On April 14, President Trump announced a halt to U.S. funding for the World Health Organization (WHO). It was a petty decision made to draw attention away from his own gross culpability and incompetence.
It isn’t the WHO’s fault, after all, that the United States is suffering the worst outbreak on the globe. But this wasn’t just an isolated move caused by the current pandemic. The coronavirus crisis conveniently gave Trump cover to act on an impulse he’s had for some time. His animosity towards intergovernmental organizations, and multilateral efforts writ large, is part and parcel of his “America First” agenda, though “America Alone” is a more apt motto. Dismantling the functioning international order is a Trump goal in and of itself.
This administration has pulled no punches in its attempt to starve international organizations of funding. Straight budget cuts have often failed, as Congress insists on the funding anyway, but administration officials have found creative bureaucratic methods to obstruct spending from the department level. Other targets have included the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a variety of international programs supporting women’s rights, refugees, children, peacekeeping, and the poor.
Trump has struck at the heart of successful multilateral efforts, pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal. Shunning the WHO is merely the latest attempt to undermine the very concept of collective global action.
Trump doesn’t believe in collective action because he sees international relations as a zero-sum game, where someone else’s weakness is your strength, their loss is your win, and their blame is your exoneration. The problem is that this is not how a globalized world works.
The greatest threats we face as a country are no longer the kind you fight with one nation’s military against another. Our greatest threats today are borderless. We do not live in a disconnected world, where nation states can self-contain. Coronavirus has demonstrated this clearly, rapidly crossing the globe without limit, reaching at least 185 countries in less than three months’ time.
The world economy, too, is frighteningly intertwined, as demonstrated by the complex supply chain delaying your Amazon orders. Weather, pollution, conflict, commerce, disease — none of it stops at our carefully drawn state boundaries. In this context, our enemies are powerful but invisible. Because they reach and impact all of us, collective action is the only hope we have to effectively overcome them.
A successful response to a global threat requires cooperation. It requires that we play well with others, not for the sake of benefiting others, but as an essential move to benefit ourselves. Undermining those collective efforts means dismantling the one hope that we have for success.
When the United States shuns collective global action, it handicaps the system as a whole. The United States is the world’s biggest contributor to these multilateral organizations, as it should be. It is not only the world’s biggest economy, but also the greatest meddler in world affairs, as evidenced by its military presence in at least 170 countries.
Contrary to Trump’s short-sighted views, well-functioning international collaboration is undoubtedly in our best interest, since we have such a great capacity to influence it to our benefit.
Due to our size and influence, our participation is also essential for these organizations to be effective for the rest of the world. Look no further than the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal after Trump’s withdrawal to understand why. It is no wonder other world leaders are cringing at our retreat, from the WHO as with other global initiatives. But Americans should be cringing too.
The current pandemic experience offers us a lesson if we choose to learn it. The United States will muddle through and survive this crisis, largely intact. But it will also emerge weaker, battered, and bruised, and with eroded influence in the world because we chose a combative stance on the world stage rather than a cooperative one.
We chose to throw accusations rather than share lifelines. We chose to obstruct an international response rather than lead one. As a result, the world is suffering, and we are suffering with it, to a greater extent, in fact, than nearly any other country. With every step that pulls us back from international cooperation, we undermine our own ability to address the next global crisis we face.
If we insist again on facing global threats alone, we will lose, no matter how great our military might or how high our stock prices. If we learn this lesson and recommit to collaborative, multilateral action, however, the United States and the world can maximize its resources to better prepare for the next global crisis. That doesn’t mean we won’t again suffer, but it’s the best hope we’ve got.
This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.