We Americans are often accused of being uninterested in anything outside our borders except vacation travel. Curiously, though, our “citizens of the world” credentials may be enhanced by the global nature of Covid-19. However much we botch our pandemic response, we can’t help but be largely in the same boat as most of the world. Our behavior in the boat, though, may also demonstrate our discomfort in being there, partly due to the current spat between us and the World Health Organization. WHO has its problems including bureaucratic inflexibility, but still is a significant international actor against disease and poverty. If WHO is more favorable to China than the U.S. president finds acceptable, that is regrettable. Still, WHO is a major source of help for countries around the world.
Against that backdrop, President Trump withdrew American revenues—said to be about half of WHO’s budget, claiming that WHO has been “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” that “the organization is overly influenced by China, and was too trusting of China, particularly in the early phase of the outbreak,” and that “it had delayed raising the alarm on the threat posed by the new coronavirus.” WHO claims, however, the virus was “identified on January 7th” and “shared [with the world] on the 12th.”
Some—this includes me—say by attacking WHO, Trump is seeking to deflect blame away from his own administration’s problems in containing the virus. We the general public don’t know the truth yet. We know statements by Trump can never be assumed to be true, and his paranoia can be overwhelming, with or without supportive facts. We know he engages his schoolyard vengeance even at the cost of inattention to more important issues. We know he’s proud of punching back harder than he’s been punched. Any Trump engagement must be scanned for these distractions.
Of course, those childish characteristics do not mean that what he contends is untrue, just that we can’t tell until later, if we ever know at all. If he is right, there’s time later to take whatever action is called for. But if he is wrong, his angry, toddler-ish thoughtlessness would make America look not only like overreacting idiots but show once again—in bullying Trumpian fashion—that America has little use for the rest of the world.
*I am indebted to Daniel W. Drezner for borrowing part of the title of his March 2020 book, The Toddler in Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us about the Modern Presidency.