On May 29, Donald Trump announced that the USA would be leaving the World Health Organization. He accused it of helping China to cover up the Covid-19 outbreak, thus hindering his own ability to respond to the pandemic.
Trump went on to attack the WHO by claiming they are a pawn of the Chinese Communist Party. This is not the first time he has lashed out at an international organisation. Open animosity towards multilateralism has been a hallmark of his America First foreign policy. Since his inauguration he has renegaded on one commitment after another. It began with leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, swiftly moving to the Paris Agreement, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and now the WHO. Every decision has been framed by the President as putting American interests ahead of all else. Whilst this may be popular with his nationalistic support base, in the long term this isolationist approach will only serve to hinder US interests by reducing its international influence. For every time they step back from the global political order, someone else has the chance to step forward. Recently, China has been doing just that.
Just as Donald Trump began to verbalise his disdain for the WHO, Xi Jinping gave a speech on May 18 to the 73rd World Health Assembly highlighting China’s antipodal attitude. He placed a strong emphasis on the need for a multilateral response to the pandemic which he maintained should be coordinated by the WHO. This rhetoric was backed up by pledges to set up a global humanitarian hub to organise responses to Covid-19 and provide $2 billion dollars to aid countries recovering from the coronavirus. Whilst at this point Trump had not announced full withdrawal from the WHO, he had already begun to withhold funding. Xi recognised the leadership vacuum that Trump was creating and immediately took the initiative by increasing Chinese sway within the organisation, thus making them a more significant cog in global public health. Trump now signalling his intent to permanently leave the WHO has merely exacerbated the situation.
As de facto leader of the world order it would normally fall to the USA to coordinate a response to a global crisis. However, current isolationism highlights a clear abdication of this role. Causally, the political clout of the USA has diminished as its competence is now in question. A recent survey by the German polling firm Dalia Research and the Alliance of Democracies Foundation has found that out of 53 countries worldwide, only the USA, South Korea, and Taiwan think that the USA’s pandemic response has been better than China’s — the bias of these three states needs no clarification.
This reputational demise has been compounded by the fact that Trump’s decision flies in the face of almost every global health expert’s advice. Coronavirus has no respect for national borders; therefore, the response should be international. By leaving the WHO completely, the USA will lose the capacity to have an impact on global strategy which leaves the door open for the Chinese to assume the leadership role. Whether Trump was right, and China has pulled the strings of the WHO in the past is unclear. What is clear is that he has now given Xi the means to be the puppet master of its future.
This being said, it would be naïve to suggest that America’s receding influence in one international organisation could signal epochal change in the geo-political landscape. After all, America has dominated international relations since WWII. Yet, it has been through the global web of multilateral organisations that the USA has maintained its position. This web is now very deliberately being dismantled by Donald Trump. He has cut funding to NATO, left UNESCO, ceased funding to UNHRC and withdrawn the US from multiple arms treaties with Russia.
Most controversially, he has cut the legs off the World Trade Organization by refusing to appoint new members to the appellate board which is considered the bedrock of WTO power. Without it the organisation loses its ability to enforce judgements. Trump asserts that the USA is unfairly adjudicated against whilst China receives preferential treatment. This is a falsehood. Bloomberg analysis from 2017 shows the USA wins roughly 85 per cent of cases it takes to the WTO, which is more than any other member nation. Beyond that, it is a vessel for disseminating liberal economic ideals that identify with US interests, hence why removing the teeth of the WTO is wholly nonsensical. Especially when it is in Trump’s interest to limit the threat the Chinese pose to the USA’s economic hegemon.
The CATO Institute research on the matter has concluded that for the USA: ‘the WTO remains the best hope for disciplining China’s errant trade practices’. In doing this, it would be easier for the USA to control China’s economic challenge and enforce market liberalisation. If they do not and the current course remains unaltered, the USA will continue to be disproportionately affected by the Sino-US trade war that Trump’s protectionist stance has created. In the current climate, the WTO is the only external political actor with the power to mediate this. Thus, by weakening the WTO, Trump serves only to weaken himself.
Protectionism is not just harming America in regard to the Chinese trade war. Trump has very vocally looked to pull the USA out of certain international supply chains. He encourages American companies to commit to domestic investment as opposed to FDI in a bid to boost growth at home. Meanwhile, China is pursuing a diametric approach with its aggressive Belt and Road Initiative. Whilst this is primarily an economic program it grants China a significant amount of influence across Eurasia. It is inevitable that as the US withdraws from the global economy, nations will look to China for their FDI. Security issues do remain a concern for many developed countries when considering Chinese FDI, but it is permeating into European economies regardless.
As more states look set to be cash-poor in the wake of coronavirus, their opposition to Chinese money will undoubtedly weaken. Consequently, Chinese soft power will continue to expand as it lines the wallets of Eurasia.