On April 14, as the enormity of the coronavirus crisis was finally becoming clear, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he was halting funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), delivering a major blow to an organization that depends on the United States for nearly 10 percent of its budget. Washington followed that decision with a declaration 10 days later that it would not take part in a global initiative to speed up the development, production, and distribution of drugs and vaccines to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. In early May, the United States sat out a global vaccine summit led by the European Commission, and later that month, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from WHO altogether. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council has been silent, paralyzed by the rising tensions between China and the United States.
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare how much global institutions have come to rely on a United States that has now abdicated its role as the world’s indispensable nation. The Trump administration hasn’t just responded to the emerging health crisis by imposing travel bans, carrying out draconian restrictions on immigration and asylum, and pressing intelligence agencies to distort assessments on the source of the outbreak. The United States has also turned on the global institutions it was instrumental in creating after World War II to address just such global threats.
But the United States’ abandonment of global leadership may have an unexpected upside. As the world loses the positive impact of American exceptionalism, it might also start shedding its downside—top-down global governance that has favored a small number of nations, too often at the expense of the rest. The waning of U.S. hegemony opens up new possibilities for more decentralized, democratic systems of global governance involving genuine cooperation among a critical mass of nations. Rather than a world governed by a hegemon, it may be time for one managed by what might be called global clubs.