Four-point-five years ago in a galaxy far, far away, I attended the Brussels Forum. It was a fine event, and I’ll always remember it fondly, but at that time it seemed a bit tone-deaf, too. I drifted from one meeting on trade pacts (TPP, TTIP, remember those?) to the next seminar discussing Russia’s ‘hybrid warfare’ (a mostly discarded term that was a leading framework at the time). Leading bien-pensants of the end-of-history generation gathered on the island of an upscale Brussels hotel as the tides of history rose around them. They dropped globalist nostrums at the podium as if they were sandbags against the rising sea.
Or at least, that’s how I remember it now. It’s surely bulls***. Memory is unreliable, and the events of intervening years will have colored my recollections. Anyhow, my point is that Jeff Sessions was there. As a Republican senator from Alabama at the time, it seemed like he was mostly at the conference to talk up his region’s auto factories. He was a bit of an outsider in that crowd, but like any good ole Southern boy, he was up for a chat — and he happened to deliver a stark warning about China. Along with much of the American leadership class at the time, Sessions was very worried about the United Kingdom, among other European nations, having signed onto the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The AIIB is part of Beijing’s efforts to erect a sort of alternative to the reigning, mostly Western-led institutions of global governance. Since part of the actual journalisming that I did at the conference involved interviewing Sessions, I can go beyond the discolorations of my hopelessly flawed memory and reproduce his concerns here:
“[I]f you’re going to partner with another nation to provide economic funding and other benefits for development to nations around the world in a charitable way, I would think you’d want to partner with people who share your values first – and we’ve always done that. The Europeans and the United States have been part of the World Bank and the IMF and have worked together. If Europeans want to give more money to that effort, I would think they’d want to give it through those institutions that are in existence.”
I promise there’s a reason I’m bringing this up. And that reason is, my, how events do escalate. China’s One Belt, One Road, policy, and its parallel multilateral organizations such as the AIIB, have made plenty of headlines in the time since. They anchor a very coherent strategy for global influence. We will have plenty of opportunities to dig into that strategy as our podcast evolves, and it is a strategy that on its own has posed a significant challenge to the West. U.S. strategy since 2017, however, has given Beijing a much more golden opportunity: the chance to assume a bigger share of leadership in the global institutions themselves. The geopolitics of the pandemic brought that opportunity into crystal-clear focus this week, as the U.S. president declared his intent to end funding for the World Health Organization. (Confusion ensued as its legislative branch immediately challenged the executive’s power to do that.) But Beijing’s recent inroads were already clear. As Azeem Ibrahim notes:
“Beijing has, over the years, become adept at navigating and pushing its interests on the global multilateral-agency stage. It already heads four of the 15 U.N. Specialized Agencies (International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the U.N. Industrial Development Organization) so is becoming proficient at covertly asserting its national interest while the United States has taken a back seat.”
Aspirations and power
The ‘international community’ is indeed, as Richard Haass writes, a mere aspiration. The reality of global politics is far closer to anarchy, and the United Nations, and its various forums, are playing fields for the games of the powerful. As Sessions alluded to, they are driven perhaps by morals, but the morals that drive them are those most convenient to the players with the most power. As such, even in a period of history marked by an increase in nationalism and a renewed emphasis on the sovereignty of capitals over global institutions, they remain important as markers of influence.
That importance increases when such organizations have within them the capacity to actually do something that is useful, across the board, from one nation to the next. The WHO, obviously, is just such an organization. Nations of all characters can look at the nauseating failings of the organization — which clearly bent the knee to Beijing, hampering global reactions to an oncoming pandemic — and still conclude that in an age of global health concerns, they will need the WHO, or some organization like it, more than ever before. But don’t listen to me, listen to what those leaders say.
Every middle power, including the United States’ closest allies, wants the WHO to be strengthened and improved. They will figure out how to fund it themselves, and they will make room for whomever else wants to join. After all, the organization’s budget is a relative pittance to begin with. Changing its performance will be paramount, and the priorities of the biggest funders will power those changes. As predictions go, this one could not be easier — hello, we’re in the middle of a pandemic — but the same dynamic applies to other international fora. Backing away is not a sound strategy, if you’re not leaving for a place where others will follow.
It is not wrong to take steps against the corruption and incompetence that the WHO put forth at the beginning of this crisis. If this is a feint in that direction, fair enough; the question of Washington’s next steps will be paramount. Leading the charge to reform and strengthen the WHO is well within U.S. capabilities. Step back, however, and you will watch as other players take your place on the field. And they won’t need to build any alternative infrastructure to do it.