Over the past week President Trump has repeatedly rebuked the World Health Organization, arguing that “they missed the call” on the novel coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, Trump announced the U.S. would halt funding for the global health organization, pending a review of WHO’s pandemic response. This follows a report in Monday’s Washington Post that U.S. officials are “expected to recommend … how to dock or condition payments to the agency as Republicans in Congress seek documentation of WHO dealings with China.” Various points of contention include the relative size of U.S. contributions to the organization and an alleged pro-China bias.
International organizations like the WHO are not a sideshow to power politics — they are a crucial arena of struggle. The United States has already experienced costs from backing away from the United Nations, where China and other powers have happily stepped into the void. Now the United States may isolate itself from the preeminent institution of global health governance. Here are the implications.
The United States shaped world politics by shaping how countries cooperate
Global health coordination is one form of an international public good — something that benefits all countries, when it works well, and from which no country can be excluded.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States, along with its allies, was the only truly global source of not just public goods, but also club and private ones such as credible security guarantees. As we argue in our new book, “Exit from Hegemony,” this “international patronage monopoly” was a crucial factor in U.S. leadership.
For example, the United States, along with its allies and the multilateral institutions they dominated, controlled most of the supply of development assistance and set the rules for world trade. With combined GDPs totaling more than 70 percent of the global economy, the United States and its allies could exercise enormous market and regulatory power to influence international and domestic policies in other countries.
The provision of these international goods isn’t just something that leading powers do, it’s one of the main ways that they make and enforce the norms, rules and arrangements that guide the international order.
Trump has pulled back from U.S. global leadership
The patronage monopoly the United States enjoyed was unlikely to last forever. But the Trump presidency — skeptical of multilateral alliances and hostile to international organizations like the United Nations — has accelerated its decline.
The coronavirus pandemic is no exception. Rather than coordinate and underwrite international responses to a global health emergency as the disease covid-19 spread, the United States has instead competed for goods, at times undercutting its own allies. Reports of the United States seizing medical shipments to other countries exemplify this move toward zero-sum power politics.
Will China fill the international void?
In contrast, China has attempted to demonstrate its own international leadership. As Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi write, Chinese leader Xi Jinping “understands that providing global goods can burnish a rising power’s leadership credentials.” Beijing is overwriting early covid-19 failures — marked by heavy-handed attempts to conceal the scope of the crisis from both its people and the international community — with a narrative that emphasizes China’s apparent success in containing the virus and the new role as provider of medical supplies to countries such as Italy, Serbia and Spain.
The U.S. attacks on the WHO also further open the door to increased Chinese influence in the global health arena. In recent years, China has increasingly viewed international institutions as a key space to shape the international order. In 2017, Beijing successfully supported the election of current WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus over a U.S.-backed rival.
In institutions like the U.N. Human Rights Council, Beijing has taken on a new role in fashioning human rights norms. By promoting preferential bilateral partnerships through its Belt and Road Initiative and building its own institutions, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Beijing has also made it more difficult for regional institutions like the European Union to act collectively.
While Western commentators often portray these moves as sinister, China is just using available tools to advance its own interests. And these techniques are not new. What we’re seeing now is only shocking to many U.S. observers, who have grown accustomed to a world where the United States makes the rules.
The U.S. can still lead — but only if it wants to
Just because there is more room for China to influence world politics doesn’t mean the sky is falling for the United States.
To the extent that Washington and Beijing compete, China isn’t guaranteed to prevail in even a majority of influence contests. Indeed, for Beijing, covid-19 presents both opportunities and risks. Beijing’s early failures remain a serious challenge to its global standing and the appeal of Chinese-style authoritarianism, while reports that masks and test kits were of poor quality undermined the public relations benefit of China’s overseas medical assistance.
Moreover, the United States still has cards to play. It still enjoys a dominant position, at least in principle, in the established infrastructure of international order and global governance. When its continued presence makes the institution indispensable for global cooperation, as with the Universal Postal Union, the U.S. can use leverage to demand more favorable terms from Beijing.
But making use of those advantages — and protecting the U.S. power base — means remaining in the game, not outside. Trump has consistently criticized multilateral institutions and has emphasized government-to-government deals that are short-term, zero-sum and transactional.
The U.S. threats to withdraw from or defund institutions like the WHO aren’t a new development, but rather just the latest in a series of moves that may leave Washington even more isolated from key instruments of power as other countries continue to seek increased influence in existing institutions, or construct alternatives in their place.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the April 14 White House briefing and the news that the U.S. will suspend funding for the World Health Organization.
Alexander Cooley (@CooleyOnEurasia) is the Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and the director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Daniel Nexon (@dhnexon) is an associate professor in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. They are the authors of “Exit from Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order” (Oxford University Press, 2020) and co-editors, along with Morten Andersen, of “Undermining American Hegemony: The Logic of Goods Substitution” (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
Funding for their research was provided by the Norwegian Research Council under the project “Undermining Hegemony” (project no. 240647).