International Relations
20 April 2020

Trump and the WHO: The China Connection

When Donald Trump suspended U.S. funding for the World Health Organization (WHO), there were several, quite predictable, lines of critique. Some pointed out that, as usual, Trump’s “facts” were anything but.

Although the WHO may have shaded its January claims about human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, it had consistently sounded the alarm long before Trump acted.

Others observed that Trump and his supporters were desperately seeking scapegoats to distract from his tardiness and administrative incompetence, and that the WHO was just the latest addition to a growing list: China, Democratic state governors in the U.S., and of course the news media.

Still, others recalled that this was part of Trump’s (and, for that matter, other U.S. presidents’) MO: going after international organisations as a way to score points with voters and members of Congress.

Finally, a handful of commentators noted that the WHO, like almost all international organisations, depended entirely on the kindness of strangers – in this case, member states – who not only held the purse strings but had to grant permission to the WHO to send its personnel anywhere.

The more interesting question is, like Poe’s purloined letter, hidden in plain sight.

Politicians in the United States have, for some years, urged confrontation with China, both over economic issues and geopolitical ones. Trump’s tariff wars fit into this pattern, though of course they are aimed at many countries and keep being undercut by his admiration for Xi Jinping and his fervent desire to cut a deal with him.

The fact that the virus first emerged in China, that the Chinese government’s initial reaction was to downplay the news and punish the messengers, and that the WHO did not blow the whistle on this were enough to pull it into the slipstream of the anti-China express. In this respect, the WHO is collateral damage.

However, concern over China should not be seen as an exclusively Republican preoccupation.

The U.S. military – especially the Navy – and national security intellectuals have seen China as a military competitor throughout Asia and as a diplomatic competitor elsewhere.

Health officials and animal rights activists have had Beijing in their sights for years for its views on Chinese traditional medicine and protection of endangered species.

Some Democratic economists and numerous Democratic politicians have criticised China on various issues: in the past, currency manipulation, and to this day, expropriation of intellectual property.

As a result, China has now entered the U.S. presidential debate.

On the Republican side, Trump allies have rolled out what they call “Beijing Biden” advertisements, replete with waving Chinese flags, ominous music and pictures of Biden shaking hands with Chinese leaders.

On the Democratic side, Biden compared those same Chinese leaders to “Jack the Ripper” and, in a new ad, criticised Trump for “trusting” China, sending it “our supplies” and thereby creating “the mess we’re in now.”

How will all this play out? In a political sense, the likelihood is that it will all amount to not much more than a hill of beans: Trump will double down as a way to get his hard core supporters to the polls; Biden will soft-pedal the message, except in the industrial midwest, for fear that it will appear overtly racist and alienate voters of Asian ancestry.

Almost all U.S. voters have already made up their minds, so the effect on the election will be minimal. But whoever wins, the odds are that U.S. elites will continue to be suspicious of China and the Chinese, using the pandemic as one more argument to diminish ties and try, with who knows what success, to carry out a containment policy.

As for the WHO, since the U.S. has for years found it a useful organisation, the odds are that in the end, in a muddled way, most American funding will continue.

Some programmes will be reduced, the state of public health, especially in the countries where the WHO has been most active, will worsen, and there will likely be a face-saving compromise with a few high-level officials getting the chop.

In the meantime, if one asks, à la “The Battle of Blenheim,” “what good came of it at last,” the answer will be the same: “‘Why that I cannot tell’”, said he, “’But ‘twas a famous victory’”.