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Document of the Week: U.S. Plan for World Health Organization Has Few Followers

After announcing its decision to withdraw from the U.N. health agency, the United States still seeks to shape the organization’s reform. It is struggling to find takers.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 8 at which he vowed to withold funding to the World Health Organization.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 8 at which he vowed to withold funding to the World Health Organization. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Trump administration still wants to tell the World Health Organization and its members how to run their affairs, even after it announced plans to withdraw from the agency in the midst of a pandemic, cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. funding.

Earlier this month, senior U.S. officials distributed a plan to reform the United Nations health agency to WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and members of the G-7 industrial powers. We are posting a copy of the draft here as FP’s Document of the Week.

The draft—which provides a “roadmap” of proposed short-, medium-, and long-term reforms—includes an array of sensible proposals, such as establishing an additional early warning system to detect emerging threats and granting the WHO greater authority to conduct on-the-ground investigations into outbreaks.

“This roadmap sets out areas where we believe there is an opportunity to strengthen the WHO by increasing accountability and its ability to be impartial and objective, improve transparency and its overall effectiveness … to address new and emerging threats,” the document reads. President Donald Trump has left the door open to a possible U.S. return to the WHO if it changes its ways, including by demonstrating greater honesty in assessing China’s role in failing to halt the initial spread of the coronavirus. But the United States has given no indication that it would reverse the decision to withdraw from the global health agency next July if the recommendations are accepted.

For his part, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged that if he defeats Trump he will rejoin the WHO “on my first day as president” and “restore our leadership on the world stage.”

But American diplomats are struggling to get even U.S. allies to sign on.

Germany and France, for instance, have told the Americans they support some of the reforms, particularly those that would strengthen the World Health Organization. But they have decided to pursue their own initiative at the health agency. The United States, meanwhile, is committed to pursuing its enterprise and plans to seek support for the initiative at a special session of the health agency’s 34-member state Executive Board meeting from Oct. 5-6.

The U.S. plan urged the U.N. health agency to enhance reporting by governments on the emergence of deadly viruses, set specific deadlines for states where an outbreak has been detected to share samples of pathogens, and establish a universal review of states’ pandemic preparedness policies. The plan welcomes the WHO’s July 9 announcement to conduct an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” into the global response to the coronavirus pandemic—an inquiry the United States hopes will shine a brighter spotlight on China’s sluggish initial response to the virus, which originated in Wuhan, China.

But some delegates are not confident that the United States can muster sufficient support for the plan. “It will never fly,” cautioned one senior diplomat familiar with the plan.

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

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