Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro participates in a video G-20 meeting in Brasilia, Brazil, March 2020
Marcos Correa / Reuters / Handout

As the novel coronavirus pandemic has spread around the world, international organizations, struggling to keep pace with the virus’s impact, seem to have lost some of the relevance and the utility they once had. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council have failed to hold a virtual summit on coordinating the virus response. The G-20 and the G-7 have been unable to reach even basic decisions on the global economic recovery. Most glaringly, the World Health Organization (WHO)—the organization tasked with leading the international response against the virus—was slow to act under intense politicization.

The institutional and political vulnerabilities that COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has exposed in multilateral organizations are real. But to blame such vulnerabilities on a lack of effort or expertise in the institutions themselves mistakes the symptom for the cause. At the heart of the problem is the failure of the world’s leading powers, starting with the United States and China, to invest in and empower the multilateral system. Washington’s sins of omission and Beijing’s sins of commission have conspired to sideline international institutions, helping frustrate their common goal of ending the pandemic.

Just because global collaboration has not defeated the virus does not mean that international institutions should be relegated to the dustbin of history or written off as key players in the ongoing response to the crisis. International institutions—from the UN Security Council to the G-20 to the WHO—are essential to respond effectively to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic toll. But in the absence of U.S. or Chinese leadership, it will fall to other powers—particularly EU members and Asian democracies—to step forward to renew these institutions and support their leaders so they are better able to address the immediate challenge of the pandemic and other crises yet to come.

NOT-SO-GREAT POWERS

In the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, China prevented any collaborative action to contain the pandemic. Beijing silenced doctors at the epicenter and hid information about the virus’s transmissibility from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the WHO, and its own people. China has since tried to make up for these lapses by alternating assistance to stricken countries with propaganda and disinformation. But many countries are wary of its intentions. As German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Der Spiegel, “I can only warn against anyone falling for it.” 

Meanwhile, the United States has been absent from attempts to mobilize international action. Its most conspicuous contribution thus far has been pointing out the disease’s origins in China. Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump took the finger-pointing to a new level, suspending funding to the WHO for its allegedly listless response and its closeness to Beijing. Trump may be right that the WHO was initially too trusting of China, but the agency wasn’t alone: Trump routinely praised China’s response in January and February, claiming that he was working with Chinese President Xi Jinping to manage the situation.

Trump also seems to have forgotten how significant the WHO has already been in fighting the pandemic. Over a dozen U.S. experts at WHO headquarters provided real-time (even if limited) data about the virus’s discovery and spread in China, and senior U.S. scientists traveled to Wuhan with the organization in February to collect information. Cutting off the WHO’s funding undermines the developing world’s constrained ability to prepare for the virus: Yemen, the site of a horrific, ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, is a prime example of how the agency plays an indispensable role. Singling out the WHO also makes Americans less safe by increasing the chances that the virus will travel to the United States from such vulnerable countries.

The United States has been absent from attempts to mobilize international action.

Just as concerning, freezing U.S. support for the WHO will cede influence to China. The United States’ budgetary contributions to the organization still far exceed China’s, but Beijing has been increasing its share of funding. After Trump pulled U.S. assistance, China augmented its contribution to the WHO by $30 million.

U.S. dithering and Chinese machinations also threaten to paralyze the efforts of other institutions, starting with the UN Security Council. It took the council until April 9 to convene its first virtual meeting—and that came at the behest of nine of its ten nonpermanent members, not the United States or China. Earlier in March, when China held the council’s rotating presidency, it resisted calls to declare the pandemic a threat to international peace and security under the UN Charter in an attempt to minimize the crisis and China’s role in it. That declaration was used during the Ebola virus crisis in West Africa to justify a forceful response and could have signaled resolve to address the current pandemic.

With the UN sidelined by disputes between the United States and China, nations have instead turned to the G-20. The organization has fared better than others in managing the potential economic fallout from the coronavirus, but it got off to a sluggish start. On February 23, G-20 finance ministers sought to downplay the pandemic’s risks to growth—even though the virus had already spread to almost 30 nations. Contributing visibly to this disruption was China, which sent only a regional ambassador and not its foreign minister, and the United States, which fought over references to climate change in a communique. The G-20 has since committed $5.4 trillion in economic stimulus packages and agreed to grant temporary relief on bilateral loans to developing countries. G-20 trade ministers, however, did not fare as well. On March 30, they agreed to protect the flow of critical medical supplies, protective equipment, and other essential goods. But as of April, at least 75 countries, including the United States and China, had outright banned or restricted exports of these necessities.

Even the G-7 cannot reach a consensus. The United States currently holds the body’s presidency and had the responsibility to pen a group communique that would unite the democracies in their response to the pandemic. But the U.S. State Department’s insistence on branding the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus” in March created divisions that prevented the G-7 from crafting a joint statement. These divisions sprang up again in April in a G-7 leaders’ video call, during which the White House was largely isolated in its criticism of the WHO’s performance.

STEPPING UP

Washington and Beijing have lost sight of the big picture: around the world, governments are focused on controlling the epidemic, saving lives, and restoring economic well-being. They are less concerned about the vicissitudes of the U.S.-Chinese rivalry and increasingly believe it is a roadblock to essential cooperation. Instead of waiting for the United States and China to subordinate politics to the greater good, Europe’s democracies and like-minded Asian partners need to take matters into their own hands.

Most urgently, countries should seek deeper collaboration within the WHO. A coalition led by the EU and Japan ought to coordinate international scientific and private-sector efforts to test faster, more accurately, and at a large scale. These countries should also focus the WHO’s resources on science-based approaches to the pandemic, using the agency’s resident experts to confirm the efficacy of therapeutic drugs and to support worldwide efforts to find vaccines. 

In turn, WHO member states need to recognize the heightened dangers from neglected global health risks, provide adequate funding to address them, and expand intelligence gathering and sharing to prevent future outbreaks. They should additionally push to reinstate Taiwan, which excelled in its pandemic response, in the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s key decision-making body.  

The world needs well-functioning international institutions more than ever.

At the same time, member states need to encourage constructive reforms at the WHO, taking into account political, legal, and financial constraints. The WHO’s challenges predated the coronavirus, as its diffident response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak showed. To head off politicized national investigations and improve quickly, the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, should authorize an independent panel of outside experts to review the lessons learned and the best practices developed thus far.

At the UN, France should persist in its laudable efforts to bridge the fractured Security Council. The country has labored to negotiate a resolution with the other four permanent members to support cease-fires and peace initiatives in countries such as Sudan, where combatants had initially signaled receptivity to a pause in the fighting. Guterres and leaders from countries such as Liechtenstein and Tunisia have also tried to fill the vacuum, calling in March for a global cease-fire. If France and Tunisia can receive sufficient backing to finalize a resolution, that would send an encouraging message about the major powers’ ability to work together. Time is of the essence: as the United States and China squabble over the cease-fire resolution, fighting resumed in Yemen, and combatants in Colombia and the Philippines declined to extend their cease-fires past April 30. 

The G-20 also needs to step up by adopting additional financial measures to support the ailing global economy and ensuing recovery. The organization should wrangle the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to offer additional relief to the world’s poor and vulnerable. As more Western countries partially reopen their economies, the G-20 can also contribute to science-based strategies, committing world leaders to fund the WHO and finance testing, therapies, and vaccines. G-20 countries should lift export restrictions on critical health-related products and basic foodstuffs once they have met domestic demand. And when vaccines are developed, the organization can help ensure that they are shared fairly around the world.      

With the pandemic fanning the flames of nationalism, protectionism, and xenophobia, the world needs well-functioning international institutions more than ever. It would be a failure of imagination, though, to entirely rule out U.S.-Chinese cooperation. The United States and China engaged in cooperative research and shared information to combat SARS and the avian flu in 2003, the swine flu in 2009, and the Ebola virus in 2014. And during the Cold War, Moscow and Washington quietly collaborated on polio and smallpox vaccines. To that end, Trump, Xi, and other global leaders should work together against the virus, even as they compete fiercely over 5G, advanced technologies, and trade. The recent progress implementing the U.S.-Chinese trade agreement offers a ray of optimism for such coordination. Having encountered the drawbacks of acting alone, leading powers now should know that working together is the only alternative.

  • THOMAS R. PICKERING is Vice Chair of Hills & Company and served for more than four decades as a U.S. diplomat, including as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Ambassador to the United Nations. 
  • ATMAN M. TRIVEDI is Managing Director of Hills & Company and Adjunct Fellow at the Pacific Forum.