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US trying to isolate WHO



The US refusal to keep allocating funds for the World Health Organization (WHO) has become yet another step towards further confrontation between President Donald Trump and international organizations. However, the geopolitical importance of such a move goes beyond health-related issues and fits well into the current format of the US-China confrontation. Having accused the WHO of demonstrating inefficiency and excessive concern for the situation in China at the expense of other countries, the United States underscores the Chinese origin of COVID-19, thereby giving it to understand that the virus may have come from a laboratory.

President Trump explained his decision to suspend funding to the World Health Organization by the fact that the WHO must  bear responsibility for doing little to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States, “focusing” instead on the situation in China and giving “inappropriate recommendations” not to close the border with China in the early stages of the epidemic.

Washington will find a more effective way of spending the money it annually allocated to the World Health Organization, the  American leader said at a briefing in the White House. «The USA, as the WHO’s biggest overall donor, must insist that the WHO bear full responsibility», – Donald Trump said.

«WHO has failed in everything. For unknown reasons it concentrated all its attention on China. We will look into the issue», – the American president promised.

Donald Trump’s decision to stop issuing funds to the WHO did not meet understanding even among his close allies, let alone China. The decision ran into disapproval of the European Union, Germany, and the UN. «There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when WHO efforts are needed more than ever to contain and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic», – the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrel said. In his words, the crisis can be resolved only through joint efforts. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is sure that the US president’s accusations against WHO will not help.  «The best investment would be to strengthen the UN and the WHO, for example for developing and distributing tests and vaccines», – the German foreign minister said. It essential to support the WHO, because its activity is crucial as part of the global efforts for winning  the battle with COVID-19, and now is not the time to cut funding, – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.

The US decision will undermine the potential of the World Health Organization and  damage international cooperation in combating the epidemic, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijan told a briefing in Beijing.

Trump’s move has also been  condemned by his political opponents from the Democratic Party. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy has compared the  refusal to fund the WHO with depriving an ally of a weapon before an attack on the enemy.

As for Russia,  Moscow has repeatedly pointed out the efficiency of the World Health Organization. «Anyone who would care to analyze the chronology of WHO moves, statements and concrete measures will see for themselves that the Organization operates with maximum efficiency», – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference on April 14. In his words, the US is the biggest donor, which has the largest number of representatives in international organizations. According to Sergei Lavrov, the World Health Organization has a large number of Americans in key positions, who are highly qualified specialists taking well-considered professional decisions. Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov has reminded everyone that the G20 summit on March 26 (where the US was represented by Donald Trump) adopted a general statement saying that  G20 along with WHO «is determined to do its utmost to overcome the pandemic».

In the ensuing polemic the WHO emphasizes the medical aspect, giving no confirmation as to the laboratory origin of the coronavirus – be it “Chinese” or “American”. The prime version as to the origin of the virus, in the opinion of the WHO, is that it passed from animals to humans. The coronavirus, which caused a global pandemic of new-type pneumonia has no signs of having been constructed in a lab, – WHO press secretary Fadela Chaib said at a briefing: «All available evidence suggests that the  virus has an animal  origin and is not constructed or  manipulated in a lab or somewhere else». It was not clear, Chaib added, how the virus had jumped the species barrier to humans but there had certainly been an intermediate animal host. «It most likely has its ecological reservoir in bats but how the virus came from bats to humans is still to be seen and discovered», – Fadela Chaib reported, declining to provide any comments on one of the versions under which the virus could have escaped from a laboratory of the Institute of Virology in Wuhan.

At the end of January Republican Senator Tom Cotton suggested a lab origin of the coronavirus infection. He said Wuhan  «has China’s only safety level four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens». Besides, an assumption that the coronavirus came from the Wuhan laboratory was voiced by Fox News. According to the TV channel, the spread of the coronavirus began accidentally, after an institute employee got infected in course of research.

It is in support of the latter version that President Donald Trump has announced that Washington is conducting an inquiry into where the coronavirus came from.

China’s authorities deny the laboratory origin of coronavirus. «It is irresponsible to say so. The pandemic is humanity’s common enemy. All countries, including China, have become victims of this sudden crisis.  How could anyone speak about compensation or responsibility? WHO has made it clear many times that searching for culprits is more dangerous than the disease itself», – Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijan said on April 16.

On April 21 Chinese Ambassador to US Cui Tiankai urged Washington to discard  «groundless accusations» in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. «Some politicians are too preoccupied with their attempts for stigmatization and groundless accusations», – the  ambassador said in his comments for journalists. The Chinese ambassador added that mass media should pay more attention to “scientists’ views” on the pandemic. He said China is doing everything to share whatever it knows about coronavirus with the rest of the world.

The continuing tension in the US in connection with the coronavirus pandemic gives grounds to expect a tougher rhetoric from the incumbent administration in relation to China, the World Health Organization and other international agencies involved. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s opponents, on their part, will attempt to use the issue for their own political agenda in the run-up to presidential elections in November. This creates serious obstacles towards coordination of international effort in dealing with COVID-19.

 From our partner International Affairs


Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics



The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn



Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer



When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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