The US President’s decision to attack the World Health Organisation at the time of a pandemic has diminished Washington’s standing in the world. David Jessop writes that the decision will make it harder for Washington to turn the rising tide of Chinese soft power in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
It is hard to imagine an action more likely to accelerate the decline of US influence in the world than deciding in the middle of a global pandemic to attack the one body that is coordinating the global fight against it.
That however is what the US President decided to do last week.
Announcing that he was suspending and reviewing the US$400m in contributions Washington makes annually to the global health body, almost as if it were some recalcitrant construction company, President Trump confirmed the near bankrupt state of US global leadership.
Few with any international experience would suggest that Beijing is blameless in the way in which it hid the outbreak of the pandemic in Wuhan, nor would they claim that the World Health Organisation (WHO) is well-run and apolitical, is different from any other global multilateral institution, and not in need of reform.
However, to purse a vendetta aimed at China through the one body that every country in the world is trying to work with for the sake of all humanity is verging on the immoral; especially because it relates to the US President’s desire to apportion blame in an election year when his response to COVID-19 has been demonstrably maladroit.
The almost universal condemnation of President Trump’s announcement was swift. The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said it was not the time to reduce resources for the WHO, Bill Gates Tweeted ‘Halting funding for the WHO during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds …. no other organisation can replace them’, and the European Union said that “there is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever”. Many others including CARICOM’s Heads of Government commented in a similar vein.
The broader effect is that day by day, event by event, insult by insult, a self-interested US President is ceding the influence his country once had in the world.
This was indirectly evidenced this week in a high-level on-line exchange on future post-virus transatlantic policy towards China hosted by The Policy Exchange, a conservative UK think tank. The accuracy of the speakers’ analysis was striking, but the absence of any serious thought about what practically the US, and by extension its erstwhile and increasingly incredulous alliesaround the world should be doing to respond to Beijing’s pervasive projection of soft power, was disturbing.
The debate indicated how out of touch influential participants including William Hague, a former British Foreign Secretary, and Lt Gen H R McMaster, a former US National Security Advisor, were with the independent non-aligned thinking of Africa, the Caribbean, India, and many other nations.
General McMaster may have been right to have said that China is pursuing a subtle policy globally of co-option, policy coercion and concealment. However, it was not good enough for him to say the West ‘should compete’ without indicating how the US intends doing so in a manner that takes others with it, or where the resources will come from. He was also wrong to frame the issue as if it were a cold war confrontation, without reflecting on the consensus-based actions the West undertook at that time, in part through programmes that enhanced development, and which sought to share its values and aspirations for all.
What is missing in today’s world is any serious recalibration by the US with its allies of what it will take to win the soft war that China, Russia, and others are so successfully undertaking.
Unfortunately, Europe alone offers no alternative. While relatively powerful economically and a force for good in terms of values and mediation, it has little heft when it comes to acting as a counterbalance to the actions of either the US or China.
Many nations would privately welcome a well-considered reassertion of US moral authority and values through the delivery of government programmes that encourage reciprocal trade, investment, development, education, and public health support in ways that are not transactional and that genuinely match or better those offered by China.
Caribbean nations cannot ignore the US. It is a neighbour, a major trade partner, is a principal source of visitors, investment, and remittances, and despite China’s rise, for a while longer is still the world’s most powerful economic and military actor.
It can still be a force for good. There is evidence of this in the US response to the disgraceful failure of the Guyanese electoral authorities to finalise the outcome of its general election, in the vital regional security assistance and support it provides with NATO allies, and what is left of US programmes related to energy, education and agriculture.
However, the Trump Administration has also sought to divide the region over Venezuela, has failed to offer medical programmes of its own while encouraging the Caribbean and other developing countries to reject Cuban medical support, has continued to sanction the region’s neighbours with potentially destabilising social consequences, has recently strengthened its military presence in the southern Caribbean, has instituted trade wars, and has abandoned its previous commitments on climate change.
Nations will always disagree and seek advantage. The US along with Russia and China and many others continue to find ways to manipulate global decision-making bodies whether they be the UN, the OAS, the WTO or the International Olympic Committee, but there has to be a common purpose, and an interest in convincing others that what is being done is for the wider good.
If the Coronavirus proves anything, it is that the Caribbean together with most of the rest of the world requires multilateral solutions, dialogue, predictability and to be treated equitably on issues from public health, to trade and financial flows.
By seeing the US as one against the rest when an issue touches all of humanity suggests a profoundly dark world view.
The global reaction to the US President’s ill-timed and unwelcome decision on the WHO shows how far respect for the US has diminished in the world and how difficult it will be for Washington to turn the tide of Chinese soft power.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at
Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org 19 April 2020
The views and opinions expressed in the View from Europe are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Caribbean Council.