic

Democrats and NGOs slammed the White House decision, saying the U.S. president was ceding influence to China and further undercutting the coronavirus response.

U.S. President Donald Trump looks at reporters asking questions as he returns to the Oval Office after delivering a statement on China at the White House May 29, 2020 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump looks at reporters asking questions as he returns to the Oval Office after delivering a statement on China at the White House May 29, 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
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On May 19, U.S. President Donald Trump gave the World Health Organization an ultimatum: Start implementing reforms in 30 days or else the United States would halt funding for the international body. But 11 days after the pronouncement, Trump pulled the trigger anyway, abruptly declaring on Friday the United States would be “terminating” its relationship with WHO and cutting off the institution from any U.S. cash. 

The move culminates months of growing U.S. anger with the international organization against the backdrop of spiking tensions between Washington and Beijing. It also throws into question the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. global health funding at the peak of a global pandemic. 

“We have detailed the reforms that it must make and engaged with them directly, but they have refused to act,” Trump said in a press conference on Friday. “Because they have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms, we will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs.”

Top Trump officials and Republican allies in Congress have criticized WHO for being too friendly with China and providing cover for Beijing in the wake of its initial cover-up and mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.

But the announcement also drew swift condemnation from public health experts, who said it would undercut WHO’s ability to address the pandemic just as its spread in the developing world picks up. “This is the most counterproductive move in the middle of a world health crisis,” said Megan Doherty, a senior director of policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps and a former White House National Security Council director for North Africa during the Obama administration. “In places with poor health infrastructure that don’t have an existing strong presence, this is creating a gap that we can’t fill.”

Other experts fear the decision will threaten the fate of other public health and vaccination programs around the world, beyond the current pandemic. “What it will do is rupture global vaccine programs, polio eradication, Ebola response, and a thousand other global health tasks that the U.S. relies on WHO to deliver,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former senior U.S. aid official now with the Center for Global Development.

Democratic lawmakers slammed the move, asserting Trump was scapegoating the WHO to cover up his administration’s own failings in the domestic pandemic response. This week, the U.S. coronavirus death toll reached a grim milestone, surpassing 100,000. 

“Not wanting to take responsibility as the deaths continue to mount, he blames others,” Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy said in a statement to Foreign Policy. “WHO could have been more assertive with China and declared a global health emergency sooner, but it is performing an essential function and needs our strong support, especially now.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the move would only hasten the rise of Chinese influence in international institutions. “The big winner today is the Chinese government,” he said. “They will now leap into the void created by the United States withdrawal from the WHO, and seek to become the world’s go-to power for global health. China will now write the global public health rules, not the United States. What a nightmare.”

Trump’s speech on Friday was centered on hammering China as the war of words between the two rival powers heats up. He rebuked China’s plan to impose a sweeping new security law on Hong Kong, declaring the territory no longer autonomous from Beijing and revoking Hong Kong’s special trade and economic status with the United States.

His announcement on the WHO also leaves more questions than answers—including questions the administration hasn’t even sorted through internally yet, according to several officials familiar with the matter. It was not immediately clear whether the United States “terminating” its relationship with the WHO meant it was legally withdrawing from the institution. Trump also gave no additional details on how the United States would reallocate its nearly $450 million a year in annual funding to WHO to other public health programs.

The decision appeared to have taken the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva and the world health agency by surprise, several diplomats told Foreign Policy. “I don’t think anybody knew. Nobody ever knows what Trump is going to do,” said Ilona Kickbusch, a global health scholar with Chatham House, a think tank. “You have a president who needs to deflect attention from other problems and WHO seems to be the right organization [to target] right now.”

If WHO is completely cut off from U.S. funding—making up 15 percent of the institution’s budget—it’s largest funder will become not another major global power, but rather the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (China only contributes about 0.21 percent of the budget, around $40 million.)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been a leading critic of WHO, using his agency’s podium and conservative talk shows as a bully pulpit to batter the world body as the pandemic continues to spread worldwide. The former Kansas congressman accused WHO of protecting the Chinese government and failing to help provide samples of the virus from where it originated in Wuhan, China.

“When I see whether it’s the left-wing media or Democrats saying, ‘Well gosh, if you all would just cooperate with the World Health Organization,’ I am astounded,” Pompeo said in an interview with the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro earlier this month. “They failed us. It’s not the first time the WHO has failed the world in the time of a pandemic. You can’t go back to business as usual; we’ve got to fix it.”

Despite the criticisms coming from Washington, U.S. efforts to influence the direction of WHO appear to have fallen flat. Trump’s announcement on Friday follows weeks of efforts by his ambassador to the Geneva-based organization, Andrew Bremberg, to prod WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus into taking a tougher line with China. This includes an unsuccessful U.S. push at an annual WHO meeting this month to get the institution to open an investigation into the origins of the virus in China and invite Taiwan back into the health agency as an observer. China ardently opposes Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, seeing it as a sign of Taiwan’s sovereignty from Beijing.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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