Simple storytelling often involves clearly defined good guys and bad guys, and there’s nothing politicians love more than a simple story. The narratives Donald Trump weaves often include unambiguous protagonists and antagonists. The tales preferred by his political enemies and many in the press employ similar contrasts. The roles change, often with dizzying alacrity, but the story remains the same.
Thus, a familiar dance commenced again on Tuesday evening when the president announced that he would withhold U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization’s budget as a response to its failure to adequately prepare the world for this pandemic. All at once, the WHO—which the president had praised for its actions just weeks ago—became the nefarious villain. Simultaneously, the criticism heaped on this organization in the press evaporated, and the institution was hailed as both a necessity and a scapegoat for a flailing president. It’s all so exhausting.
The truth in the narrative is somewhat more nuanced, but not so much so that there are no black hats in the story. The Chinese Communist Party is largely to blame for the present state of affairs. And while the WHO is by no means faultless, it was a mere accomplice to this heinous act. The president has shifted his focus and the world’s away from what should be his core geostrategic objective: countering Chinese propaganda, undermining its influence among foreign governments, and weakening its hold on international institutions.
The case against the WHO is sound. The public health arm of the United Nations served as a microphone to disseminate the flawed and falsified information about this disease in the earliest stages of the outbreak that led governments around the world to let their guards down. The obsequious coddling of China’s Communist government by the WHO’s political leadership during this period was sickening. And yet, given the extent to which this president (and governments around the world) also participated in such displays, it can be chalked up to the diplomatic demands made by the Chinese government. Indeed, Beijing’s insecurity contributed mightily to this crisis.
As documents obtained by the Associated Press attest, Chinese public officials were aware of the potential scope of the disaster incubating under their noses well before the public and international institutions were informed. Local observers who dared to blow the whistle on this brewing crisis were reprimanded and silenced. As the New York Times put it, China “put secrecy and order ahead of openly confronting the growing crisis to avoid public alarm and political embarrassment.” This same paranoia has led China to attach strings to the distribution of aid around the world that compels international governments to publicly profess gratitude for Beijing’s beneficence. This same fragility leads the People’s Republic to force the NBA to admonish its players who speak up in defense of liberty in Hong Kong, coerce Disney to insert the controversial “nine-dash line” in its cartoons, make foreign air carriers erase Taiwan from the map, and compel Marriott to fire employees who click “like” on the wrong Facebook post.
These are signs of weakness, not strength. China has evaded any serious challenges to its authority over the years because access to its market is a lucrative proposition. But that inducement has lost much of its appeal amid the global suspension of much conventional commerce. This is a unique opportunity to impose costs on Beijing for its reckless actions and totalitarian governance. Rarely does a political narrative have such an unambiguous heavy, which is why it’s so bizarre to see the president not only take his eye off the ball but engage in misdirection.
By shifting focus onto the WHO, the president has allowed European governments, which are already prone to spineless equivocation, to protest the martyrdom of an international institution that does serve a vital purpose amid a global pandemic. By failing to make a distinction between the WHO’s medical mission and its political leadership, Trump has muddied the case against the institution and thrown China’s reflexive defenders a lifeline. By threatening the WHO’s funding—which is appropriated by Congress and disbursed primarily through grants—he’s plunged the nation into a largely superficial debate over consequences that are unlikely to fully materialize. And by withdrawing American support for this organization, even just rhetorically, he’s only likely strengthened its reliance on revisionist powers like China.
As a catharsis, it’s understandable why the president would want to bury the WHO in opprobrium. The organization deserves it. But as a matter of policy, it lacks a strategic rationale and could undermine what should be America’s long-term goal: indelibly branding the Chinese Communist Party an international pariah.