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20 April 2020
US Leadership in Strengthening Global Institutions Needed Now More than Ever
By Ambassador Donald T. Bliss (Ret.)

With the rise of nationalism around the world and the closing of sovereign borders in response to the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) pandemic, global institutions are under attack. News reports and commentators are questioning whether we are reaching the end of the post-world war global architecture created by the United States and its victorious allies to promote peaceful cooperation in resolving conflicts and addressing crises. 

An April 16th Washington Post headline, for example, declares: “Global institutions built for this moment are floundering.”  Ironically, at a time when our greatest challenges-- from pandemics to climate change to a worldwide recession-- are global in nature, it is the United States that has been leading the retreat. The present administration has withdrawn from UNESCO, the UN Human Rights Council, nuclear and trade agreements, and the Global Compact for Migration, given notice of withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, threatened to withdraw from the World Trade Organization and the Universal Postal Union (among others), cut off funding for The UN Population Fund, the UN Relief and Works Agency (and other support for Palestinian refugees), and the Northern Triangle, threatened to substantially reduce funding for the International Civil Aviation Organization, foreign aid, humanitarian assistance, and diplomacy. Withdrawal from the international community simply leaves space for China, which now heads four international organizations, and other countries that are less able to bring the technological innovation and aspirational values of a free society and economy. The US retreat preceded the Trump Administration as exemplified by the abysmal record of the US Senate in failing to ratify universally adopted international treaties, including those protecting the rights of women, children and the disabled.

Inconceivably, the US now threatens to withhold funding from the World Health Organization in the midst of the worst global pandemic since 1918. Pandemics do not pass through customs or stop at border walls. A virus any place in the world is a potential threat to the United States. With a budget of only $4.2 billion, most of it from voluntary contributions, and 7,000 employees in 150 countries, the WHO sets international health standards, provides essential coordination, collects and disseminates critical information and provides technical, scientific and research support. It has no enforcement power. Its authority derives from the 194 sovereign states which are its members, and it is only as effective as its member states enable it to be. Like most human institutions, it has had its successes and failures. With active member state engagement, it can learn from its mistakes, such as its early failures in the response to the Ebola crisis in 2014-15 in West Africa. In 2019-20, it has responded robustly and effectively to the Ebola threat in the Congo, under circumstances where WHO workers face imminent danger from violence as well as the virus.

Where the United States, WHO’s largest contributor, has been actively engaged, WHO has had remarkable success—the eradication of small pox, the near-eradication of polio, great progress in the eradication of measles, dengue, tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS. The United Nations vaccinates about half the world’s children. WHO also has strengthened health agencies in developing countries and addressed chronic disease such as heart disease and cancer, as well as obesity, food security, and substance abuse. 

Despite the inflated criticism that WHO was slow to recognize  China’s initial lack of transparency on the human to human transmission of the coronavirus, the fact remains that before the first virus case was identified in the US, China made public on January 12th the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus. This enabled WHO to develop a diagnostic test that was used in most nations, including South Korea and Thailand, which gave them an early start on containing the virus. Rejecting the WHO test, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed in its attempt to develop a “more sophisticated test” which substantially set back testing in the US. The WHO has not criticized either the US or China because that is not the way a UN organization fosters global cooperation. WHO has no authority to dictate the internal response of its sovereign members.

History teaches that active engagement by the United States is essential to the success of the United Nations and its specialized agencies. The US brings critical scientific and technological knowledge and innovation to the table. The international organizations provide a global response to a global crisis. While some 17 HHS/CDC experts have been fully engaged with WHO at the technical level and fully informed of developments in China, US representation on the Executive Committee at the policy level has been vacant. On March 19, 2020 President Trump nominated HHS Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir for the third time to serve on WHO’s Executive Committee. Giroir should be swiftly confirmed by the Senate because US leadership at WHO is needed at the coming World Health Assembly. The US can push for reforms such as early and transparent reporting of communicable diseases, a clear definition of Public Health Emergency and Pandemic, guidelines on preparedness such a stockpiling equipment, cooperation on scientific research, strengthening  the emergency response capacity, and increasing the contributions of states like China.

Instead of withdrawing from international organizations, the United States should be a leader through active engagement. Global institutions are needed now more than ever.