By Mahmood Monshipouri

The implications of declining U.S. leadership

June 5, 2020 - 20:14

The Trump administration’s ongoing policy of withdrawal from international institutions—including the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the 2016 Paris Climate Change Accord, the Open Skies Treaty, and now the World Health Organization (WHO) in the middle of the greatest global health crisis—demonstrates the declining U.S. leadership ever since the post-World War II order was created.  This latest move is made at a time when the world relies heavily on the WHO’s leadership to steer the COVID-19 pandemic response.  

While as recently as two months ago praising China in the hope of salvaging bilateral trade ties between the two countries, Trump has now turned against China and the WHO.  The latter has been instrumental in managing and treating the worldwide spread of malaria, tuberculosis, SARS, HIV-AIDS, and other infectious and non-communicable diseases.  Trump’s recent announcement (May 29, 2020) to permanently end the U.S. contribution to the WHO, and even to withdraw U.S. membership, is yet another attempt to distract the public from his mishandling of the current coronavirus crisis—a move that will lead to further global U.S. isolation, ironically putting China in a much stronger position to influence that organization’s  policies.

      “Trump’s policies have been consistently unsuccessful both at home and abroad.”     

Over its more than seventy-year life, since its inception in 1948 within the UN framework, the WHO has had major achievements, such as eradicating smallpox, and failures, such as its sluggish reaction to the Ebola outbreak in 2014.  On balance, however, the World Health Organization’s raison d'être has never been called into question.  The significance of the organization will be amplified when and if a second wave of the coronavirus returns, again posing an existential threat to all the countries around the world.   Second waves have a history of striking back even harder than the initial outbreak, as was the case for the 1918 Spanish flue pandemic.

What does the U.S. withdrawal from this organization mean?  It means, among other things, that the United States is retreating from its global leadership role—morally and from the standpoint of its soft power.  On both accounts, the Trump administration’s unilateral approach has dramatically undercut the ability of the United States to influence the behavior of other states through the attractiveness of its culture and the persuasiveness of its policies.  The U.S. withdrawal from the WHO will further accelerate the ongoing decline in the perceived competence of the United States to effectively address new global challenges.  Most ominously, however, this development is likely to fuel a great-power discord between China and the United States, dehumanizing the former while damaging the long-term relationship between the two countries.

To fully understand the implication of the U.S. withdrawal from the WHO, one needs to note that the WHO relies on assessed and voluntary contributions from its member states.  In 2019, according to one study, the United States provided the WHO an estimated $419 million, representing roughly 15 percent of the World Health Organization's total revenue over its current two-year budget period.  This move will most likely delay the discovery phase as well as clinical trials necessary to develop a global vaccine.  Perhaps, more importantly, this decision will weaken the effectiveness of the organization and the broader cooperation among countries to stem the spread of COVID-19 pandemic around the word.

“Instead of healing the wounds of racial and systemic discrimination and police brutality, Trump’s rhetoric, tweets, and public gestures have deepened the divides in an already polarized nation, significantly diminishing trust in his leadership skills and damaging his populist image beyond repair. “

Trump has ceaselessly harkened back to his outdated notions of building walls and imposing travel bans in pursuit of his populist policies at a time when the stakes have never been higher.  All of this flies in the face of the clear lesson to be learned from the COVID-19 crisis that the virus knows no boundaries and that walls and borders cannot separate one nation’s public health and safety from those of others.  Needless to say that a virus anywhere is potentially a virus everywhere in a world that has become increasingly globalized, hence the need for collaborative, multilateral governance.  Trump’s claim that virus is “going away very soon” runs counter to the growing spike in confirmed cases around the world.

Furthermore, Trump’s disregard for the detrimental effects of climate change, as well as his policies reversing pollution standards, have exacerbated the deleterious effects not only on environmental sustainability but also, more subtly, on human sustainability.  Earth scientists remind us that humans are altering the environment at a much quicker pace than at any other time in history, a fact that has contributed to the evolution, the mutation, and the spread of all types of viruses.  Human encroachment into animal habitats—consider, for example, how deforestation and forest degradation have contributed to global warming—has created further contact between humans and animals, rendering disease transmission more likely than ever before.At home, Trump’s mishandling of nationwide and global protests over the death of George Floyd—an African-American man who died at the hands of a white police officer while still in custody—was on vivid display on the Internet, as captured on several bystanders’ smartphones.  The incident has dramatically weakened Trump’s presidency, is likely to defang his entourage, and could possibly demoralize the riot police in the face of widespread national and global protests.  The nationwide and racially diverse protests, dominated by youth and vibrant civil society movements, have captured the world’s imagination, while posing the most serious challenge to the Trump administration.  Instead of healing the wounds of racial and systemic discrimination and police brutality, Trump’s rhetoric, tweets, and public gestures have deepened the divides in an already polarized nation, significantly diminishing trust in his leadership skills and damaging his populist image beyond repair.  The result has been obvious: Trump’s policies have been consistently unsuccessful both at home and abroad.           

Mahmood Monshipouri, Ph.D., is a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University and a lecturer at UC-Berkeley. He is the editor, most recently, of Why Human Rights Still Matter in Contemporary Global Affairs. ( and 

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