Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally notified the United Nations last week that the United States would withdraw from the World Health Organization. This imprudent step, taken in the midst of a rapidly accelerating pandemic, weakens global health at the precise moment it needs to be bolstered. It will endanger lives around the world while further shredding America’s tattered reputation as an enlightened global leader.
Rather than abandoning the WHO and scapegoating it for its own failures, the United States ought to be reinforcing the U.N. agency’s central role in global health governance. That won’t happen while Donald Trump remains in the White House, of course. Fortunately, the U.S. decision only takes full effect on July 6, 2021, meaning that Joe Biden could rescind it if he wins the November election. Reversing Trump’s course on the WHO should be part of a broader multipronged effort by Biden, if he’s elected president, to strengthen the world’s collective capacity to prepare for and respond to future pandemics, as well as combat the current one.
The breakdown in international cooperation over COVID-19 has exposed a multilateral system unprepared for global public health emergencies, and national governments unwilling to live up to their international legal obligations. Some of this chaos is a function of shortsighted U.S. policies, as well as the U.S.-China strategic rivalry. But the deeper failures of multilateralism go well beyond U.S. abdication and geopolitical competition. The lessons of COVID-19 point to three priorities for an incoming Biden administration.