The annual meeting of the World Health Assembly — the general assembly of the World Health Organization — is normally not something that attracts major attention outside the circle of those directly concerned.
And that is very new. Tragically so.
The first prominent speaker on the virtual meeting, with audience members throughout the world, was Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was a polished, confident and probably effective performance. His speech contained four messages: China has mastered the crisis and has put it behind itself; China is ready to help the rest of the world, notably Africa; China stands for transparency, including a review on what happened once we all have put the crisis begin us; and a vaccine has to be seen as a global public good available to all.
Then, from Europe, there was France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel with messages of strong support for global cooperation in fighting the virus, notably through the WHO. They also spoke about the vaccine that everyone is hoping for as a global public good.
And it was the European Union that carefully maneuvered the diplomatic work needed to get a global consensus around a resolution calling for a comprehensive review into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Its draft evolved in such a way that it was co-sponsored by a large number of other nations.
The idea of some sort of review of what really happened in China — and elsewhere — as the virus first appeared was first aired by Australia some weeks ago and, at the time, led to an angry response from Beijing.
But the E.U. managed to get language on such a review into the resolution, and it was then co-sponsored by Australia. The language, obviously somewhat more diplomatic than the campaign rhetoric we hear from the White House, evidently satisfied the original Australian wish.
China knew where things were heading. Keen to show itself as a responsible stakeholder in the landscape of global health cooperation, it folded on the objections it might have had and accepted the review requirements of the resolution.
It took four hours or so of speeches by ministers from around the world before the United States made its presence felt. Until then, the United States hadn’t even been mentioned. But the U.S. tone, via a speech by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, was markedly different from the other speeches, and only fueled the impression that the United States was far more interested in fighting China than fighting the virus. On the issue of Taiwan’s participation in the assembly, it has a point — and support from countries that were once often referred to as its allies. But there was an understanding among others that shared this opinion that the issue could be deferred.
Simultaneously, outside the World Health Assembly, the Trump administration launched a barrage of accusations against China and the WHO, culminating with the president’s threat to leave the organization entirely within a month. That would be a true tragedy for everyone concerned. But it has to be said that, for anyone following the discussions at the World Health Assembly, it sounded as though it had already happened.
This was the post-American world on display: China assertive and confident. Europe trying to save what can be saved of global cooperation. And the Trump administration mostly outside firing its heavy artillery in all directions, but with limited actual results.
In the end, the United States had to accept that the resolution drafted under E.U. leadership was adopted by consensus. Rarely has the United States been as marginalized at a major diplomatic gathering. A world used to American leadership — for good, according to many, for bad, according to some — had to move on with the urgent issues of fighting the virus.
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