Is U.S. Looking for Latest Exit from Global Alliances? Funding Freeze Stokes Concern
WASHINGTON — A new Democratic plan for confronting the coronavirus echoes what much of the rest of the West has been saying for months: that the United States has stepped back from the global response just as it is needed most.
The diplomatic withdrawal may also include cutting ties with the W.H.O. when the administration concludes a monthslong review this summer that has sought to identify alternate organizations with which to work.
“Our experience in the past is that no matter what the geopolitical tensions were, it was possible to bring countries together around health — particularly when there was an outbreak and a real crisis,” said Ilona Kickbusch, the founding director and chairwoman of the global health program at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
“At present, we see that health is used as a proxy for all kinds of conflicts that are there at the geopolitical level,” she said. “And that is destructive.”
The State Department insists that the United States is at the fore of the global response to the virus, having so far committed $900 million in aid to some of the world’s neediest nations and international relief groups. “The State Department is very focused on saving lives,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Wednesday.
He said a host of countries, like Australia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and France, had begun to reject China’s assistance. That includes what Mr. Pompeo described as defective face masks and other equipment sent to Spain and the Czech Republic. “The free nations of the world are starting to understand that China doesn’t share those democratic values that we hold dear, or their economic interests, and that this matters to the entire world,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Yet humanitarian workers have reported that only a fraction of the American aid has reached frontline responders overseas who are trying to stem the virus. And the funding alone has not quieted a growing unease among foreign allies that the United States will disengage from a united approach to treat and cure the pandemic.
Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, this week echoed the Trump administration’s push to abolish the World Trade Organization, which many conservatives see as a relic in an outdated global economic system that does not serve the interests of the United States.
Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said it was necessary to be part of global decisions to curb the coronavirus if there was any hope of stopping its spread in the United States. That is how the country has dealt with other worldwide threats over the last 100 years, he said.
“There is a moral imperative to U.S. leadership in the global arena right now,” Mr. Menendez said in a statement.
The plan that Mr. Menendez and other Democratic senators filed on Thursday is unlikely to be approved in its current form, given that no Republicans, who hold the majority in the Senate, publicly back it. Rather, Democrats may hope that it serves as a blueprint for public debate on how the United States could more actively engage with other nations and international bodies, including the World Health Organization and at the United Nations Security Council.
The legislation calls for creating a trust fund at the World Bank to help nations develop response plans for future epidemics and pandemics; working with the European Union to develop a Covid-19 vaccine and to discourage Chinese and Russian disinformation about the virus; and promoting stability in foreign currencies and the American dollar.
The plan also would require the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development to adopt several new policies during the current crisis, including to protect Americans abroad from the virus and help them return home, and restarting the process of resettling refugees in the United States.
Perhaps no one decision has cast as much doubt on the Trump administration’s commitment to a global coronavirus response as the funding freeze for the World Health Organization.
A week later, John Barsa, the acting director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told reporters that even before the onset of the pandemic, American officials had been looking to work with alternate relief organizations on a wide range of public health issues.
He said part of the current review of the funding freeze, which will consider “all aspects of operations” in the World Health Organization and conclude by mid-July, “is to evaluate the availability of new partners to carry out this work.”
Some experts suspect that this ultimately will not come to pass, and that the United States will remain an active participant in the organization. “I have seen this as a lot of bluster without a whole lot of carry-though,” said Ashish K. Jha, a professor and director of the Global Health Institute at Harvard University.
But a senior State Department official noted that the United States was giving far more money to other international groups, like UNICEF and the World Food Program, and to specific nations through nongovernmental organizations, than it was to the W.H.O.
The American aid agency that Mr. Barsa leads recently banned some relief groups from buying masks, gloves, respirators, ventilators and other personal protective gear for health workers in some of the world’s poorest countries.
The new guidance, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times and later confirmed by the agency, applies to new aid contracts on a limited basis until the White House issues a broader policy, given what has become a global competition for medical gear.
Gayle E. Smith, who ran the American aid agency during the Obama administration, said sending U.S. funding abroad and supporting relief programs was only one element of leading the global response to the virus. It is also important, she said, to be visibly active in international organizations like the W.H.O. to ensure the United States remains a guiding force.
“There needs to be a place where all of this comes together in some international institution,” said Ms. Smith, now the president and chief executive of the One Campaign, which the rock star Bono helped found to combat poverty and disease. “If there’s an issue or a concern, then we should work with the organization to solve it.”