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Donald Trump quits WHO, but will he take the US with him?

Updated: Oct 23

June 3, 2020

The Geneva Observer


This article is the longer version of our newsletter briefing sent out on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Sign up to our newsletter to get our content a day early and straight into your inbox.


US President Donald Trump seems to have actually made good on a threat, announcing to the media last Friday that he was halting US funding and withdrawing the US from WHO over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Coming just 11 days after giving WHO a 30-day ultimatum to commit to unspecified “major substantive improvements”, Trump’s announcement makes us wonder whether he was ever that serious about WHO reform after all ...

US President Trump announces the termination of relations with WHO © White House Photo

The news, greeted with dismay around the world, was also tempered by US legal experts who stated that the President did not have the constitutional power to withdraw the US unilaterally, and that he needed congressional approval to do so—under Federal law, there must also be a year’s notice, and the US would have to pay its dues.

Dr. Tedros stated yesterday (Monday, 1 June 2020) during the regular WHO press conference that the WHO hadn’t heard officially from the US and that all they had heard was the announcement to the media on Friday. This would tend to confirm the ad-hoc, a-legal nature of Trump’s pronouncements.

That’s not to say Trump’s statement is inconsequential. The President’s decision, if acted upon, could, in practice, halt US funding for WHO until the situation is straightened out in the US Courts. It also raises a number of questions about what will happen to the US officials and US Center for Disease Control (CDC) employees stationed at WHO, as well as the US relationship with the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO).

For the moment, WHO seems to be adopting a conciliatory tone with the US, if not necessarily its President. Dr. Tedros readout:

“The world has long benefited from the strong collaborative engagement with the Government and the people of the United States. The US Government’s and its people’s contribution and generosity towards global health over many decades has been immense, and it has made a great difference in public health all around the world. It is WHO’s wish for this collaboration to continue.”

Caught up in a geopolitical fight that goes beyond WHO and the virus, Dr. Tedros almost added: “No more questions on this, please ..."

For the US’ part, this episode is just another installment in its long and tumultuous relationship with multilateralism—a relationship that began with the US being instrumental in setting up the League of Nations before deciding not to join it, and which has to tread a very ‘will they won’t they’ path throughout the ensuing century. It would not be the first country to leave WHO (the USSR and its allies left between 1949 and 1956), ironically though, it would be the first to leave over a lack of US influence …

As with the waves of unrest breaking across the US, the way we think about this moment will inevitably be conditioned by the outcome of the US election in November. Is this a blip in the US’ “contribution and generosity towards global health” from which “the world has long benefited” (Dr. Tedros’ words, not ours), or will it mark a deepening rift with the multilateral order? WHO will hope it’s the former.