Pseudo IR (1):The Politics of Withdrawal

Trump announced the US withdrawal from WHO on May 30, 2020. 60 days later, the Trump administration officially submitted official notice to WHO withdrawing from WHO. In light of the ongoing pandemic as well as the Trump administration’s contempt against WHO, the withdrawal is by no means consternation.

川普在5月30日宣布退出世界衛生組織(WHO),約莫兩個月後的今天,美國正式致函WHO,表明退出的意願,新冠肺炎歸責不明朗以及川普政府對國際制度的輕蔑,這樣的結果或許不至於是個驚天動地的事件。

Trump. Of course, he will come to your mind upon seeing words like “withdraw” or “quit.” Ever since the onset of his presidency, Trump has been known for his record of exiting treaties and international organizations (IO). A few comments or trolls gave the credit to Trump’s ignorance or imprudence. However, the decisions to quit might make quite a lot of sense — theoretically.

Why withdrawing from WHO could be different?

Here are some, but not all, the institutions abandoned by Trump: UNESCO, Open Skies Treaty, INF, TPP, JCPOA, etc. The list does not include the renegotiated counterparts such as the Universal Postal Union or USMCA (which was NAFTA if you ever recall). However, it is not the first time that the US chooses to be absent from international institutions. Instead, the US has made similar decisions for several times. Students of IR or diplomatic history are familiar with the fact that GATT, the predecessor of currently paralyzed WTO, was a compromised version of ITO. The compromise is largely a result of the US Congress’ refusion to ratify the treaty.

However, only a few cases can be compared to withdrawing from WHO. Unlike the other documents, WHO has its charter and secretariat — international bureaucrats. It is an independent actor embedded in a larger social network rather than an ad hoc grouping of states. Given its diverse funding sources and flexible mandate, WHO possesses some leverages against states. To some extent, we could say WHO has some (though limited) bargaining power.

Rationale of Withdrawal

Withdraw from an international organization as such is a rare event, not to mention the situation involving a superpower like the US. However, Trump’s frequent moves provide some insights into the rationale of withdrawing.

One of the most prominent records would be Trump’s renunciation of the Paris Agreement, from which the US should withdraw in 2020. Calling it unfair, the Trump administration believes that the US was shouldering too much unnecessary burden and responsibility. Such an accusation was attributed to the design of the Paris Agreement. Unlike its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol — also abated by the Congress, the Paris Agreement adopted a decentralized model by considering signing parties’ ability and responsibility. For instance, developing states would have less promise to make given their need for economic development. It turned out that smaller states are getting more willing to opt-in while larger states ceased to be constrained by the previously mandatory tasks. Reasonable and adaptable as the Paris Agreement once appears, antagonists like Trump and the other anti-globalization figures chose to disdain the agreement. The reason is simple: it’s just not fair. How could states like China, which is quite developed despite its “developing” status, obligated so less? If so, no wonder states in the competition would prefer withdrawing.

While some argue for a rather cosmopolitan international society, the opposite is often the reality of international relations — power matters. Though WHO and the Paris Agreements are both “low politics,” the realpolitik logic resides within the interaction within institutions. States care about the degree of control within a given area as well as the issue linkage bred by issues at stake. For instance, if the unfair constraints of the Paris Agreement went on, the US will have plausible concerns about losing primacy in industrial competition. The same logic applies to the case of WHO if it is held by China, the US also have legitimate worries about non-traditional security issues. In either case, the logic of consequence dictates, not appropriateness.

Such logic has been evidenced by academia through case studies and other empirical tests. When power relations change, states will have ample reasons to terminate their promise in any given institution. Furthermore, costs of bad reputation can barely apply to this case. Reputation only matters when actors care about it; obviously, Trump does not.

Limits of Anti-Withdrawing

Is there anything to be done on WHO’s side? Not much, if we are correct. Similar to the UN, WHO has no devices to negate the American decision to withdraw. Permitting withdraw from either WHO or UN is an act fundamentally against their founding principles; human’s right of health and life is universal and so did WHO’s mission. Nevertheless, since WHO has nothing to use, the US has nothing to lose.

Alas, does WHO have any options to counterbalance the US? Formally, WHO barely has options but accepts. However, if we take a deeper look at WHO’s funding structure, we could soon discover that WHO’s location in the social network is advantageous. When we talk about WHO in global society, interstate politics matter less than we thought. Instead, non-state actors weave a thick web of interdependence. One fact can illuminate the context. Other than the US, one of the largest funders is Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, not China or other “revisionist rivals.” The situation after the US departure might not be as disastrous as it appears.

Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/about/planning-finance-and-accountability/how-who-is-funded
Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/about/planning-finance-and-accountability/how-who-is-funded
WHO Contributors

Still, WHO is losing a lion share of the funding pie. WHO will have to take a more convoluted approach to stop the US. For example, WHO might be able to make use of its connection with the US domestic actors, especially bureaucrats and social groups who participated in WHO’s global projects. Sunk devotion in these projects and potential loss of international clout are likely to introduce opposition in the US domestic politics. Alternatively, WHO can welcome other donors such as China to augment its support. The center of the controversy amid the pandemic happened to reflect China’s influence in international organizations. Yet it is still too early to render China a successor of the US despite its lucid ambition to lead some international organizations. Finally, the WHO can also disregard Trump’s decision. After all, the presidential election is coming. Expecting a U-turn from the US does not seem to be a bad choice. Government changes tend to bring riveting developments.

Either way, amid the interaction between the US and WHO, it is rather clear that WHO has too few options and too much preference for the continued stay of the US. Though there are some chances to enhance its bargaining power, the US is quitting the game now. What’s to be bargained henceforth?

The Politics of Withdrawal

Up to this point, could we say international institutions are nothing but a scrap of paper? Definitely no. Instead, they do have the ability to change states’ calculations. However, in this case, we are witnessing an extremely asymmetric power relation that dwarfs international organizations.

Doubts ensue. We are still not sure whether a power vacuum would emerge. Without a power vacuum, there should be fewer concerns regarding China’s total control of the WHO. Apparently, the politics among the acts of withdrawal creates a few issues. First, the pool of stakeholders is too vast to state a clear relationship. This will blur the attribution of causes and effects. Accordingly, people are likely to make their judgment upon false images. Second, the counteraction vis-à-vis great powers like the US appears to be vain. Will the other states’ withdrawal create a similar problem? Yes or no, it remains a critical problem given the possibility of the domino effect. Finally, the international institution’s superficial relevance appears to shrink in recent years. One potential explanation could be the absence of strong institution designs that enables institutions to bargain against states. To my knowledge, few institutions have such features.

The issues above are likely to generate the demise of some international institutions. Conjoined with the current distrust in international liberalism and globalization, we might have less room for optimistic prospects.

Pseudo IR is my personal series intended to analyze some trending events in a theoretical fashion. I write them in a far less thoughtful and rigorous way. If there is a misnomer or deviation from the facts, please let me know.

A self-motivated political science rookie.