A Bitter Pill: Why U.S. Coronavirus Diplomacy Could Cure the WHO

December 18, 2020 Topic: Health Region: Americas Blog Brand: Coronavirus Tags: CoronavirusPandemicWHODiplomacyNational Security

A Bitter Pill: Why U.S. Coronavirus Diplomacy Could Cure the WHO

If America remains a member of the World Health Organization without extracting any meaningful concessions, then that would be tantamount to foreign policy malpractice.

U.S. pharmaceutical companies appear to have the inside track in the race to develop a coronavirus vaccine. As expected, these breakthroughs have been greeted with sighs of relief by Main Street America and Wall Street.

And yet, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) muted response speaks volumes, as does its unwillingness to conduct a transparent investigation into the virus’s Chinese origins. By any measure, the WHO’s perceived deference to Beijing has left its credibility and that of its leaders on life support.

If public and institutional distrust is a symptom of a larger disease, then the WHO is clearly unwell.  

Could U.S.-led coronavirus diplomacy cure its ills?

Not surprisingly, the contest to develop a vaccine has devolved into a great-power war game. While the United States has pursued a reliable, albeit accelerated, path forward, the same cannot be said of its strategic competitors.

Eager to repair the damage stemming from its coronavirus deceptions and ensuing “wolf warrior” diplomacy, Beijing has turned to a familiar playbook, attempting to steal information about U.S. vaccine programs. China’s willingness to cut corners has also included inoculating thousands outside of supervised trials, as well as convincing vulnerable governments to offer their own citizens as guinea pigs in exchange for relief. The Russian government has also performed as expected, downplaying the virus’s death toll and pushing unverified claims about the efficacy of its Sputnik V vaccine.

Although President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from the WHO, the next administration is certain to reverse course. However, nursing the organization back to health and championing top-to-bottom reform will not come easily.

With America’s rivals knocked off balance, and to achieve its aims of overhauling the WHO and restoring America’s reputation, the next administration and its allies should move swiftly to administer a more aggressive Western antidote, albeit one hard for the WHO to swallow. 

While U.S. vaccines are in production, the question of distributing them around the world remains unanswered. The Achilles heel to the WHO’s response lies with its COVAX program, which is tasked with procuring vaccines for developing countries. At present, COVAX remains woefully mismanaged and severely underfunded, as many countries harbor reservations about the WHO’s reliability. Without significant restructuring, COVAX is unlikely to succeed. The situation is further complicated by rampant G-20 vaccine nationalism, in which leaders are prioritizing inoculations for their citizens and in effect relegating developing countries to the back of the line.

If America’s successful AIDS programming in Africa is any indication, then this need not be the case. What’s more, re-capturing the hearts and minds of these developing countries will be key to establishing an international coalition to confront China’s increasingly malign behavior.

Remaining in the WHO without extracting any meaningful concessions would be tantamount to foreign policy malpractice. As a first step, the provision of any additional COVAX funding, administrative support, or vaccine assistance should be tied to a full, fast-tracked audit of the COVAX program and the WHO’s initial response to the pandemic, specifically focusing on the organization’s interactions with Beijing. This audit should also scrutinize COVAX’s vaccine approval process to ensure the WHO never greenlights unsafe Chinese and Russian vaccines for distribution.

Given concerns about undue Chinese influence at the United Nations, these investigations should be led and paid for by the WHO’s top Western contributors and COVAX partners, including the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Germany. To be sure, such institutional shock therapy is all but certain to clash with established diplomatic norms; however, continued stonewalling on these issues will only compound pre-existing concerns that the WHO is simply beyond repair.

As more information comes to light and with pressure building in anticipation of a vaccine rollout in mid-2020, the WHO’s bureaucratic dam will eventually break, leading to leadership resignations and a global reckoning for China. Only then will the United States and its allies be positioned to exercise greater control over the organization and its inoculation protocols.  

Of course, immunizing billions will cost billions and investing even more in the WHO will be a hard sell for many leaders. Moreover, U.S. taxpayers and members of Congress have every reason to remain skeptical, although skepticism alone has done little to dent U.S. contributions to the UN’s coffers over the years.

To their surprise, congressional watchdogs may realize that the way to establish greater control over the WHOa goal that has remained elusiveis to actually increase U.S. support for the UN body, albeit in a reformed institution with the United States and its allies at the helm. 

Experimental treatments, and particularly those that stray from standard operating practices, are certain to be met with suspicion and even derision. In this case, the patient may even revolt, although doing so would seal the WHO’s fate and lead other countries to partner with the United States on independent vaccine initiatives.

If that is the worst side-effect, then so be it. It sure beats the alternative of placing the world’s fate in the hands of a compromised WHO and its enablers in Beijing. 

Craig Singleton is a national security expert and former diplomat who currently serves as an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) for its China Program. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues. 

Image: Reuters