Trump’s Heat Level: His chilly accusations towards China and the WHO are now heated

Source: Win McNamee Getty Images
  • + Trump has terminated relations between the US and the WHO.
  • + Following Australia’s steps, an investigation on the origins of the virus begins. China has agreed.
  • + Trump continues to blame China, alongside the WHO, for COVID19.

Why is Trump’s heat level Chilly, but getting Heated?

Answer: His breakup threats from the WHO did materialize, however few seem to take his side.

Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has been quick to blame China for all the misfortune brought by COVID 19. At the same time, the World Health Organization (WHO) has become the main battlefield between the two giants as part of Trump’s latest grand collusion scheme. While, at first, Trump had little more than threats, on May 29th he announced the termination of relations between the United States and the WHO. This follows a steady blame game against the WHO and its “lack of independence” from China. After  a failed campaign to include Taiwan as an observer in the organization and start an investigation on China, Trump has had enough with the WHO.

With tensions running high, Trump’s violent tone against the organization has not been shared by its main allies in the international arena. Since April, the leader has proposed several times an early review of the WHO’s response to the pandemic and its assistance of China’s efforts to cover up the pandemic. He argued vividly that China was guilty of withholding information on the virus’ spread and condemned the pro-China stance of the WHO. However, this investigation proposal, while heated in tone, was decisively chilly in execution due to its lack of traction internationally.

Not surprisingly, the main efforts against the initial proposal came from within the WHO, where the Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, denounced Trump for using the virus as an opportunity to score political points. The Director General deemed the action as dangerous and called for solidarity in these hard times. Many other nations shared this sentiment of inappropriateness in timing and intention of the proposal. Most leaders defend the WHO and its leadership, refrain from placing direct blame on China, and advocate for more cooperation. Urusula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, has made a call for unity referring to international cooperation as a no-brainer.

The international community is even more critical of Trump’s threat to remove funding to the WHO amidst the greatest pandemic of the century. The halting of funds was announced by Trump mid-April and after his Administration conducted an analysis of the organization during 60 days. Most international actors see this move as removing firefighters as the flames get worse. This is especially worrisome in times of COVID 19, since the US contributions to the WHO made up 20% of the budget for the organization in 2018 and 2019; after all, the US is the single largest source of funding. As the Secretary General of the UN stated: it is not the time to remove resources from fighting the virus. While Trump and the United States seem to be alone in their blame game, two main events have turned the heat up on the American decision to leave the WHO: Australia’s proposal for inquiry on the origins of the virus and Trump’s latest open letter to the WHO.

What is changing Trump’s temperature?

Answer: His Twitter threats are now backed with actions.

While Trump’s full-on investigation was not politically feasible within the WHO, another proposal coming from the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister was. Marise Payne, who has been very critical of Chinese actions in the region, suggested a review of the international response to the pandemic. The resolution commits to an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation into COVID19, including its “zoonotic origins”; however, inquiry is just one of many aspects of the resolution. It is set to occur at the earliest appropriate moment and without singling China out.

With the European Union as an ally, and with massive support of 120 other nations, the resolution passed on the floor of the World Health Assembly, the annual decision-making forum of the WHO. While the Chinese agreed to the resolution, they were not pleased by Australia’s initiative slapping 80% tariffs in Australian barley on May 18th. While Beijing assured the measures were unrelated, the coincidence is vast. Trump, on the other hand, supported the inquiry tweeting “We are with them”. However, the subtleness of the claim does not meet Trump’s conflict standards.

Escalating the heat on Twitter, Trump posted a letter addressed to the General Director of the WHO. Containing all of Trump’s main allegations against the organization and several false statements, the document blames the WHO for not acting earlier, for praising China on their “transparency”, and among others. It reads: “It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world. The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China”. Most importantly, Trump threatened to pull all US funding if the organization does not commit to major substantive improvements in the next 30 days. The demand is as ambiguous as it is radical and angry. Unfortunately, as with most of Trump’s Twitter, it cannot be ignored. 

Only 11 days after the letter was sent, Trump announced the termination of the relationship between the WHO and the US. As with most of his rhetoric, the criticism of China was overwhelming. Trump focused on the disparity between the funds provided by the United States and China; as always, referring to multilateralism as a “bad deal” for Americans. However, breaking up with the WHO has a larger implication for world health considering roughly 1/5 of the WHO’s budget comes from the US. While Trump stated the funds would be redirected towards helping the global response of the pandemic, the new initiatives do little compared to the harm of striping the WHO of resources in a time of need. The reactions of European and other multilateral organizations are still to be seen. They will not be pleased, still Trump remains unmoved in his quest to hold China accountable.

What is driving Trump?

Answer: Politics as usual.

Trump’s fight with China is neither new nor ending soon. From trade wars to chip wars, the President has never abandoned his anti-Chinese views. And, with Wuhan being the epicentre of the COVID19 pandemic, there is even more to blame on the nation. However, Trump is not alone in this narrative. All the inquiry efforts have been echoed in the Republican Senate, who insist on the necessity to investigate and make funds conditional. In a 57-page memo, Brett O’Donnell, a political advisor to many Republican leaders, states: “The WHO aided and abetted the Chinese hit-and-run and advanced their cover up of the facts—they acted as the handmaiden of the Chinese Communist Party”. This memo, which is said to be a playbook for redemption of the GOP, highlights the party’s and the President’s convictions of Chinese guilt and WHO’s complicitness.

However, across the aisle, the Democrats see other drivers behind Trump’s campaign to trial the WHO and China for COVID 19: distraction. Democrats see this attack as a coy to distract the electorate from the internal mismanagement of Trump’s government during the sanitary crisis as the country has suffered a staggering number of cases and deaths of COVID19. As seen all around the world, the psychological impact of a crisis like the one we are living makes people “rally around the flag”. Presidential support in the United States has always risen in times of peril, and the natural reaction is to seek out scapegoats to overlook leadership failures within. China and the WHO offer such an escape. 

Why should you care?

Answer: It’s larger than COVID19. 

Trump’s blame game is worrisome for reasons involving larger trends. Larger even than COVID 19. Firstly, using China as a scapegoat due to the pandemic is dangerous for international stability. While the truth about the origin and spread of the virus is still uncertain, placing all the blame on China and, even worse, the WHO, could distract efforts from what is really important: dealing with the pandemic in a cohesive and coherent manner around the world. Racism and even more hatred are likely byproducts of blaming the Chinese for COVID19. Trump’s administration has had a clear agenda of confrontation with the People’s Republic all along and in all fronts, COVID 19 being merely the latest theater. Considering the rise and power of China, it seems like a natural reaction of a former hegemon defending it’s position.

 Secondly, Trump’s decision to abandon the WHO demonstrates his rejection of multilateralism. While the current system of supranational governance mainly based on the United Nations and its branches is American in conception, Trump has made it clear that America comes first, thus abandoning the multilateral spirit the former hegemon once represented. Not only has Trump left important multilateral treaties, but now he is directly attacking an organization, the WHO, that his country founded and supported. The letter sent to the organization on May 18th reflects a turn inwards in terms of interest: “I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organization that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving America’s interests“. 

Like a grandfather denying their grandchildren, America turning away from multilateralism is dangerous for both stability and cooperation in the international system. And while it is clear these are no longer “American interests”, the rise of willing China in the vacuum left by Trump might be. 

Maria Paula Jijon

Research and Analysis Intern