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WHO Defunding Threatens Pillars Of U.S. Comprehensive National Power

The U.S. has recently withdrawn its share of World Health Organization (WHO) funding over a dispute concerning WHO’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the organization’s relationship with China. This action follows a previous U.S. pattern of either withdrawing from multilateral treaties entirely, or attacking the very institutions it previously supported under the liberal, rules-based international order. Additionally, the WHO defunding, like previous U.S. attacks on multilateralism, is yet another side show in the main performance of rising U.S.-China great power competition. However, this latest maneuver is threatening the U.S.’ alliance system as well as its respect for multilateral institutions, both critical to its long-term national interests.

Image by Priyam Patel of Pixabay ©2020

WHO Latest Proxy Battle in U.S.-China Great Power Competition

The WHO has come under fire from the U.S. regarding its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. has specifically criticized the accuracy of WHO’s original assessment of COVID-19’s human-to-human transmission, an assessment the U.S. claims was originally based on China’s data from its initial response to the virus. Additionally, the U.S. criticism of WHO’s initial actions points to the speed of the organization’s response. The U.S. argues that had WHO responded more quickly, it would have had more time to seal its own borders against travellers coming from China. 

Fundamentally, attacking China from the outside of such multilateral institutions as the WHO will only make the U.S. narrative appear less legitimate to the world community. This risk is true for China’s attacks on the U.S. as well. Additionally, with the incessant bickering between the U.S. and China, the European Union (EU) is starting to emerge as an independent pole with respect to actually tackling the COVID-19 epidemic on a multilateral basis. This development may indeed be in China’s interest, as it may seek to leverage the EU against the U.S., but it is most assuredly not in the U.S. interest.

An example of this is the recent world meeting with EU representatives, as well as those from the broader G20, to collectively begin action towards finding a COVID-19 vaccine. China was not present at this meeting. Additionally, the EU, working through the WHO, is starting proceedings to investigate the actual origin of COVID-19, independent of China’s wishes. As home to the COVID-19 epicenters of Italy, Spain, and now the U.K., the EU is immune neither to U.S.-China great power competition nor the COVID-19 crisis. Seeing no substantial leadership from either side, it is increasingly being forced to chart its own path.

Other Proxy Battles Remain

Climate change is universally understood by the scientific community to be the greatest challenge to the human species as a whole.  As China and the U.S. are the world’s two largest carbon dioxide emitters, it was also universally understood by global political leadership that U.S.-China cooperation would be essential to any progress in making the Paris climate accord a reality. As a consequence, the accord was another casualty of U.S.-China great power competition. Some in China held a suspicion that any type of climate accord would hinder China’s own economic development. Their argument was that The West did not let environmental concerns impede its own development before, so why should China’s development be so constricted now? 

Originally envisioned as a mechanism to envelop Asian states within a trading architecture which would address hi-tech concerns such as intellectual property protection, TPP was a major initiative under the U.S.’ rebalance to Asia. However, it also served concordant U.S. geopolitical motives to gradually enmesh China within TPP under U.S. leadership as a necessary consequence of growing Chinese economic development.

The U.S. has also recently withdrawn from the INF Treaty over allegations that Russia had already violated the terms of the agreement. However, a major reason for the U.S. withdrawal has been its desire to formulate a new treaty, with China as a signatory, which would serve to place restraints on several Chinese military spheres, such as its current regional leadership in ballistic and cruise missile technology. 

The U.S. must address its COVID-19 concerns with China from within the multilateral framework of the WHO so as to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of its allies. The U.S.’ alliance system and its respect for multilateral institutions are two key pillars which undergird its comprehensive national power. By continuing to attack China through the WHO, routinely now on an ideological basis, the U.S. is squandering this power and is not serving its own long-term interests. Summarily, the U.S. must recognize that continuing to attack China through the WHO will undermine not only its global alliance system, but its adherence to the value of international institutions as well, both critical to maintaining its long-term national power.

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Robert Shines

Robert is President of Bright Group Consulting USA, where he provides geopolitical forecasting services regarding U.S.-China relations. He is also an analyst with the Foreign Policy Association and Editor with Global Risk Insights.
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