US Foreign Policy of Withholding Assessed Dues to the WHO: the Reality of the Rhetoric

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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

‘Who plays the piper necessarily dictates the tune’ is a common saying in day-to-day life. In the context of inter-personal or inter-state relations, it is implied that whoever gives or donates, by statutory obligation or voluntary consent, cannot but have a say in the use of such an assessed or voluntary donation. This is the context the withholding of assessed dues by the United States to the World Health Organisation (WHO) should be explained and understood.

In international relations, sovereign states belong to supranational associations or international organisation, and by so doing, do surrender part of their sovereignty. By virtue of the membership, there is a regulation to always abide with. First, membership of an organisation is of two types: full and associate membership. Non-membership of an organisation, but with a window of participation, is also of two types: observer status with a permanent observer mission; and non-members without permanent observer missions, but which make use of full-member countries to oversee their interests. In this regard, the status of full and associate membership, grosso modo, necessarily requires payment of levies for the development and execution of the programmes of the organisation.

Put differently, membership, be it associate or full, of an organisation, always carries responsibilities and obligations, in sustaining the operational activities of the organisation in the attainment effort of its mandate. For instance, there is the required payment for sustaining the organisation, which is generally determined on the basis of capacity to pay. The payment is called ‘assessed contributions.’ Assessed contributions are mandatory. Countries that are wealthier generally have to pay more than those that are generally less solvent. The determination of what is to be paid by a member is also a resultant of a scale of assessment which reckons with the wealth and population of a Member State. This is why some countries contribute more than others and that there are big and small contributors or players in any given organisation.

Without iota of doubt, this status of a big player is also acknowledged and compensated with the adoption of the principle of ‘weighted voting’ in the various UN agencies and international financial organisations. The principle simply means that whatever is contributed in terms of assessed dues should translate into a number of votes. In other words, the biggest amount necessarily translates into the highest number of votes. This is why, for example, at the level of the African Development Bank, for example, African countries enjoy numerical strength that translates to nothingness when it comes to voting. The few Euro-American investors in the bank have more money than the many African countries in the bank, and therefore, do have the domineering votes at the level of decision-taking processes. For obvious reasons, therefore, one major technique of managing and controlling global governance is the introduction of the principle of ‘weighted voting’ which enables the few and rich countries to always have their way, and the majority, poor countries, to also have their say.

But, in the context of funding of international organisations, and particularly at the level of the foreign policy of the United States, the principle of weighted voting is consciously used to protest against policies of organisations to which the United States belongs. It is also to influence decision-taking, and where it cannot be made possible, to undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation, by particularly insisting on the resignation of the Chief Executive Officer in some instances.

It is when the foreign policy interest of the United States is perceived not to be well protected and there is little or no preparedness on the part of the affected organisation to dance to the tunes of the United States, that the Washingtonian authorities always withhold their funding of such organisations. Most unfortunately, however, the act of withholding such dues has been rhetorical and has always ended up being counter-productive. The reality of the rhetoric is self-defeating. It reduces US global influence rather than protecting its long-term national interest.

The Rhetoric
The United States has withdrawn from many organisations and multilateral agreements. It withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Deal), done in Vienna in 2015 by the Five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the European Union. The deal was aimed at scaling back Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Even though the International Atomic Energy Agency, in its various reports made it clear that Iran was very compliant with the obligations of the deal, the United States opted to hold contrary opinion and the bad end of the stick. United States argued that the deal is ‘defective at its core,’ and by so doing, tried to hold former President Barack Obama responsible.

There is also the Paris Agreement on Climate Change from which the United States indicated withdrawal on November 5, 2019. The Paris Agreement, also done in 2015, requires the United States and 187 other signatories, to keep the rising global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Accord even wants to limit it even more, to a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise. In the eyes of President Trump, the Climate Change is a hoax and ‘an unfair economic burden’ on the people of America.

Before addressing the United States decision to withdraw its funding of the WHO last week, is another US foreign policy rhetoric: withholding of funds and eventual withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1984 and 2019. Both the UNESCO and the WHO are agencies of the United Nations.

The UNESCO has the mandate to ‘contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue,’ essentially through the international circulation of ideas. In this regard, it ‘develops educational tools to help people live as global citizens free of hate and intolerance…’ By promoting cultural heritage and the equal dignity of all cultures, UNESCO strengthens bonds among nations. The UNESCO is head-quartered at 7 Place de Fontenoy in Paris.

In 1984, the Ronald Reagan administration alleged that the UNESCO was supporting the Soviet Union, that it was anti-Israel, and that it was also anti-free market. Consequently, the US refused to pay its assessed dues, amounting then to about $500 million to the organisation. The United States insisted on the resignation of the then Director General, Mr. Amadou-Mahtar M’bow, a Senegalese, who was appointed in 1974 and served two terms of six-years each as Director General. When US objective failed, the US eventually withdrew from the organisation in 1984, only to rejoin in 2002 under the administration of George W. Bush.

In 2011, under President Barack Obama, the United States again suspended the payment of its assessed dues to the UNESCO on the strength that the UNESCO recognised the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, but the suspension of payments also meant a loss of voting power in 2013 for the US.

On October 12, 2017 the United States announced again the withdrawal of its membership, and opted to become an observer without any obligation to pay any dues since then. When, on December 28, 2018, the UNESCO granted the status of full membership to the Palestinians, the United States was much infuriated. It decided to suspend its funding of the organisation. This culminated eventually into withdrawal of its membership of the organisation as from midnight of January 1, 2019. This is in spite of the fact that the United States was an original co-founder of the UNESCO in 1946.

If the United States is not playing a hide-and-seek game, why join, withdraw, re-join, withdraw again, etc, from the UNESCO? Why engage in the politics of unnecessary rhetoric?
The truth of the matter is that US withdrawal has always had little impact on the organisation. True enough again, the United States accounted for 22% of the assessed budget, but was owing as much as $600m as at 2011 while Israel, which the US was fighting tooth and nail for, was then owing $10m. both the US and Israel stopped payments into the UNESCO coffers in 2011.

The rhetorical politics is also engaged in at the level of the WHO, which was founded in 1948 and given the mandate to direct and coordinate global health care within the United Nations system. President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 that he would stop the funding of the WHO for about 60-90 days, because of its ‘role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus.’ In the eyes of President Trump, the WHO has been ‘China-centric.’

More important, President Donald Trump also has it that ‘had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China’s lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death.’

Additionally, but most unfortunately, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, complained in an interview he granted to the Fox News about the non-transparency of the WHO, saying that ‘we need transparency and we need the WHO to do its job, to perform its primary function, which is to make sure that the world has accurate, timely, effective, real information about what’s going on in the global health space, and they didn’t get that done here.’ Pompeo’s statement is most unfortunate because Donald Trump had, before Pompeo’s statement, eulogised the Chinese for their promptness of action and transparency in the management of the coronavirus pandemic. Why is there no coordination of the rhetorical arguments?

True, the United States has every reason to complain. It pays about $400-$500 million to the budget of the WHO, which is run on a two-year budget cycle. For the 2020-2021 cycle, the budget for the implementation of its programmes is $4.8 billion or $2.4 per year. In this regard, WHO assessed contributions are due and payable as of January 1, by all WHO full and associate members, numbering 194 full members and two associate members (Puerto Rico and Tokelau. Three quick observations are noteworthy at this juncture.

First, the total annual assessed contribution to be mandatorily paid by full and associate members is USD 200,000. Room is given to members that want to make Voluntary Supplementary Assessed Contributions (VAC). And true enough, the United States is a leader in the area of VAC. When compared to what is being paid by countries like China ($40m), Israel ($10m), etc, at the level of assessed contributions, the financial weight of the United States is quite heavy.

Secondly, the WHO provides budgetary allocation for emergencies. For instance, an additional sum of $1 billion for the current budget cycle was factored into the WHO’s budget in May 2019 as allocation for emergencies. It is within this framework that, for the 2020-2021 budget, the sum of $957 million is expected as assessed contributions and $4.9 billion is to be generated as voluntary contributions.

Thirdly, and more importantly, voluntary contributions have become more strategic in design and foreign policy application, particularly by the United States. In 2018 and 2019, the United States accounted for the lion share by contributing an assessed sum of $237 million, which represented 22% of the total assessed fees. In terms of VAC, the United States pledged more than $656 million for some specific programs ranging from Polio eradication, health and nutrition services, vaccine-preventable diseases to tuberculosis, HIV-preventing and controlling outbreaks.

One additional truth that is often neglected is the probability of a situation of insolvency of the United States under President Donald Trump, which actually might explain in part the withdrawal of the United States from many multilateral agreements. Donald Trump might be considering that Japan contributes 10.83% and the Russian Federation only accounts for 2.43% of the WHO budget. China only pays 5.14% of the budget, the United Kingdom pays 5.17%, while Germany pays 7.14%, and France accounts for 5.59%. All these contributions are not much to write home about when compared with US Contributions.

In whole, there is no disputing the fact that withholding the payment of assessed dues is nothing more than a pointer to insolvency and decline in the global influence of the United States in global governance. The United States under the administration of President Donald Trump, is no longer able to impose US policy preferences unilaterally on other allies, hence the need to avoid funding organisations in which the United States will play the piper and not being able to dictate the tunes. This brings us to the analysis of the situational reality on the ground. In other words, there is the need to go beyond political rhetoric.

The Reality
The thrust of our observations here is that the United States is critically suffering from Donald Trump’s inability to know that running business outfits is quite different from public governance that is largely driven by protocol and etiquette, and which does not require a blame-game but observance of the rules of the game.

Secondly, whatever Donald Trump might have gained in terms of economic dividends since his election as US president, has been neutralised by his politicisation of the management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of lives have been lost as a result of his anti-COVID-19 policy remissness. Besides, the global community only makes a mockery of the United States as reflected in the many reactions to the various self-withdrawal policies of Washington.

For instance, when the United States indicated its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change agreement, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, made it clear that the withdrawal of the United States makes closer ties with the Chinese a desideratum. As he put it, ‘we regret this and this only makes the Franco-Chinese partnership on the Climate Change and biodiversity more necessary.’ And true enough, a week after US withdrawal, Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping met in Beijing to sign a statement declaring the ‘irreversibility of the Paris Accord.’ Thus, the reality is that the withdrawal of the United States creates a vacuum and opportunities for others to fill and take advantage of.

In the same vein, when the United States withdrew from the Iranian Nuclear Deal, all the other signatories were further strengthened in their resolution to sustain the deal. They were not disunited as might have been expected in the strategic calculations of US foreign policy. The British said ‘the UK remains strongly committed to the JCPOA and will work with the E3 partners and the other parties to the deal to maintain it.’ The position of the French and Germans was not different. In fact, in the words of the EU top diplomat, Federica Moghezini, ‘the EU will remain committed to the continued full and effective implementation of the nuclear deal.’

More significantly, he assured of EU’s commitment as follows: ‘we fully trust the work, competence and autonomy of the International Atomic Energy Agency that has published 10 reports certifying that Iran has fully complied with its commitments.’ And as simply summarised by the Chinese, ‘having a deal is better than no deal. Dialogue is better than confrontation.’

And most disturbingly, at the level of the WHO, criticisms of the US withholding of payment of assessed contributions to the organisation have been severe. Americans are wrongly seen to be selfish and wicked, because of the timing of the decision and because of the criticality of the COVID-19 in the whole world as at today. Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the WHO says this is the time for everyone to be united against the pandemic, and that ‘when we are divided, the coronavirus exploits the cracks between us.’

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, agrees with the WHO boss by saying that ‘now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences. The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrel joined the choruses of condemnation: the WHO ‘deeply regrets’ the suspension of funding. The WHO is now ‘needed more than ever… Only by joining forces can we overcome this crisis that knows no borders.’

The Russians simply see the Americans as being selfish. Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, said Russians ‘see yesterday’s announcement by Washington on freezing funding of the WHO as most concerning. It is a sign of the very selfish approach of the US authorities to what is happening in the world due to the pandemic.’

Apart from the foregoing calls for unity against the virus, criticism of Donald Trump’s decision at the US domestic level is more thought-provoking. The American Medical Association President, Patrice Harris, says ‘it is a dangerous step in the wrong direction that will not make defeating COVID-19 easier.’

Leslie Dach, the Chair of Protect Our Care, who was the global Ebola Coordinator for the United States Department of Health and Human Services, has it that ‘this is nothing more than a transparent attempt by President Trump to distract from his history downplaying the severity of the coronavirus crisis and his administration’s failure to prepare our nation.’ More important, he said, ‘to be sure, the WHO is not without fault, but it is beyond irresponsible to cut its funding at the height of a global pandemic. This move will undoubtedly make Americans less safe.’

Thirdly, freezing assessed dues is nothing more than a cover-up for Donald Trump’s political and policy remissness before the emergence of the COVID-19 saga. The United States had already cut by $65 million the allocation for the WHO in the fiscal year 2021. The cut represented more than 50% reduction over the fiscal year 2020. Another point is that President Trump does not appear to be able to see himself as a major impediment to the maintenance of global peace and security, especially in light of his inability to understand the need for clairvoyance in foreign policy-making. He is unnecessarily always very self-conflicting.

For instance, on the very issue of non-transparency of the Chinese in the matter of COVID-19, President Trump is on record to have said on January 24, 2020 that ‘China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency (emphasis mine). It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American people. I want to thank President Xi.’ How can the US president commend the Chinese for being transparent in the morning, and with a stretch of the same imagination come back to accuse the same China of non-transparency in the afternoon?

We cannot but agree with the view point of the Democratic Senator, from Connecticut, Chris Murphy, a Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said ‘it is just wildly ironic that the President and his allies are now criticising China or the WHO for being soft on China when it was, in fact, the President who was the chief apologist for China during the early stages of this crisis.’

Fourthly, the policy of withholding payment of assessed dues by the United States does greater damages than often imagined. As an instrument of US foreign policy, it has generally failed in its long-term objective, mainly because of the manu militari character of its implementation. US withholding policy pronouncements often take the format of bullying and myopic calculations of the would-be impact. There is no significant evidence of impact on the affected organisations which have always sought alternative palliatives of survival. The reality is that whenever the United States refuses to comply with the organisational obligations, other interested countries, more often than not, quickly accept to fill the gap, a situation that also enhances their own voting status. For instance, following the suspension of US payment, the United Kingdom pledged an additional sum of £65 million to the WHO. Ireland increased its own by four times, etc. These measures make the US decision irrelevant. This is the reality of the US fund withholding rhetoric.