Global public health is now at the centre of geopolitics
More than eight decades ago, the predecessor of the United Nations failed to live up to its goal of maintaining world peace. The League of Nations was created in the aftermath of the First World War. It was championed by the American president Woodrow Wilson who outlined his vision in a speech to the United States Congress in 1918.
Wilson wished for a “general association of nations” to manage international disputes and foster cooperation. His vision was realized during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 which resulted in the Treaty of Versailles. The League of Nations became operational in 1920.
Thirty-two countries joined the newly formed League as founding members. Its membership increased and fluctuated over the years. In one of the great ironies of the 20th century, the United States chose not to join the League.
When Wilson returned to America after attending the Paris Peace Conference, he was confronted with opposition from supporters of the Monroe Doctrine. The doctrine was the basis of American foreign policy since 1823 and sought to avoid involvement in European conflicts. Congress did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles and the US never joined the League it championed.
The League boasted several initial successes. It was complemented by the creation of the Permanent Court of International Justice. Several territorial disputes were peacefully resolved. The protection of minorities was prioritized. The League sought to bring about orderly political transitions. It gave impetus to the arms control movement and adopted the Geneva Protocol on chemical and biological weapons.
The demise of the League in the 1930s was brought about by its failure to address the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the Nazi invasions across Europe. By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, the League was on its deathbed.
In 1945, the victorious Allied Powers agreed to establish the United Nations which led to the dissolution of the League. The UN was founded in San Francisco and established its headquarters in New York City.
In the post-war period, the UN and its agencies have broadened the scope of international law and governance to the extent of being a significant underpinning of the global order, including peace and security, public health, food supply, economic and sustainable development, educational progress, and environmental and cultural preservation.
This has been largely driven by the support of democratic nations who pride themselves as being part of the free world. In particular, the leading nation of the free world, the US, has been pivotal in upholding the international rules-based order.
In the last decade, the world has seen a weakening of the rules-based order, be it with the annexation of Crimea, nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, the flaring of disputes in the South China Sea, or the growth of state-sponsored terrorism.
Revisionist powers are seeking to gain more influence. Disinformation has emerged as potent threat in the age of the internet and social media.
The last thing the world needs now is an exacerbation of this weakened rules-based order by a withdrawal of American leadership. Amid the escalating coronavirus pandemic across the world, the announcement of President Donald Trump to withhold funding for the World Health Organization is precisely what is detrimental to the interests of global public health and security.
The coronavirus pandemic is the greatest test for global wellbeing since the Second World War.
President Trump must appreciate that this is 2020 and not 1920. For it was a century ago that the ill-fated League of Nations began its journey without American leadership and ended up failing.
The WHO deserves scrutiny. However, its bureaucracy is not responsible for the failure of member states to admit excluded regions such as Taiwan. There should be more opportunities for Taiwan to impart its experience to the wider international community through the WHO.
In the midst of this crisis, reports have emerged of clandestine low-level nuclear testing by China. The Chinese government has strenuously denied these reports.
What is clear though is that the coronavirus pandemic has placed global public health at the centre of geopolitics.
There will be many lessons to learn for public health. Just as we wait and see how the curve of the virus evolves, we will also have to wait and see how the international rules-based order will be affected by this unprecedented pandemic.
Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.