The World Health Organization, charged with anticipating and alleviating international health insecurity, is accused by the United States and others of making the situation worse. President Trump, who has said the WHO favors China, on Tuesday announced a halt to U.S. funding.
The U.N. Security Council, the world’s premier international decision-making forum, has been paralyzed by disputes among its leading members. “A signal of unity and resolve from the council would count for a lot at this anxious time,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres pleaded to little avail last week. “This is the fight of a generation — and a raison d’être of the United Nations itself.”
The question is not only whether the world order has stumbled but what direction it will take when the current crisis is over. Will there be a new appreciation of its importance, and a determination to make it work better? Or will pre-virus trends accelerate toward tighter borders, less cooperation and a tilt toward nationalism?
While no one knows the answer, many believe they know whom to blame for the global failure.
“What we definitely lack most is political leadership,” said Cátia Batista, a professor of economics at Lisbon’s Nova University. “International organizations, even if they have the right objectives, lack the means if they don’t have political support.”
“With the U.S. not leading internationally, with Europe disappearing into itself and China pursuing its own interests, we really are in trouble,” she said.
Institutions such as NATO and the United Nations “over the long term will ossify” without the United States as the leading actor in the world, said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Even beyond the question of U.S. leadership, the virus has exposed the incoherence of the sheer number of institutions established over the years to address global crises.
“Every aspect of the international architecture has failed,” said Taufiq Rahim, a Dubai-based global health expert with the New America organization. “It starts with the U.N. Security Council, which has shown itself to be not just ineffective but no longer fit for purpose. While the G-7 and G-20 have convened in some form or other, that hasn’t led to any direct immediate action.”
In the late 1940s, the United States orchestrated the establishment of international structures — many of them under the auspices of the United Nations — that regulate everything from international trade to global health.
Along with international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, they collect and redistribute resources and expertise from the have countries to the have-nots, while attempting to steer developing nations toward political systems most favorable to a free and orderly world.
In their own organizations, such as NATO and the Group of Seven leading economies, the major powers use these structures to smooth economic, political and security relations among themselves and preserve their interests.
Despite this world order’s imperfections and glitches, Western leaders, at least, believed its advantages outweighed its disadvantages, and those who disagreed had little power to force change. Yet the political winds and pressures of the 21st century, from human migration and extreme income disparity to protectionism and rising new powers, have weakened its foundations, leaving it ill-equipped to handle the first truly global threat to its very existence.
Just as the United States, as the world’s largest economy, received the most credit for enabling the system to work, many now hold it responsible for the downhill slide.
Trump is not the first president to question whether international institutions serve to benefit the United States. Ronald Reagan encouraged congressional efforts to withhold U.N. dues, withdrew the United States from U.N. organizations and cut off contributions to organizations whose policies contradicted conservative dogma.
George W. Bush called on the United Nations to “show some backbone” in confronting Saddam Hussein, and decided to go it alone in invading Iraq when the U.N. Security Council refused to support him.
In their second terms, both Reagan and Bush came to appreciate the benefits of an international system that is based, by design, on American leadership coupled with cooperation. Barack Obama took it a step further, with a recognition of waning U.S. dominance that his domestic political opponents interpreted as capitulation.
“In many ways, Obama’s foreign policy was designed . . . to accommodate” the reality of declining American power and influence, and the need “to get people to come along with you to address common problems,” said Daalder, who served as Obama’s ambassador to NATO.
Trump has abandoned the traditional U.S. role as “leader of the free world” in all but a declarative sense. Showing little interest in persuasion, he tends to couch the U.S. leadership role as “winning” in a zero-sum game.
Rather than using American power to marshal the world response to the pandemic, pushing for global agreement on production targets and distribution requirements, helping to allocate resources, and shepherding a long-term response in therapeutics and vaccines, Trump has prioritized national interests.
He is far from alone in closing borders and banning or restricting the export of key equipment to battle the virus.
Dozens of nations, including the United States, still impose tariffs or non-tariff restrictions on the import of medical equipment, protective gear and even soap, according to the Global Trade Alert project at Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen, which describes a “beggar thy neighbor” approach.
Like Reagan, Trump and much of the Republican Party have cited international organizations as the cause of many of the world’s woes and not their solution. But like Reagan, some argue, Trump is gradually moving toward appreciation of the world order.
“I see a lot of similarities between Reagan’s second term and a Trump second term,” said James Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. While Trump has seen international organizations as a “threat to sovereignty,” Carafano said, he is becoming “more enamored with the United Nations.”
“All the vibes I get out of the U.S. government today are not about disengagement from international organizations, it’s about holding them accountable,” he said. “Rather than saying international institutions have failed us, the response is ‘Dude, we need to pay a lot more attention to these institutions, because they’re failing us.’ ”
If that is the goal, said a senior European official, the United States must become more, rather than less, involved. China, as administration officials frequently point out, now heads four of the 15 U.N. technical organizations, including the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, for which the Chinese candidate last year secured a majority of international votes by reported use of economic threats and incentives.
But rather than boycotting agencies and keeping a running tally with China, the European official said, the United States should work to “reclaim and modernize the postwar institutions.”
“Some of this requires the Americans to lean in more, and not just criticize what the Chinese do but also reduce the space, and help the rest of us, reduce the space for China to do it,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address international competition.
This official, and the Trump administration, cite the United States’ success last month in contesting China’s bid to add another U.N. position — director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization — to its roster. The White House and State Department pushed hard to garner votes for the American-backed candidate, Daren Tang of Singapore.
“There are six upcoming elections in international organizations that the United States needs to pay attention to,” Carafano said.
Some international actors are optimistic about the future. Even before the pandemic, “people were looking at [international institutions], thinking about how do we modernize them for a world in which there are many more serious economic players as well as great-power rivalry,” the European official said. “Previously, there was a tendency to think multilateralism was running out of steam; I think the coronavirus will lead people back into more productive endeavors.”
Others see little chance that Trump is serious about turning toward a more traditional exercise of U.S. leadership.
“It’s true that both Reagan and Bush were much more internationalist in their second terms,” Daalder said. But “the idea that Trump is susceptible to change assumes that new information has any impact in the way he governs.”
“He has had a very consistent foreign policy, based on the idea that working with others, particularly through international institutions, is a drain on American resources and that, unless the transaction favors the United States, we’re not interested.”