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Editorial: The US is tearing up international relations while gunning down its own people

DONALD TRUMP’S announcement that the United States is terminating its relationship with the World Health Organisation (WHO) came as protests raged over the police killing of George Floyd.

The same leader who threatens the world with a “super-duper missile” turns on his own people, warning protesters outside the White House that if they breach the fence they will be faced with “the most vicious dogs and most ominous weapons I have ever seen.”

It is easy to laugh at the president’s ludicrous language. But as furious US citizens mobilising against the impunity with which the country’s militarised police force guns down black people knew when he threatened them, by tweet, with lethal violence, the man in the White House is extremely dangerous.

Trump blames his decision to withdraw from the WHO on China, which he accuses of “totally controlling” the international body. The accusation is absurd.

In part it is motivated by the US leader’s need to blame somebody else for his catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 US citizens.

But it is also part of an intensifying confrontation with Beijing, driven by US fears that China is achieving economic and technological parity with it — the same jealous need to maintain global dominance that lies behind its international campaign to try to sabotage Chinese high-tech companies and stop other countries using them.

Trump is not a president who sets much store by international co-operation. He tore up the painstakingly negotiated Iranian nuclear development deal. He has already withdrawn from the UN cultural agency Unesco, in that case citing its alleged bias against Israel. 

He has walked away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which brought an end to the cold war in Europe, and plans to withdraw too from the Open Skies treaty on reconnaissance flights. The president who, during his campaign, reportedly asked foreign-policy advisers repeatedly why the US could not use nuclear weapons is making a nuclear war more likely.

And that same irresponsibility is demonstrated by the decision to walk out of the WHO in the midst of a global pandemic that makes international co-operation in fighting disease more important than ever. The decision will not just hurt the WHO, but further undermine the US’s ability to protect its own citizens from Covid-19, as senators including Elizabeth Warren point out.

Is Britain complicit? Ministers say they have no plans to withdraw funding from the WHO and acknowledge that it “has an important role to play in leading the international health response.” 

Yet Britain joined the US as the only countries at the recent World Health Assembly to vote against pooling patents for Covid-19 treatments as the common property of humanity, instead standing for the commercial ownership and control of access to medicine.

It has joined the US in grandstanding over Hong Kong while remaining silent over police killings across the Atlantic and not uttering a word of reproach over Trump’s threats to gun down protesters.

And with the US it has a long history of undermining the authority of the United Nations, treating international institutions as a stick with which to beat adversaries while dismissing their relevance at other times, whether that means rejecting a UN rapporteur’s concerns about attacks on disabled people in Britain or starting foreign wars.

Dismantling the bodies designed to enable international co-operation and avoid war following World War II, as well as the treaties and agreements that helped demilitarise parts of the world after the cold war, puts us all at risk. 

Trump is unpopular in Britain, and Boris Johnson’s alliance with him is unpopular too. There is scope for public pressure on the government to stand up for international agencies and press the United States to abandon its disastrous course — one that combines bloodshed on its streets with the risk of igniting a global conflagration.

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