Should we be surprised at US President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend funding for the World Health Organization (WHO)? Not at all. It’s part of an attempt to distract and grab power, and his administration’s track record of anti-multilateralism is well known. But that doesn’t make it easy to swallow.
Justifying the suspension, Trump said the US would conduct a review "to assess the World Health Organization's role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus”. Last year the United States contributed over $500 million to the WHO’s $6 billion budget. The suspension comes at a most sensitive time for the UN’s lead agency against the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trump is trying to blame the WHO for many of his own mistakes in fighting the virus. Although he was personally warned about the possibilities of a pandemic early on and his transition team had had a briefing on the possibility of future pandemics before his inauguration, Trump hesitated in taking concrete action. (He is right, however, in blaming the UN agency for hesitating to declare a pandemic due to Chinese pressure.) Typically Trump, he is looking for someone else to blame for his mistakes.
And when asked about his authority versus those of governors to make decisions about reopening businesses and schools, Trump declared: “When somebody’s president of the United States, the authority is total."
Total authority? He has been rightly criticized for claiming “total authority.” The American Constitution, much like the Swiss, has clear separation of powers. President Trump cannot order the states to do whatever he wants, just as the Federal Council has limited power over cantonal governments in Switzerland.
And that’s exactly what infuriates the American president about multilateralism. He cannot do whatever he wants. Multilateralism is based on consensus among several states. Although a state may have more influence than others, as the permanent five members of the UN Security Council have veto power at the UN, the foundation of multilateralism is give and take, something aberrant to the man who made his reputation singularly firing people on The Apprentice.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. Many celebrations have been scheduled, especially in Geneva. International Geneva is and has been the core of functioning multilateralism, and the United States has always been a leader and advocate for it, from Woodrow Wilson to the Reagan/Gorbachev summit to John Kerry’s work on the Iranian nuclear deal. The role of the United States in International Geneva cannot be underestimated.
But following Trump’s inauguration, there was no United States ambassador to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva for over two years. The current Ambassador, Andrew Bremberg, was previously part of the inner White House circle on domestic policy. His mentor, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is no fan of multilateralism.
Ultimately, what makes President Trump’s WHO funding suspension so disheartening is not just its reversal of the United States’ traditional multilateral leadership and Geneva presence, but its tragic timing. "Now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said recently, calling on countries not to hold back funding for UN agencies amid the crisis.
Donald Trump has done just that at a moment when more cooperation is needed to fight crises like the pandemic. Given his track record, it was not a surprise. Let other UN agencies be warned: more suspensions and/or withdrawals may be coming.