How Trump’s Assault on International Organizations Benefits Beijing

The United States was already fighting with China for influence at global organizations, but the pandemic made everything worse.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
China's President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump review the Chinese honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.
China's President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump review the Chinese honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.
China's President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump review the Chinese honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images

In 2020, the Trump administration continued its ongoing campaign to downgrade U.S. relations with international organizations, announcing plans to withdraw from the World Health Organization and ramping up its campaign to undermine the Iran nuclear deal.

But something happened along the way to dismantling the new world order. China made it clear it would try to fill the vacuum left by a United States turning increasingly inward, having notched several diplomatic successes by securing the appointment of senior Chinese diplomats at the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization and a senior United Nations diplomatic post in Africa’s Great Lakes region.

But nothing has inflicted as much damage on the international system as the dispute between China and the United States over who bears more responsibility for spreading the novel coronavirus.

In 2020, the Trump administration continued its ongoing campaign to downgrade U.S. relations with international organizations, announcing plans to withdraw from the World Health Organization and ramping up its campaign to undermine the Iran nuclear deal.

But something happened along the way to dismantling the new world order. China made it clear it would try to fill the vacuum left by a United States turning increasingly inward, having notched several diplomatic successes by securing the appointment of senior Chinese diplomats at the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization and a senior United Nations diplomatic post in Africa’s Great Lakes region.

But nothing has inflicted as much damage on the international system as the dispute between China and the United States over who bears more responsibility for spreading the novel coronavirus.

Here are five of the best Foreign Policy articles that highlight America’s contradictory strategy of retreating from the international organizations while preventing China from taking full advantage of the retreat.


1. U.S. State Department Appoints Envoy to Counter Chinese Influence at the U.N. 

by Colum Lynch, Jan. 22

Alarmed by China’s growing economic influence at the United Nations, the White House and the State Department began developing plans to contain Beijing’s ambitions. In January, the State Department quietly created a post to counter what it sees as China’s malign influence at the U.N. and other international organizations. The move followed a number of failed U.S. diplomatic efforts to block Chinese nationals from securing senior posts at the U.N., including the top job at the Food and Agriculture Organization and the senior U.N. envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region.


2. China’s Soft-Power Grab 

by Colum Lynch, Aug. 14

In a bid for greater global influence, Beijing has been investing in the U.N. and other international organizations, contributing millions of dollars for global health, international peacekeeping and mediation missions, and sustainable development. While the United States remains the biggest contributor to those agencies, the Trump administration has sought to drastically scale back funding and will leave office with more than $1 billion in unpaid arrears to the U.N. In contrast, China pays its bills on time. China’s largesse has helped mitigate the diplomatic damage it has inflicted on its reputation thanks to repressive policies toward ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang and a crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping review troops during a welcoming ceremony.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping review troops during a welcoming ceremony.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping review troops during a welcome ceremony in Tehran on Jan. 23, 2016.STR/AFP/Getty Images

3. Trump Has Pushed Iran Into China’s Arms 

by Saeid Jafari, Aug. 8

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has strengthened the case of Iranian hard-liners who have long advocated stronger ties with China, writes Saeid Jafari, an Iranian journalist and Middle East analyst. In June, the Iranian cabinet approved a 25-year economic partnership deal with China. While the terms are unclear, it may include a security arrangement with China, which participated in joint military exercises with Iran and Russia in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman last December. The draft agreement constituted a “major signal that reformists like [President Hassan] Rouhani have lost the initiative in Tehran, and their previously successful attempt to align Iran more closely with the West is now dead,” Jafari wrote.


4. U.N. Security Council Paralyzed as Contagion Rages

by Colum Lynch, March 27

In the midst of the Ebola crisis, the U.N. Security Council acted quickly to organize an international response to the disease, deploying international health care workers in the West African epicenter and altering the mandate of U.N. peacekeepers to aid in the fight against Ebola. But with the coronavirus pandemic, the 15-nation council sat on the sidelines for months, with the United States insisting that any resolution on the pandemic include a provision blaming China for unleashing it on the world.

“The initiative—which appears to be part of a broader U.S. strategy to deflect responsibility for its own sluggish response to the spread of the virus—is certain to be blocked by China, which wields veto power,” wrote Lynch. The dispute was the clearest sign yet that neither the United States nor China is prepared to provide global health leadership.


5. WHO Becomes Battleground as Trump Chooses Pandemic Confrontation Over Cooperation 

by Colum Lynch, April 29

As criticism mounted this spring over his poor handling of the pandemic, Trump mounted an intensive public relations campaign aimed at blaming China for introducing COVID-19 to the world—even if that meant undermining efforts to battle the pandemic itself. The big-power feud over apportioning responsibility for the virus’s spread hobbled international efforts at the U.N. Security Council and the World Health Organization, and placed the pandemic at the center of the 2020 presidential election. Furious that the World Health Organization’s leadership had praised China’s response to the pandemic, the White House announced plans to withdraw from the U.N. health agency and pursued a confrontational diplomatic campaign both there and in the U.N. Security Council. “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,” Lynch wrote.

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

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