Tuesday, May 19, 2020

J'Accuse: President Trump's Letter to WHO Threatening De-Funding

The 73rd World Health Assembly has provided a venue in which the increasingly intense battle between the United States and China over the accounting for the pandemic--and the responsibility for its consequences--has been on view.  The Chinese position was delivered virtually in a speech delivered by President Xi Jinping (discussed HERE).  The American position was just delivered by the President of the United States, Donald Trump, via letter, the announcement of which was made via Tweet.  The global press and chattering cliques have misinterpreted both (e.g., here, here, and here). 
The president shared a four page letter written to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to Twitter, saying the organization needs to make 'major substantive improvements within the next 30 days' for US funding to continue. He wrote: 'If the WHO does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the WHO permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization.'* * * Trump suspended U.S. contributions to the WHO last month, accusing it of promoting China's 'disinformation' about the coronavirus outbreak, although WHO officials denied the accusation and China said it was transparent and open. (Donald Trump threatens to permanently pull $400M in WHO funding from the US unless it makes 'major substantive improvements within 30 days' as China offers $2bn virus aid)
This post includes the TEXT of President Trump's letter (also available in transcript form, see Hindustan Times), elaborating the the US position with respect to the World Health Organization (WHO), and some brief reflections of how that response can be understood in the context of the de-coupling of the United States and China as both strive to develop the structures and ideological framework of the new imperial post-global order. 

The de-coupling of the two principal imperial centers continues at a swifter pace, propelled by the opportunities that the COVID-19 pandemic provides. The de-coupling affects the control of production chains and vlue adding economic activity.  But it does not mean separation.  With de-coupling will come a larger and potentially more intense mutual investment at the retail level (e.g., Neither Coronavirus Nor Trade Tensions Can Stop U.S. Companies’ Push Into China ; "Global Supply Chains, Forced Labor, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region"; The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), Economic Decoupling, and Supply Chains in the Shadow of COVID-19).

While de-coupling reporting has mostly focused on its effects on the structures of global production (and the control of these chains of managing global productive forces), a significant second front in this de-coupling process was opened a year so so ago within the "territory" of the international organizations established around the United Nations system.  That system, ironically enough, created after 1945 to bring the community of nations together as a more or less coordinated whole, is now also a sight of de-coupling.  The object, though, is different from the economic territory building (these are., of course, abstracted territories) of the Chinese and American imperial orders. Within the "lands" peopled by the community of states, the de-coupling is increasingly marked by efforts to control the mechanisms of such organizations so that they might be more efficiently used as instruments of imperial power.  The object is to embed international organizations within the framework of the hub and spoke model of power organization that marks the post-global imperial governance style.

This is hardly new--and indeed, the issue is one as old as the construction of the United Nations system itself.  What makes it more potent, now, is that the objectives of control are now bent to a different set of objectives.   And it has produced something of a set of new alignments among states.  As the Americans and Chinese more more aggressively to instrumentalize the international sector, the Europeans, and emerging regional powers (e.g., India now, Brazil, South Africa, Iran and Nigeria when they are able) have become more committed to saving something of the post 1945 ideal of the international system in form if not always in operation. And, indeed, for them, the preservation of the post 1945 international system may serve as the best means of protecting their own interests against the imperial ambitions of the Americans and the Chinese.

All of this has been much in evidence in the shadow of pandemic (China, Trump Square Off Over Coronavirus Response ).  The battles over the World Health Organization, its handling of the pandemic, and the mechanisms of accountability, responsibility, and remedial obligation, provides a quite clear window onto the deeper changes that pandemic is now acceleration.   The stage on which the latest skirmishes in this de-coupling process are being played is the 73rd World Health Assembly.

The Chinese position has already been quite clearly expressed on the international stage (习近平 团结合作战胜疫情 共同构建人类卫生健康共同体 [Xi Jinping, "Unity and cooperation to overcome the epidemic Work together to build a human health community"] 在第73届世界卫生大会视频会议开幕式上的致辞 [Speech at the opening ceremony of the video conference of the 73rd World Health Assembly] ), and against those of its enemies it is capable of striking against with manageable collateral consequences (Australia threatens China with WTO challenge over barley tariffs). The Chinese sought, quite elegantly, to elaborate their vision for a New Era foundation for international relations, and a hub and spoke model of an international system, whose hub would shift from New York and Geneva to Beijing. Fair enough.

Now it is the turn of the Americans to elaborate their position. That position was not announced in a speech delivered to the good people assembled (virtually) at the WHO Health Assembly (and for good political reason--that might have been interpreted as an imitation of their Chinese rivals). Instead, as  is the practice of the Trump Administration, the American counter-thrust was announced by the President in a Tweet.

The Tweet, in turn, drew attention to a 4 page letter sent to WHO in which the American position was elaborated.  True to the discursive style of this administration, the letter was written in the manner of merchants. The WHO has not been delivering value for money. It has not advanced American interests (whether or not aligned with those of the rest of the community of states).  And, indeed, American investment has been diverted to serve the interest of rivals.  Worse, by serving the interests of others.
Speaking to the reporters at the White House earlier, Trump called the UN health body a ‘puppet’ of China. “They (WHO) are a puppet of China. They’re China-centric, to put it nicer. But they’re a puppet of China,” Trump said. “I think they have done a very sad job. The United States pays them US $450 million a year. China pays them US $38 million a year,” Trump said in response to a question. (Trump gives a 30-day ultimatum to WHO chief, says improve or will pull out).
It follows, then, that American investment has been used to fund actions that were not just deceitful, but which caused loss to the United States and the rest of the world (and here is the alignment between US and global interests). As a consequence, the United States would treat the WHO as having breached its contract with the United States (and the world community); and that, as an instrumentality of another state payment to WHO would constitute a direct subsidy of another State ("I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organization that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving American’s interests" (Trump Letter).  As a consequence, the United States was free to withhold payment; and to seek remedy for its losses against the party who ought to be held to account for its losses.   

At the same time, the letter also served to carefully craft a counter timeline.  This was an important element of the letter--to produce a counter narrative to the time line that the Chinese authorities had created and were widely circulating (e.g., Fact Check: China's Official Coronavirus Timeline Starts Out Weeks Too Late), as well as the official WHO timeline. The American timeline served a purpose similar to that of the Chinese timeline, and supplements those put out by Western media (e.g., Business Insider).  But its greater purpose was to help make the case for accountability, and ultimately for shifting responsibility for the pandemic onto China. More importantly, it was designed to make the case that WHO has become effectively the alter ego of China ("It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world. The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China." Trump Letter), and as such, might also bear the same responsibility for the damage caused by its actions relating to the pandemic.

The Chinese response was, not unexpected, to treat the American action as a smear campaign directed against China (China accuses US of coronavirus smear campaign: Live updates; Trump threatens to permanently cut WHO funding and withdraw U.S. membership ("Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry, said Trump's letter was "smearing and slandering China’s efforts in epidemic prevention and to shift responsibility in its own incompetence in handling the epidemic."")). The response was interesting in the sense that it also appeared to suggest that the WHO was merely an instrument or rather a space within which the contests between the United States and China would be played out.  The issue is not about WHO, as such; it is about which of the two imperial camps control WHO, and the ends to which that camp seeks to use that institution as an instrument of its own objectives.  

At the same time, the two positions, that of the Chinese and that of the Americans, present a brilliant symmetry. Each reveals the essence of the ideological basis for action of these two empires; each reveals quite distinct visions for the re-shaping of the global order around their respective interests. Each represents a variation of the fundamental realignment of global governance orders from one based on the ideal of horizontal equality among states joined together through a complex interweaving of legality and administration--of law and bureaucracy above or beyond the state.  But those variations share a fundamental commonality--the premise that the international order must be re-ordered on the basis of the mutually beneficial relationships between hub states (the United States and China; perhaps the Europeans), and spoke entities (states embedded within hub controlled production chains and the great private institutions and civil society). For China that involves the great project of mutually beneficial cooperation; for the United States it involves the great project of mutually advantageous relationships.  Both can be expressed bilaterally and multilaterally. Those direct multilateral organs of hub and spoke authority might be illustrated of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for the United States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for China; and more generally through the international organs established after 1945.  There will be lots of multilateralism, but the shift to the post global imperial model will change its form and focus. One of the most direct manifestations of this change is the shift to a model of accountability at the heart of the Chinese-US disputes around WHO and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It is worth taking a moment, though, to note a most telling part of this stage of imperial decoupling, however, may have very little to do with the actions of the two empires as they move with increasing speed to define themselves against the other.  Rather it is the pathos of the Western media and the "influencer" cliques in academia and policymaking circles who appear, almost aggressively, to be unable to read and understand sophisticated Chinese statements on policy and ideology.  Perhaps there is more to it than that.  Perhaps fueled by what has emerged as a class dislike for Mr. Trump as a person, and his group, as a ruling clique, these elements of deliberately chosen to use Chinese positions against the Americans in their own personal and internal battles against the American President. It is one thing to have deep disagreements with policy, and also still quite acceptable in the West to announce a deep personal antipathy to national leaders (elected or otherwise).  It is quite another, however, to let either or both of these impulses to then produce a cult of ignorance of the sort displayed here.

The Text of the Letter Follows:

Dear Dr. Tedros:

On April 14, 2020, I suspended United States contributions to the World Health Organization pending an investigation by my Administration of the organization’s failed response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This review has confirmed many of the serious concerns I raised last month and identified others that the World Health Organization should have addressed, especially the World Health Organization’s alarming lack of independence from the People’s Republic of China. Based on this review, we now know the following:

•The World Health Organization consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal. The World Health Organization failed to independently investigate credible reports that conflicted directly with the Chinese government’s official accounts, even those that came from sources within Wuhan itself.

• By no later than December 30, 2019, the World Health Organization office in Beijing knew that there was a “major public health” concern in Wuhan. Between December 26 and December 30, China’s media highlighted evidence of a new virus emerging from Wuhan, based on patient data sent to multiple Chinese genomics companies. Additionally, during this period, Dr. Zhang Jixian, a doctor from Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, told China’s health authorities that a new coronavirus was causing a novel disease that was, at the time, afflicting approximately 180 patients.

• By the next day, Taiwanese authorities had communicated information to the World Health Organization indicating human-to-human transmission of a new virus. Yet the World Health Organization chose not to share any of this critical information with the rest of the world, probably for political reasons.

• The International Health Regulations require countries to report the risk of a health emergency within 24 hours. But China did not inform the World Health Organization of Wuhan’s several cases of pneumonia, of unknown origin, until December 31, 2019, even though it likely had knowledge of these cases days or weeks earlier.

• According to Dr. Zhang Yongzhen of the Shanghai Public Health Clinic Center, he told Chinese authorities on January 5, 2020, that he had sequenced the genome of the virus. There was no publication of this information until six days later, on January 11, 2020, when Dr. Zhang self-posted it online. The next day, Chinese authorities closed his lab for “rectification.” As even the World Health Organization acknowledged, Dr. Zhang’s posting was a great act of “transparency.” But the World Health Organization has been conspicuously silent both with respect to the closure of Dr. Zhang’s lab and his assertion that he had notified Chinese authorities of his breakthrough six days earlier.

• The World Health Organization has repeatedly made claims about the coronavirus that were either grossly inaccurate or misleading.

- On January 14, 2020, the World Health Organization gratuitously reaffirmed China’s now-debunked claim that the coronavirus could not be transmitted between humans, stating: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCov) identified in Wuhan, China.” This assertion was in direct conflict with censored reports from Wuhan.

- On January 21, 2020, President Xi Jinping of China reportedly pressured you not to declare the coronavirus outbreak an emergency. You gave in to this pressure the next day and told the world that the coronavirus did not pose a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Just over one week later, on January 30, 2020, overwhelming evidence to the contrary forced you to reverse course.

- On January 28, 2020, after meeting with President Xi in Beijing, you praised the Chinese government for its “transparency” with respect to the coronavirus, announcing that China had set a “new standard for outbreak control” and “bought the world time.” You did not mention that China had, by then, silenced or punished several doctors for speaking out about the virus and restricted Chinese institutions from publishing information about it.

• Even after you belatedly declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, 2020, you failed to press China for the timely admittance of a World Health Organization team of international medical experts. As a result, this critical team did not arrive in China until two weeks later, on February 16, 2020. And even then, the team was not allowed to visit Wuhan until the final days of their visit. Remarkably, the World Health Organization was silent when China denied the two American members of the team access to Wuhan entirely.

• You also strongly praised China’s strict domestic travel restrictions, but were inexplicably against my closing of the United States border, or the ban, with respect to people coming from China. I put the ban in place regardless of your wishes. Your political gamesmanship on this issue was deadly, as other governments, relying on your comments, delayed imposing life-saving restrictions on travel to and from China. Incredibly, on February 3, 2020, you reinforced your position, opining that because China was doing such a great job protecting the world from the virus, travel restrictions were “causing more harm than good.” Yet by then the world knew that, before locking down Wuhan, Chinese authorities had allowed more than five million people to leave the city and that many of these people were bound for international destinations all over the world.

• As of February 3, 2020, China was strongly pressuring countries to lift or forestall travel restrictions. This pressure campaign was bolstered by your incorrect statements on that day telling the world that the spread of the virus outside of China was “minimal and slow” and that “the chances of getting this going to anywhere outside China [were] very low.”

• On March 3, 2020, the World Health Organization cited official Chinese data to downplay the very serious risk of asymptomatic spread, telling the world that “COVID-19 does not transmit as efficiently as influenza” and that unlike influenza this disease was not primarily driven by “people who are infected but not yet sick.” China’s evidence, the World Health Organization told the world, “showed that only one percent of reported cases do not have symptoms, and most of those cases develop symptoms within two days.” Many experts, however, citing data from Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere, vigorously questioned these assertions. It is now clear that China’s assertions, repeated to the world by the World Health Organization, were wildly inaccurate.

• By the time you finally declared the virus a pandemic on March 11, 2020, it had killed more than 4,000 people and infected more than 100,000 people in at least 114 countries around the world.

• On April 11, 2020, several African Ambassadors wrote to the Chinese Foreign Ministry about the discriminatory treatment of Africans related to the pandemic in Guangzhou and other cities in China. You were aware that Chinese authorities were carrying out a campaign of forced quarantines, evictions, and refusal of services against the nationals of these countries. You have not commented on China’s racially discriminatory actions. You have, however, baselessly labeled as racist Taiwan’s well-founded complaints about your mishandling of this pandemic.

• Throughout this crisis, the World Health Organization has been curiously insistent on praising China for its alleged “transparency.” You have consistently joined in these tributes, notwithstanding that China has been anything but transparent. In early January, for example, China ordered samples of the virus to be destroyed, depriving the world of critical information. Even now, China continues to undermine the International Health Regulations by refusing to share accurate and timely data, viral samples and isolates, and by withholding vital information about the virus and its origins. And, to this day, China continues to deny international access to their scientists and relevant facilities, all while casting blame widely and recklessly and censoring its own experts.

• The World Health Organization has failed to publicly call on China to allow for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, despite the recent endorsement for doing so by its own Emergency Committee. The World Health Organization’s failure to do so has prompted World Health Organization member states to adopt the “COVID-19 Response” Resolution at this year’s World Health Assembly, which echoes the call by the United States and so many others for an impartial, independent, and comprehensive review of how the World Health Organization handled the crisis. The resolution also calls for an investigation into the origins of the virus, which is necessary for the world to understand how best to counter the disease.

Perhaps worse than all these failings is that we know that the World Health Organization could have done so much better. Just a few years ago, under the direction of a different Director-General, the World Health Organization showed the world how much it has to offer. In 2003, in response to the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China, Director-General Harlem Brundtland boldly declared the World Health Organization’s first emergency travel advisory in 55 years, recommending against travel to and from the disease epicenter in southern China. She also did not hesitate to criticize China for endangering global health by attempting to cover up the outbreak through its usual playbook of arresting whistleblowers and censoring media. Many lives could have been saved had you followed Dr. Brundtland’s example.

It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world. The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China. My Administration has already started discussions with you on how to reform the organization. But action is needed quickly. We do not have time to waste. That is why it is my duty, as President of the United States, to inform you that, if the World Health Organization does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization. I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organization that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving America’s interests.

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