The Trump administration began this week the process of official withdrawal from the World Health Organization, notifying both the United Nations Secretary General and the U.S. Congress of its intention to pull out of the global health organization in the middle of a global health crisis. The White House does not have the authority to leave the WHO immediately and by law must give one year’s notice and settle any outstanding debts. The U.S. currently owes $198 million in unpaid membership dues, according to NPR. A spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres confirmed the receipt of the letter of withdrawal dated Monday and said that the U.N. is in the process of “verifying with the World Health Organization whether all the conditions for such withdrawal are met.”
The three-line letter of withdrawal comes after President Donald Trump spent weeks railing against the global health agency, looking to shift blame for the virus’s spread rather than actually working to stop it. As the Trump administration stumbled in its response, the WHO morphed into an effective catchall boogeyman for Trump: a foreign entity that is technocratic, collaborative, and utterly unglamorous in its day-to-day functioning. The WHO is not a perfect organization, but it derives much of its capacity from American dollars and expertise, particularly the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so it’s not like the WHO has been operating in some secret lair in Beijing. It’s funded by American money and staffed by American experts, but it’s the problem. Trump had already paused U.S. funding for the organization that coordinates global technical responses to diseases around the world that don’t make headlines in the U.S.
Leaving the WHO is obviously a bad idea. There is no serious constituency for this bad idea other than Trump himself and the elected leadership of the party he represents. Public health experts think it’s a bad idea, as do serious legal and international relations thinkers, hundreds of whom signed on to a letter opposing the move.