Last week, President Donald Trump lambasted the World Health Organization (WHO) coronavirus performance in stark and explicit terms. “The W.H.O. really blew it,” Trump tweeted. “For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric.” Indeed. The Chinese campaign to dominate U.N. agencies has been well-documented, and extends beyond the WHO to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the recent and failed effort to take over the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), its now notorious stewardship of Interpol, and more. But the China problem that has been exposed so dramatically as a result of the pandemic is actually just a subset of a larger and more serious one. Much of the global infrastructure built in the wake of World War II—think the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, and the European Union—is aged, sclerotic, corrupt, and incapable of addressing the challenges of the 21st century. The COVID-19 pandemic should be an inflection point for the world, a wake-up call to revisit and reform that infrastructure for the 21st century.
If World War I shattered the 19th-century British, French, and German imperial world order, the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War shortly thereafter brought its re-consolidation under the leadership of the United States. And there should be no question that that leadership ushered in the most prosperous age in human history. But it also froze in time certain anachronisms. The UN Security Council has 10 rotating members, and five veto-wielding permanent members that include the Allied powers that won, or claimed some part in winning World War II—the United States, the Soviet Union (now Russia), France, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of China (now the People’s Republic of coronavirus fame). What about Japan? Germany? Well, they lost, apparently forever. India? Part of the British Empire.
Similarly, NATO consolidated in 1949, eventually adding Greece, Turkey, and then Germany in 1955. France was in and out and in again, the Soviet Union collapsed, former members of the ex-Warsaw Pact joined, and the organization agreed, sort of, on the occasional wisdom of so-called out-of-area operations. But repeated efforts to remind members of the importance of NATO as a defense pact—its actual and original purpose—have faltered in recent decades. Most members don’t spend near the pledged 2 percent of their GDP on defense, and there are real questions about their commitment to the principles underlying the organization, underscored by Turkey’s recent purchase of Russia’s NATO-killer S400 air defense system.
Then there’s the European Union, born originally with a view to ending the age of European conflict. And to be fair, Europe has not gone to war since the end of World War II; the EU has delivered integration once unthinkable. But the rise of European populists, crushing imbalances in economic and foreign policy, a drift away from democracy among new members (ahem Hungary), and Brexit also underscore the fragility of the EU in its current form.