US-based political analyst Don Debar reflects on the latest US moves towards China and the WHO amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Sputnik: US President Donald Trump has shared a letter in his Twitter account in which he threatened to make the WHO funding freeze permanent and "reconsider our membership" in the organisation if the agency "does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days". How likely is it that the US will permanently freeze its funding to WHO?
Don Debar: It's quite possible that they will not just freeze it, even roll it back. You know, there are several things at play around this question. First is that Trump's base, the core Republican voters have always had an antipathy towards the United Nations and, you know, the institutions of the United Nations, the World Health Organization is, of course, you know, one of the children of the United Nations. And even back in the 50s, they loved candidates that were running on the Republican Party platform, (calling for the White House to) get the U.S. out of the U.N. and the U.N. out of the U.S.
So there is a latent sentiment in that direction that he's playing to the base on. And so you have to take with that grain of salt - him saying this is an opportunity for him to do some U.N. bashing in coded language to some core part of his constituency, the Republican Party constituency.
But that said, this also comes in the midst of his ongoing trade dispute. You know, the renegotiation essentially of the economic relations between the United States and China. And that's been a project of the Trump administration's, you know, from the beginning. They announce they were going to do. The trade situation was unfavourable to the United States, that the employment situation was completely destroyed in the United States and this was all going to be remedied with hard negotiations with China.
Well, you know, this virus epidemic or a pandemic has provided a perfect opportunity for him to China bash that he’s taken full advantage of. When he's taking full advantage of, he's blaming this entire megillah on China, on their being secretive, on their being incompetent, on just how you should have been played better with us. And so as he's having negotiations with China saying, I want you to drop this tariff and, you know, renegotiate that. He's also screaming in the public sphere, you know, things that China would probably prefer, he said. Right. Look, I'll go. What do you want us to stop? What do you want? What do you want? No, this a negotiation tactic. And it's that's got to be looked at in that context as well.
Now, this was the World Health Organization itself goes. It was a journalist, for example, an international journalist knows that the U.N.'s. It may be the best organization of its kind available right now, but it is far from ideal or perfect.
And certainly its governance and operation are a reflection of various power of various elites around the world and particularly Western imperialism, United States. If you deal with the media operation at the UN as I know you do and I do. You know that a speech by the foreign Minister of Iran at a U.N. Security Council meeting. Even if he does it in English, which he's done plenty of times, it will not appear in the media, for a download that afternoon or that news cycle or for 10 days, if ever, whereas the slightest utterance from whichever knucklehead the United States has as a permanent representative at the time, will go out exactly like that.
And Trump mentions this in a way at his press conference yesterday saying, you know, the United States spends $450 million towards the WHO budget. And China spends $40 million towards their budget, maybe i’ll cut this back. We're talking about being way out of scale in terms of operations.
Now if they're not responding to what Trump wants, however, we have to understand that Trump's power - and elite and state power of the United States - are not the same. People that are in the operating elite, of the officer class, or whatever, at the United Nations, the officials, those are people that are there as part of what they call the deep state. Those are people that were appointed over the years, part of a permanent bureaucracy. They are vetted through the EU, through Congress, through State Department, through the World Bank, through IMF, all these different institutions.
And so it's quite possible that although the WHO was not doing what Trump would like, it doesn't necessarily mean it is doing the right thing either. It may well be being used or he perceives it as being used as just another agent of the people that would like to get him out of office.
(For example) “I would like to point out basically, you know, what, this insight we found today this entire disease came off of a culture from a napkin that was found in that hotel room from Trump's dossier. And that's the original source. And then they dropped that off in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown in New York when Trump was still living in New York. And that's where this disease came from, it’s Trump's fault.”
And there are some folks probably trying to figure out that kind of a narrative or that angle and there they are because they were put there by the Clinton or Bush or, you know, some other person over the years.
So the point is still down to this one. People have to not look at the World Health Organization as if it's an honest broker. This is not this is a self-interested group like any other and is very closely aligned with the elites of Western Europe, the United States and Japan.
Secondly, Trump has to pitch this whole feud with international institutions to his base. And there's an element of that going on in there.
And finally I think that we have to also consider the possibility that whatever is happening, we're going to have to construct something entirely different to respond in the future, because no matter pointing the finger at anyone, everyone has failed thus far.
This is the 21st century. So some virus that appears either in cattle in Omaha or somewhere in room on China or wherever it came from, should not spread around the world and bring death with it without us having at least enough masks and ventilators to deal with the outcome, let alone a responsive health care system that could identify this and give us in the 21st century already vaccines and whatever solutions there are in biology because they're there. And if we don't have them yet, it's because we've been spending money on missiles and bombs and wars instead of medicine.
Sputnik: How reasonable is it to leave WHO during a critical global pandemic? How timely is this measure?
Don Debar: Well, having a feud with the World Health Organization at a different time would mean nothing. There'd be no attention paid to it. So in a way, as you know, counterintuitive as it seems, this is exactly the time to have this conversation because people are paying attention to it. And again, one has to consider not just who do people think the World Health Organization is, but what, in fact, is the World Health Organization.
Now, there was a very interesting discussion of some of these points that President Xi Jinping had on Monday at the opening of the World Health Assembly. And I suggest that people take a listen to that – it’s from 10 to 15 minutes long. And he detailed a lot of this. But now we have to we have to we should be looking at not just, you know, how is this good or bad to be doing this to the WHO right now. But what is it that we lack that we need to get? There's a larger question. So, you know, either we enhance the World Health Organization, that's fine. If we correct some of the problems or you know, or we scrap it, that's fine, too, if we put something else there. But we need to have infrastructure to deal with these kinds of things and it has to work better than this has worked so far.
Sputnik: What role does the United States play in WHO as a whole? If they come out in the end, how will this affect the organisation?
Don Debar: This is more like a business management question. If the United States is in World Health Organization, OK, and the United States is outside of World Health Organization and everything else is a constant. That's one question. And but, of course, that's not how things work in the real world. There are some functions that are performed by or through or in coordination with or under the supervision of the World Health Organization. That is possible because of the $450 million a year or whatever it is that the United States contributes to.
Presumably, if the U.S. pulled out of that, that money would no longer be available. OK. Well, that been some of those things will no longer be performed by or with the WHO. Are they things that need to be performed. What would be doing it instead? What structures would arise. You know, instead, what other regrouping is of existing structures? How would people divide the labor basically, if the existing division of labor had to be scrapped because the US pulled out of the World Health Organization, or alternatively, if the U.S. pulls out and nothing changes then good, here's $450 million, we'll spend it on something else. Just go buy some penicillin or Band-Aids or whatever.
And you have to look at the whole picture to answer to that question. And I don't think we have a picture of the whole picture yet. I think that what this pandemic, if nothing else, has shown us, there are huge holes in the global health system if there can even be one worthy of that name. You know, like a unitary human health system. And I think the questions ought to be, what do we need as a species to survive? What resources are available realistically that we can apply to that and how can we organize them?
And then you come to the big question - by what process do we make these determinations that achieve this? I think we need to get on it, though, because we're living closer and closer to each other. It’s more and more crowded. there's more and more cross contamination of societies. You go from China today to Manhattan and suddenly people are sneezing two days later, then somebody gets on a plane from San Francisco and goes to Beijing. You know, people in Wuhan are bleeding out of their eyes or something and we’re all living closer together and there’s questions over infrastructure and environment and we’re going to be facing these kind of crises more and more and it’s a crapshoot whether one of them comes through that has a 100% fatality rate or not before we get to dealing with it. So what are we spending money on right now that we could be spending money on to prevent that from happening instead?
Sputnik: The United States under Donald Trump has the image of a country that has unilaterally withdrawn from many important treaties. How will this exit affect the image of the country and Trump himself?
Don Debar: As somebody that comes out of a business that is transactional in nature, real estate. That stuff is basically you're sitting down and making dealmaking all the time. Transactional. Yeah. So what do you see? See an agreement for the first time that's been made by somebody else is, you know, what are the costs and benefits of this and can we get a better deal? And so he has and this, you know, he speaks in those terms, even when he looks at these things, the deal with Iran, we can get a better deal.
The deal was on the table with North Korea. We'll get a better deal. Blah, blah, blah, blah. Better deal. Better deal than the nuclear nonproliferation treaty reduction, whatever they need. Several things that they scrapped.
By the way, George Bush scrapped up the more important ones than what Trump scrapped.
You know, optics of this, all of that. And now would he be walking away from or renegotiating? And then what's his image? What image is he projecting? There are some agreements I would love to see him walk away from that he sort of threatened to do when he was running for office and got my attention. We're talking here about scrapping NATO, for example, looking at the military alliances in general and say, do we really need these in the 21st century? There's no longer a massive threat of a world war. We don't really have any big enemies. Do we need to be wasting all this money on all this stuff?
Now, he had to revise that, but not fundamentally as he started to implement different things. Also, the newspapers are calling him a traitor. They're calling him an isolationist and all of this. So he sort of skated that way and actually spent more money on the military budgets than the others, although I think he sees them and he speaks of them as jobs bills.
“I'm not allowed to spend money any other place, but on weapons fine, buy weapons, at least somebody is going to get work.”
But there's some other agreements that I'd like to see him walk away from. The JCPOA, I think. I don't think was a catastrophe that everybody makes it out to be except the catastrophe is that the sanctions have continued. But a long story short, as far as that goes, the agreements that he has abrogated, NAFTA, that he renegotiated - the ongoing negotiations with China over trade…walking away from the TPP, a lot of those I think a lot of people were in favor of. And in fact, they are some of the reasons that he got elected. Those are not things that are popular with you know, the people who were the political elite for the 40 years prior to Trump but these are things that were popular with voters. Now they're not popular with the media. So the image that comes out of this is that he's just a wrecker.
If you come in there and you have a marriage, he’ll wreck that. If you have a partnership on a little grocery store he’ll wreck that, he's just a, you know, crazy anarchistic maniac. And if you have an agreement, he's going to break it. But that's an image that's being sold for in the media. It's because of the ongoing media antipathy towards him. But and also by a lot of the players. Iran, for example, should, you know, be angry with Trump and criticize Trump over him abrogating their agreement because they are actually materially suffering from sanctions that Trump and the U.S. government have put on. Although, you know, I point out that Congress passed sanctions against Iran all by itself without Trump and against Russia and North Korea, if we go back to 2017, 2018.
But between the thing itself, which is the abrogation of treaties and the image, I think there's a big difference. A lot of the things that he has renegotiated or abrogated should have been - not all, but some certainly a lot of them, like TPP.
And the image, however, is something is being crafted by a third party, by the media and by, you know, just people that are on the other side of the table around the world. And that is what it is. It's an image. It’s maybe the honest perception of some and a fair one. And for others, it's one, you know, is being peddled just like every other image that’s being peddled.