Do You Want a Strong UN or Not?

The irony of Americans demanding that the WHO stand up to China is that this would require the UN to have the kind of power that Americans repeatedly (and fearfully) object to.

You can’t demand that an organization kowtow to sovereign states…and then complain when it has no choice but to kowtow to sovereign states. (Even so, the WHO used its good relations with China to convince its stodgy government to open up by mid February.)

I think this was put best by Roger Cochetti, who served as director of the D.C. office of the United Nations Association of the United States (UNA-USA). As he writes in The Hill:

Although it’s sometimes popular in Hollywood movies to portray UN agencies as supranational organizations that directly intervene in any country they wish whenever they wish, nothing could be further from the truth. UN agencies are associations of sovereign independent governments. Particularly when it comes to something happening entirely inside a single country, the UN agency is bound to fully cooperate with that country and basically accept what that member country reports. And if some other country does not accept the reporting country’s statements, then that second country is free to object or complain.    

There is no shortage of scholars who advocate that the WHO (and perhaps other UN agencies) should be transformed into a supranational organization whose staff directly and forcibly interfere within any country whenever staff sees fit. National governments — including the U.S. — would have to accept the notion that a multinational WHO bureaucracy would have the authority to directly investigate and interfere with national and local health authorities whenever the WHO staff saw fit to do. Imagine a WHO team of experts forcing their way into Fort Dix, N.J., to independently investigate the U.S. report of Swine Flu in 1976.

Until or unless UN agencies like the WHO are transformed into such supranational organizations, these agencies will rely on national permission about events within a member country. And in case you were wondering, there has been virtually no support within the United States to transform the WHO into a supranational organization.

The reality is that countries like China are far likelier to work with an ostensibly neutral UN bureaucrat than with an American. That’s why the WHO ended up being the one to help Americans from the CDC and NIH get into China. And that’s why organizations like the WHO exist in the first place. Good luck getting close to 200 countries to agree to anything without some sort shared forum for discussion and representation. True, it is often inefficient, sclerotic, and even at times corrupt, but it’s the best thing we’ve got right now — unless we want to give more power, money, and authority to the international institutions we otherwise hate and fear.

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