Don’t be fooled. President Trump and his supporters don’t hate the World Health Organization because of its coronavirus response. The far right hates the WHO because it is an international organization, and hating on international organizations has been a page in the Republican playbook for decades. This is just another opportunity to do it, with the added bonuses of diverting attention from the Trump administration’s slow and chaotic pandemic response and onto China, the enemy du jour.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox’s Sean Hannity, “The World Health Organization declined to call this a pandemic for an awfully long time because, frankly, the Chinese Communist Party didn’t want that to happen. We need a health organization that’s going to deliver good outcomes for the world and not do the bidding of any single country. We need accurate information and transparent information. We didn’t get it. The world didn’t get that.”
Let’s be clear, China has much to answer for, and holding international organizations to account when they falter is more than admirable — it’s actually the Trump administration’s basic responsibility, as the government of a member state. But withholding funds and so brazenly scapegoating the international community’s premier health agency during a global pandemic only serves to weaken public trust in that agency, healthcare professionals, and the science that is saving lives. It’s the latest example of how weakening international organizations often weakens American security.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The UN is our greatest hope for future peace. Alone we cannot keep the peace of the world, but in cooperation with others we have to achieve this much longed-for security.” But relax, pearl-clutchers, she also said, “Our own land and our own flag cannot be replaced by any other land or any other flag. But you can join with other nations, under a joint flag, to accomplish something good for the world that you cannot accomplish alone.”
Hogwash, say many Republicans — the far-right, isolationist-nationalist, John Bolton-esque conservatives of Trump’s ilk — who fight multilateralism, globalization (often using the anti-Semitic “globalists” label of conspiracy theorists), and the international organizations that undergird them. The notion that such institutions steal American sovereignty has for decades been a pillar of conservatism. “Americans cannot count on the international organizations to guarantee our security or adequately protect our interests,” is a line from the 1984 Republican Party platform. Reagan was responding to the Soviets and others using the United Nations to their own advantage. But UN-hating has taken a wider meaning since then.
By now, UN haters see every decision that is made in the halls of the U.N. Security Council, or the bench of the International Criminal Court, or by foreign commanders of peacekeeping operations on battlefields — anywhere where Americans may disagree but are expected to follow a collective’s decision — is a violation of sovereignty. There is a long history of trying to undercut, underfund, and denigrate these institutions, or just zero them out. Trump’s war on the WHO is just the latest volley.
Full disclosure: my first job in Washington was answering phones at the Washington office of the United Nations Association of the USA. Conservatives led by the late Sen. Jesse Helms, of North Carolina, were withholding payment of the United States’s annual contributions (dues to the operating and peacekeeping budgets) in protest of UN organizations promoting abortion rights within family planning programs overseas. Angry callers believed that the UN was using American taxpayer money to fund forced abortions in countries like China — a falsehood that has survived into the Trump administration. In my desk, I had a “Black Helicopters” file full of letters from paranoid Americans in the heartland claiming they’d seen United Nations rotorcraft coming over the hills.
This “UN arrears” battle of the late 1990s was the culmination of UN-hating going at least back to Reagan, who for Cold War political reasons pulled the United States out of UNESCO, the organization that designates cultural sites around the world for preservation. By the time of Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America, UN-hating reached a fever pitch. A young plucky congressman from Florida named Joe Scarborough — yes, that one — introduced the United Nations Withdrawal Act of 1995. His bill would have had the United States pull out of the UN entirely and kick UN headquarters out of the country within four years. It never made it out of committee, but Phyllis Schlafly praised it in her newsletter under the headline “Speak Up for Sovereignty and Patriotism!” with subsections called “Cut Off Handouts to the UN” and “UN Treaties Are All Bad News.”
Around that time, an unexpected activist joined the debate. U2 frontman Bono was leading global HIV/AIDS advocacy and he succeeded in softening even Jesse Helms’ heart enough to flip him on that issue. By 2001, Helms relented on UN dues, too. That year, President George W. Bush ushered the United States back into UNESCO. And in the wake of 9/11, he used the Security Council to win global support for the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. But Bush was no UN lover. He used a 2005 recess appointment to send John Bolton, one of the biggest UN-haters of them all, as his ambassador.
Over the years, other “conservatives hate the UN” issues have persisted for generations, like the Republican refusal to ratify 1982’s Law of the Seas Convention, which practically all U.S. Navy leaders have wanted and everyone else in the world honors.
In 2012, Republican opposition to a UN convention about people with disabilities drew wide head-shaking. “What is it about the United Nations that sends the GOP into such a tizzy?” Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote. “The United Nation’s intentions are the best, yet Republicans always assume the worst. They weep for the improbable horrors that could be but shed very few tears for the hardships in the here and now,” even for people with disabilities. One year later, Foreign Policy ran a headline “Can Conservatives Reconcile with the United Nations?”
In 2016, candidate Trump attacked international organizations frequently. Since his election, UN-hating has resumed to 90s levels. The Republican party platform of 2016 contains a section titled, “Sovereign American Leadership in International Organizations.” But Trump has lurched well beyond the platform. He pulled back out of UNESCO again, in 2017. He pulled the United States out of the UN Human Rights Council in 2018. And in his speech before the UN General Assembly last September he declared, “The future does not belong to globalists… the future belongs to sovereign and independent nations.”
And in 2020, we’re at it again, with the WHO and the coronavirus.
Look, it’s simple: any club is only as good as its members make it. And an organization is only as effective as its members want it to be. But all organizations are a product of all of its members. The purpose of the United Nations is not to sing kumbaya, bless poor people, and force Americans into global submission. The United Nations was created after two world wars, with the aim of preventing a third.
If Trump and conservatives want a better WHO and a better United Nations, then they should work to improve them. Lead that effort. Rewrite the entire UN Charter. Do something. Anything. But be honest about it. Trump could be leading the entire global pandemic response through the United Nations Security Council, banging his shoe at Xi Jinping there, instead of gabbing with Sean Hannity.
If, however, Trump’s team really just wants to wipe the United Nations off the face of the earth, then fine, get about doing that. Call up Morning Joe and re-up Scarborough’s 1995 bill. Take it to the campaign trail for November re-election. Hell, pulling back from the world is pretty popular for the far right and left, right now.
But cutting off America’s WHO payments doesn’t make the United States safer. Continually undermining 20th century institutions that are designed to slow national leaders from racing into conflicts and to prevent world wars, and then blaming the institutions for not working well enough for you, doesn’t save American lives. It only makes things worse.