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A "Not-so-Sleepy" President-elect reengages with WHO

The Geneva Observer

November 11, 2020


This article was first published as part of our newsletter briefing sent out on Tuesday November 10 2020. Sign up to our newsletter to get our content the moment it's published, straight in your inbox.

Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, fixing the economy, addressing systemic racism and fighting climate change; all the while restoring American leadership.” The agenda set by Joe Biden means a gradual reengagement with International Geneva that will mirror those priorities. Given this desire, as well as the emphasis on the coronavirus crisis, The G|O is hearing that the appointment of the Ambassador to the UN in Geneva could be high profile. As we report today, WHO is already a high priority, while big trade issues won’t make the cut for the first 100-days’ agenda. Even those voices in Washington most critical of the Trump’s administration trade wars and tariffs agree that trade issues should be tackled only after the economic stimulus package has been passed.

For International Geneva, Biden’s victory in the US election is seen as an opportunity to kick multilateralism back on track. And although we did not notice any particular outpouring of emotion onto the streets—diplomats are not known for this—the sense of emotional release was nevertheless palpable on the shores of Lake Geneva. While the legal wrangling in the US election results carries on, it was clear that the UN system was ready to try and capitalise on the moment, stressing their rapprochement with a future Biden administration. Guterres congratulated “the President-elect and Vice President-elect”, hailing the UN-US partnership as “an essential pillar of the international cooperation needed to address the dramatic challenges facing the world today.” UNHCR’s head similarly stated that “US leadership” was “more crucial than ever for the world’s most vulnerable.” The head of the IOM tweeted their congratulations saying that they “look forward to working with your administration on managing migration for the benefit of all.” UNESCO’s D-G called for “a renewed commitment from the United States” to face today’s global challenges.

As WHO resumed its World Health Assembly this Monday—out of quarantine—D-G Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus was making a similar move in his opening statement:

“We must be honest: we can only realise the full power and potential of the SDGs if the international community urgently recaptures the sense of common purpose that gave birth to them. In that spirit, we congratulate President Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris and we look forward to working with their administration very closely. We need to reimagine leadership, built on mutual trust and mutual accountability—to end the pandemic and address the fundamental inequalities that lie at the root of so many of the world’s problems.”

Joe Biden's team has already circulated amongst the agency a plan to lead what would be a broad response to the pandemic in the world. The goal is set out clearly: "To ally” the world in order to confront the crisis while establishing a foundation for the future. Biden's action is not just for international solidarity. The perception is that American leadership can only be rebuilt in the world if the country reengages in global issues. The project is seen within the agency as a critical bailout, just as the pandemic is gathering strength again and threatening to bring the global economy to its knees. But while the change in the US government's stance is applauded, sources within WHO admit that the process for the US to retake leadership of the global response is far from assured and fraught with new challenges.

Three points were highlighted by diplomats and negotiators: 1. On a geopolitical level, the world is simply not the same as when Obama took over the US government in 2008, or even when he was re-elected in 2012. Xi Jinping has taken China on an authoritarian expansionist path. Moscow is unwilling to give up its influence abroad. The EU has also stepped up to fill the space vacated by the US and is unlikely to give it up readily. So, Biden will have a long way to go to rebuild US credibility. 2. In direct relation with WHO, for dozens of developing countries, access to a vaccine is an unresolved issue and health will still need to be treated with a human rights approach. Led by South Africa and India, the emerging bloc wants assurances that patent regulations will not be employed as obstacles to access to vaccines and medicines. Biden's plans, however, make no reference to any sort of intellectual property exceptions for vaccines. Security considerations and a voluntary approach is still maintained by Washington. 3. There is no sign at the moment that China is willing to guarantee broad access to its territory for international missions.

Despite real obstacles to its implementation, the Biden Plan still represents, as some sources told The G|O, a “major shift” in the US position regarding the health crisis. By explicitly stating the need to tackle the pandemic everywhere on the planet, the plan would trigger the major US agencies and even the State Department to mobilise an “international response” to help vulnerable countries, including by sending American missions to those countries. In providing for the "immediate establishment" of a Global Emergency Board to harmonise the response to the crisis—led by the US, G7 partners and other groups nominally to "support the WHO”—the plan would also attempt to give American diplomacy a central role in “global decisions about the outbreak.” Whether WHO wholeheartedly welcomes the creation of a new body that would probably take from their current role remains to be seen.