#57 The G|O Briefing, May 19, 2021

A stronger WHO? Easier said than done! - Is Biden's foreign policy creating an ideological fault line? - A woman at the top of UNCTAD, The G|O hears

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer: Monday is a holiday in Switzerland but that won’t prevent the 74th Session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), WHO’s governing body to open. The 194 Member States will gather virtually, with Monday slated for addresses by heads of states and governments. Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset will make the trip to Geneva as the representative of the host country. It will arguably be the most important Assembly since 2003, the year of the SARS epidemic, and if this session’s preoccupation could be encapsulated in a single word, it would be “strengthening” the organization after the catastrophic collective failure of the world in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic that could have been prevented according to the conclusions of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. The Independent Panel Report will in fact be one of three reports presented and debated during the WHA which will conclude on June 1. The G|O’s Jamil Chade has done some comparative work to offer you a primer on the most salient points of the three reviews.

Also in The G|O, a stimulating essay by Charles A. Kupchan, Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Kupchan argues that Joe Biden’s foreign policy articulated around a clash between democracy and autocracy is a strategic mistake that requires a course correction if we want to tackle our global challenges. His piece is below, right after a bit of exclusive good news collected by The G|O’s John Zarocostas who keeps his ears on the ground for us: the top job for grabs at the UN Conference on Trade and Development should go to a woman.


What does the WHO need? Public health experts are unanimous: More power, more independence, and more transparency.

By Jamil Chade

Throughout 2020, as the world was trying to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, a novel coronavirus, the WHO itself was being closely observed by an army of experts, independent researchers and specialists, all determined to answer two haunting questions: What went wrong? And how can we avoid it in the future?

Why, with all the warnings and all the information available today, was the world not able to prevent a pandemic that has so far killed over 3 million people around the world? And what should be done to avoid a repeat and ensure that the next pandemic, when it hits, won’t have the same deadly consequences?

Over several months, in total three different panels analyzed and assessed the WHO’s performance. While different in scope, the three studies reached the same conclusions: the system failed, and broad reform is urgently needed to avoid another such catastrophic collective failure.

The WHO, all three reports concur, needs to be more independent and see its investigative powers strengthened. The organization also needs to operate with more transparency. And its funding should allow it to fulfill its mission. If you’re thinking “easier said than done,” you’re right.

The three reports by the Review Committee on the Functioning of the International Health Regulations, the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, and the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness—the most scathing of the three—will all be debated next week at the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA), WHO’s governing body, arguably the most important WHA meeting since the 2003 SARS epidemic. In fact, all of the reports result from decisions taken during last year’s meeting.

Debating and accepting the reports’ conclusions might be the easy part. Agreeing to transfer power to the organization and fund it adequately might prove to be more difficult and require some serious diplomatic jostling. It is expected that a resolution calling for the strengthening of the organization will be approved by consensus—the draft is circulating—but after that things will proceed incrementally once the low-hanging fruits are dealt with.

For consensus’ sake, an initial resolution proposal presented by the EU calling for strengthening and extending the investigative powers of the WHO has been watered down over the last days. It faced massive resistance by China, Russia and Brazil. None of these countries were ready to grant access to WHO’s investigative teams under the argument of a disease outbreak.

Instead, the resolution may well only mention the need to enhance WHO’s assessment capacities in terms of potential outbreaks.

Here is a comparative look of the three sets of recommendations contained in the report:

Sounding the alarm

One of the main questions relates to the alert system created more than a decade ago, part of the International Health Regulations (IHR): a set of binding legal obligations for the 194 WHO Member States that define rights and obligations, notably the obligation to report public health events.  

By establishing these requirements, WHO thought the system would have been enough to force countries to monitor and report outbreaks and to share the threat level with the world.  The hope was also that in fully implementing the IHRs, countries would be equipped to respond to a pandemic.

The report by the Review Committee on the Functioning of the International Health Regulations sought to answer key questions relating to their functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as what did and did not work in their implementation and whether the shortcomings were due solely to a lack of proper implementation of the IHR, or whether the issues also lay in the IHR themselves. The answer is both.

The Review Committee has thus presented forty recommendations to optimize the way the WHO and the IHR work. The recommendations call for a more transparent decision-making process for convening an Emergency Committee when having to declare a “public emergency of international concern.”

But the most salient proposal is to abandon the requirement for a consensus to be reached before an emergency is declared and move to a “scale system” to allow for an alert to be sounded, even if a full emergency is not declared.

The proposal is not new. Before the pandemic, countries in Africa had circulated the idea. But when COVID-19 arrived, it exposed the failures of the mechanism. On January 22, 2020, the emergency committee called by the WHO to evaluate the case did not reach a consensus on whether the event was an international threat.

It was only eight days later that, in a new meeting, the emergency was declared. During those eight days, the virus travelled the world.

Now, the review wants new paths to be explored. For events that may not meet the criteria for a public health emergency of international concern but may nonetheless require an urgent escalated public health response, WHO should actively alert the global community. It calls for the creation of a new World Alert and Response Notice (WARN) system to prevent an event from developing into a global crisis.

In addition, more power and independence should be given to the WHO. When the allegedly affected State Party does not respond to WHO’s verification request concerning a possible outbreak, then WHO should provide information about the event. Once a year, WHO would also report how governments have complied with the implementation of the regulations including instances of sharing unverified information.

The Review Committee also suggested WHO should develop a mechanism for governments to automatically share real-time emergency information, including genomic sequencing.

Full transparency, by all

Broader powers and independence were also recommended by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. In its report, it recommends the establishment of “a new global system for surveillance based on full transparency.”

“This system would provide the WHO with the authority to publish information about outbreaks with pandemic potential on an immediate basis without needing to seek approval and to dispatch experts to investigate at the shortest possible notice,” it claims.  

It also recommends governments to transform the current ACT-A into a truly global platform aimed at delivering global public goods including vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and supplies that can be distributed swiftly and equitably worldwide. The proposal, if implemented, would also place WHO at the center of any response to a pandemic or outbreak, shifting from a market-driven model to one aimed at delivering global public goods.

The Panel recommended that the WHO D-G and the regional directors' mandate be limited to one seven years term only.

Finally, countries should also adopt a Pandemic Framework Convention within the next six months, in order to create the necessary legal base for the future health system.

“Our message is simple and clear: the current system failed to protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the Panel Co-Chair and former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  “And if we do not act to change it now, it will not protect us from the next pandemic threat, which could happen at any time,” she claimed.

“The shelves of storage rooms in the UN and national capitals are full of reports and reviews of previous health crises. Had their warnings been heeded, we would have avoided the catastrophe we are in today. This time must be different,” Sirleaf concludes.

Financial independence

At least two different evaluation committees pointed out how none of this independence can be guaranteed if governments are not willing to strengthen the authority and financing of the WHO. According to the Panel, one of the suggestions is to create a new funding model to end earmarked funds and to increase Member State fees.  

It also suggests the creation of an International Pandemic Financing Facility, which would have the capacity to mobilize long term (10-15 year) contributions of approximately US$5-10 billion per year to finance ongoing readiness.

The financial independence of the WHO was also an issue raised by the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.

“The predictability and sustainability of funding for the WHE Programme must be improved through an increase in assessed contributions, non-specified multiyear funding arrangements for core voluntary contributions and a wider donor base,” it claimed in its final report, also to be delivered at the WHA.

It recommends an “increased proportion of WHO core flexible funding be allocated to the WHE Programme.”

“In the longer term, further discussions should take place among Member States to review whether WHO is equipped with the strategic capacity to support country preparedness and response and whether WHO’s funding is adequate for the WHE Programme to lead multidimensional and large-scale emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside the increasing number of graded emergencies that it routinely manages,” it concludes.

According to the Independent Oversight Committee, “WHO’s capacity and ability to handle a global pandemic has been severely tested.” But it remains to be seen what institution will emerge from the pandemic.


Elsewhere in the ecosystem

The G|O hears that selection of a new Secretary-General for the Geneva-based UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is entering the home stretch. Well-informed senior UN diplomatic sources say interviews with seven candidates have already been conducted. The smart money is that the successful nominee to secure the post could emerge from the field of female candidates seeking the post, with Maria Fernanda Espinosa, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador, and President of the 73rd UN General Assembly (2018) and a former ambassador to the UN in Geneva and in New York; and Rebecca Grynspan, a former Vice President of Costa Rica and a former associate administrator at the UNDP, and currently Secretary-General of the Ibero-American secretariat, as strong contenders. Espinosa, garners support from the G77 -she is a former chair of the G77, and Grynspan is favored by donor countries.

The last UNCTAD chief Mikhisa Kituyi, a Kenyan national, stepped down from his in post-mid-February to run for President in his country, and his predecessor  Supachai Panitchpakdi was a national of Thailand. So after Africa and Asia at the helm, it's the turn of Latin America, again,  diplomats said.

Rubens Ricupero from Brazil was the last UNCTAD secretary-general appointed from Latin America to head the agency. The fact that Costa Rica recently secured a deputy director-general post at the WTO  (Anabel González) could prove a hurdle for the well-connected Grynspan. Other candidates interviewed by the six-member panel for the UNCTAD post included a highly regarded economist, and a former senior UN official from Colombia, two ambassadors from Panama, and Uruguay, respectively,  a former Minister from Bolivia, and a former female Vice-President from Peru. The UN chief is keen to nominate a female for the slot, sources say, to deliver on his gender balance promise- to make 8 major senior female appointments during his first term. So far he has made seven.

The same sources say that a shortlist of 2-3 names is to be presented to the UN Secretary-General. The successful nominee's name will then be forwarded by the UNSG to the UN General Assembly for approval.


Biden's Foreign Policy Needs a Course Correction

By Charles Kupchan*

As US President Joe Biden contemplates course corrections after his first months in office, one change seems especially worthy of consideration: a shift to a more pragmatic, less ideological foreign policy.

So far, Biden has centered his statecraft on the clash between democracy and autocracy. In his address to Congress late last month, he identified the country’s adversaries as “the autocrats of the world,” vowing that they “will not win the future. We will. America will.” Envisaging a twenty-first-century “battle between the utility of democracies … and autocracies,” Biden has called for a global “Summit for Democracy” to mobilize likeminded countries against illiberal challengers.

This approach may help rally Americans around the flag, but it is a strategic mistake. America’s relations with both China and Russia have tanked since Biden took office. China has rattled sabers over Taiwan. Chinese and US officials spar in public. Russia has issued new military threats against Ukraine. The United States and the Kremlin exchange sanctions and expel each other’s diplomats.

Given their differing interests, significant tension in US-Chinese and US-Russian relations is inevitable. But the recent escalation of hostility raises the risk of a nasty diplomatic rupture or worse, and blocks necessary cooperation on shared challenges such as climate change, global health, nuclear proliferation, and the management of an interdependent world economy.

It will be very difficult for the US to collaborate with China and Russia on virtually any issue if US grand strategy focuses on taking down illiberal powers. Instead of launching ideological salvos, the Biden administration should devise calibrated responses to the discrete threats posed by China and Russia while also pursuing pragmatic teamwork with them.

With respect to China, the US and its allies should push back against its unfair trade practices, repatriate critical supply chains and maintain an edge in key technological domains, and counter growing Chinese military capabilities. On Russia, the goal should be to check and sanction the Kremlin’s military expansionism, cyberattacks, and interference in foreign elections. And, more broadly, all democracies should denounce violations of political and human rights wherever they occur.

But in a world that is irreversibly globalized and interdependent, confronting clear and present dangers should not entail drawing a new ideological fault line. Even if containment worked against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, a with-us-or-against-us strategy will not deliver the same results today. With an economy that topped out at roughly three-fifths the size of that of the US, the Soviet Union never came close to developing the wherewithal to outpace its democratic challengers. Its sclerotic socialism and coercive alliances crippled its economy and weakened its global appeal.

It’s not so with China, whose GDP will soon surpass and then far exceed that of the US. With its competent top-down political and economic governance, technological prowess, sizeable foreign investment, and ambitious diplomatic outreach (including large-scale exports of its own COVID-19 vaccine), China already enjoys substantial global sway. There is no going back to the decoupled, two-bloc global order of the Cold War.

In this emerging world, democratic governance will still retain its intrinsic advantage: humans prefer freedom. But for the first time since its emergence as a global power in the 1940s, the US now faces in China a full-spectrum competitor. And because the US needs China’s help to rein in North Korea, arrest global warming, and tackle other transnational issues, it had better start mapping out a strategy that is not just about “us versus them.”

Premising US policy on a clash between democracy and autocracy would not just fail to contain China. Worse, it would actually encourage China’s recalcitrance by consolidating its unholy alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. China and Russia have been rivals historically, and China’s rise should naturally alarm the Kremlin. But the two autocracies have instead formed a marriage of convenience to resist what they see as the West’s encroaching ambition.

Rather than pushing Russia and China together, the US should wean Russia off its cozy alignment with China. Just as the US reached out to China in the 1970s to weaken the communist bloc, Biden and his European allies should try to lure Russia westward. Biden’s expressed openness to a summer meeting with Putin is a step in the right direction. Though finding common ground will not be easy, the US has an impressive record of working with unsavory regimes when it chooses to do so.

Should Biden continue to circle the ideological wagons, he also risks weakening, rather than strengthening, solidarity among the world’s democracies. After all, it is not as though America’s European and Asian partners are spoiling for a fight with China. This past December, the European Union finalized an investment treaty with China, despite the incoming Biden administration’s objections (though ratification by the European Parliament remains uncertain). Similarly, South Korea, Japan, and other Asian democracies in China’s neighborhood are not interested in a blustery confrontation. Biden would be wise not to force US allies to make stark choices.

America’s own founders counseled patience and restraint in foreign policy. The US has long been able to rely on the power of its example to bring other countries into the democratic fold. It should now return to this long game. The best way for democracies to spread their values is to get their own houses in order, so that they can ultimately prevail against illiberal powers by outperforming them. The US and its democratic allies should continue to face down the threats posed by autocracies; but they must also reserve a place for cooperation on global challenges.


Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

© Project Syndicate, 2022.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - John Zarocostas

Guest essay: Charles Kupchan

Edited by: Paige Holt