The United States President, Donald Trump’s decision to cut WHO to size was nothing but international politics at its best. It is also a reflection of Trump’s campaign promises and testament to the policy cornerstone of his presidency—anti-multilateralism, writes Senator Iroegbu
In times of crisis, it makes sense to have an ultimate fall-guy who will be used to deflect the failures of the ‘untouchable’ leaders. This unfortunate subject(s) is often an outcast and a sacrificial lamb used to either cleanse the land or appease the gods. However, in the absence of a clear cut antagonist, it is usually not out of place to create a villain and invent a scapegoat to channel on the anger of the masses in order to save the ‘Prince’. This Machiavellian golden rule has been religiously practiced by global leaders across generations.
Consequently, in a world where imperfections are rife, scapegoating becomes the ultimate price for indiscretion. This explains the current situation the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Ghebreyrsus, has found himself. The WHO boss is being dragged by the United States President, Donald Trump, for his alleged incompetence in handling of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and his survival now depends on events out of his control. His fate will be determined by the ‘gods’ who may refuse, replace or accept him as a worthy sacrificial object.
Truth be told, Mr. Ghebreyrsus made it easy for Trump who in a “do-or-die” election year must explain to his American electorate why a virus that started like a Tsunami in a Chinese town of Wuhan, finally made its landfall in ‘God’s own country’ with devastating outcome. Mocked by the media and castigated by Democrats–the two forces that have combined to make his re-election bid a nightmare–Trump has no option but to explain how his greatest selling point, which was a historic economic upswing, was obliterated in a matter of days by a ‘ghostly flu’ from China.
So the stakes are high and you will not blame a drowning man from clutching on any life-saving object to survive. Or who do you expect Trump to blame for the on-going biological hurricane that is sweeping across the world; tearing the social fabrics and economic foundations of even the most advanced countries to shreds? Should Donald Trump who sees himself as the best thing that ever happened to the USA since George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, to take the fall? Do you actually expect ‘Mr. America’ to make himself the sacrificial lamb in a situation where window of excuses were extravagantly opened by the Chinese, European and WHO’s missteps?
Then WHO is left?
Your guess is as good as mine. Someone must pay the price for the negligence in taming the monster called COVID-19. Already, Trump has railed against US strongest allies–EU and United Kingdom–for not doing enough to protect their borders from “Wuhan Virus”. For their lapses, he had to impose travel ban on them just as he had earlier done to China–the arch rival.
Consequently, WHO and Ghebreyrsus were the next on the line of fire and for the right reasons too as he was accused of being subservient to China. To this end, Trump on April 14 announced suspension of funding to the global health body on alleged covered up of the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak in China before it spread to the rest of the world. The American President also accused WHO of being complicit in the deaths of thousands across the globe, having “failed in its basic duty” but instead, promoted China’s “disinformation” about the novel virus.
Giving Trump ammunition to fire
There is no doubt that with more than 27,000 killed and over 600, 000 infected, Trump would definitely look for a villain for this horrendous calamity and WHO Director General’s approach that seem to follow Beijing’s line of thoughts to the detriment of others came handy.
Two cases which stood out was that WHO in a copy and paste style of policy, mirrored the Chinese Government’s stand that there was “no human-to-human transmission” of the then Wuhan virus, which was a lie. But the most damning move by Ghebreyrsus was his open rebuke of Trump’s decision to impose travel ban on China. The WHO Director General got himself drawn into politics of the superpowers and un-tactfully took sides with China and drew battle line with the US.
Unfortunately for him, issues that snowballed afterwards showed that while Trump was right on the travel ban which has since been adopted by other countries including China itself, the WHO boss on the other hand lost his claim to neutrality. This is added to the fact that the UN agency had under a different leader imposed a travel ban on Southern China, Singapore and other affected countries in 2003 that helped to contain SARS outbreak. So what changed this time around? Tedros Ghebreyrsus happened.
Trump accused Ghebreyrsus of being too lenient with China in the earliest days of the crisis, saying: “Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China’s lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained … with very little death.”
Notorious for his frequent use of scapegoats in his political journey, Trump was given the needed grenade to explode on the WHO, having also been armed and angered by the fact that the US and US-based organisations are the biggest overall donor to the Agency, contributing more than $400 million in 2019 and over 15 percent of its annual budget.
This is also added to the fact that Trump’s ‘American First’ mantra was in jeopardy, having watched helplessly as millions of countrymen and women lose their jobs, and the national economy crippled, casting a shadow over his hopes of being re-elected in November. As a rational thinker and pragmatist who know the temperament and personality of Trump as well as power at his disposal, what do you expect? His actions were expected and his motives were also not different from historical facts and established trajectory.
History supports Trump’s actions
Except for idealists, Trump’s decision though new in approach (fund freeze) was classic international politics at its best as history is littered with how big powers and superpowers fight to promote, project and protect their interests in the global arena. In doing this, they could sometimes adopt a zero sum approach by eliminating dissents as well as threats to their national, regional and global interests. This may also require the removal or frustration of the heads of United Nations and its agencies.
In the past, this tradition had seen the US leaders, USSR (Russia), China, UK, France and others mobilise all arsenal to either remove or frustrate the activities of the heads of UN agencies and if this fails at the first attempt they block subsequent renewal of their terms of office. Just a quick research into the politics and leadership of these organisations will explain better.
For historical purposes, a random list of some heads of UN/UN agencies that were either forced to resign or frustrated while in office by countries whose interests were crossed even for lesser offences than that of Dr. Tedros Ghebreyrsus, will be useful including that of Mr, Trygve Lie, the first UN Secretary-General, and a Norwegian who resigned in 1952 largely because of the USSR’s objection to the UN military intervention in the Korean War.
There was also the case of his successor, Mr. Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-61), a Swede whose emergence was opposed by USSR as they tried unsuccessfully to either remove him or undermine his powers. Also, U-Thant’s (Myanmar) election was opposed by France and Arab nations, his successors’ tenure including Kurt Waldheim (Austria) and Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru) had their emergence vetoed by both United Kingdom and China, while the US blocked the second term of Egypt’s Boutros Ghali who was later succeeded by the favoured Kofi Anan of Ghana.
This was not limited to UN as the very powerful ex-Director General of IMF, Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was brought down on his knees by local politics in France; while Rima Khalef, a Jordanian citizen who headed the UN Economic and Social Commission (ECOSOC) was in 2017 forced out by US and Israel. Also Mr. Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS and a native of Mali, was forced to resign over sexual scandals, while the head of UN Environment Programme (UNEP) , Mr. Erik Solheim, a Norwegian was forced to resign for excessive travels and rule breaking, based on UK media reports.
Tedros history of controversies
The incumbent WHO boss has had a chequered history of controversies right from his home country of Ethiopia. A background research on Mr. Ghebreyrsus reveals a man whose decisions often put some question marks on his competence. In addition to the allegations that his emergence as the WHO Director General was bankrolled by China, he was also accused of mishandling of Cholera outbreak as a Minister of Health in Ethiopia, which mirrored his current failures in the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.
The New York Times in one of its reports prior to WHO election in 2017, helped to expose an alleged cover-up of three possible cholera epidemics in Ethiopia in 2006, 2009 and 2011 when he was at the helm. According to the report, these outbreaks were purported to have been wrongly labelled as ‘Acute Water Diarrhoea (AWD)’, which is a symptom of cholera. This was said to have been done in the absence of laboratory confirmation of ‘vibrio cholera’, in an attempt to play down the significance of the epidemics. Consequently, the UN verdict was that more aid and vaccines could have been given to Ethiopia with more lives saved if the outbreak was rightly labelled as Cholera.
It’s not racism but a campaign promise kept
Some analysts had in defence of the WHO boss, tagged the fund freeze as one of Mr. Trump’s racist decisions. According to a Communication Strategist, Mr. Chido Nwakanma, the USA cutting WHO funding is simply Donald Trump’s racism. “No more, no less”, he said, before stressing, “An Ethiopian heads WHO and challenged his call. The bloody racist cannot stand it”.
But this is far from it as Trump has been consistent in his disdain for multilateral agencies and what he sees as dwindling US leverage over these world bodies despite funding majority of their activities. As seen earlier, core interests and values trump race in international politics as countries with clout do throw their weight around including China, Russia and France. Secondly, Trump has been on records even before he was elected vowing to cut funds from the UN agencies and pull the US out from international agreements as well as review established orders.
Before his recent decision, Trump has pulled out from APEC, Paris Climate Accord and talked down on traditional US allies, spoke against NATO, engaged in De-campaigning EU, and froze funds for UN agencies that he deemed to have worked against US interests even for flimsy excuses. France24 had in its report also agreed that “Trump has long questioned the value of the United Nations and scorned the importance of multilateralism as he focuses on an ‘America First’ agenda. Since taking office, Trump has quit the UN Human Rights Council, the UN cultural agency UNESCO, a global accord to tackle climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.”
So why do you think he will spare the WHO boss even for flagrant challenge on US preeminent position just because he is black, African and would be accused of being racist? Being tagged a racist is something Trump has been accustomed to even though he tries to deny it but has never deterred him from taking decisions on issues he considers important to his vision of America. In essence, you may accuse Trump of anything in this WHO saga but racism is not at the core of his decision. He has been looking for excuses to cut funds from UN agencies and other international organisations long before now and WHO under Tedros Ghebreyrsus gave him enough reasons to do so. The WHO boss allowed himself as a pawn and willing sacrifice in the deadly game of super powers.
Likely outcomes and consequences
The most likely outcome as being propagated by Nwakanma is that China may step in to fill the void, which is a welcome development. But the question is what has China been waiting for all these years even as WHO has been crying for lack of funds despite the US best efforts? Or WHO is afraid of China if she can step up to the plate and put her money where her mouth has been for a while now challenging the American domination of the international order? This is coming at a time when Trump has been calling on other countries to pick up the bills of multilateral organisations in order to allow him “make America great again”. It is now time to work the talk.
Consequently, now is the time for China and other countries angling to fill the big void that would be left by Uncle Sam and the WHO need more resources than ever as it leads the global response against COVID-19. To this end, the agency has been appealing for more than $1 billion to fund operations against the pandemic and with Trump pulling the plug, the coast is now clear for both the contenders and pretenders to step in. Talk is cheap while costly actions are needed.
Senator Iroegbu is a media practitioner, security and current affairs analyst. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org