“The most significant blow to U.S. leadership is the handling of the pandemic at home.”
— Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
On Friday, President Trump pulled the United States out of the World Health Organization, accusing the agency of helping the Chinese government cover up the coronavirus epidemic.
Public health experts in the United States reacted to Mr. Trump’s announcement with alarm.
“We helped create the W.H.O.,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The New York Times.
“Turning our back on the W.H.O. makes us and the world less safe,” Dr. Friedan said.
Experts argued that global cooperation would be crucial to containing the virus, as it did six years ago during the Ebola outbreak that was raging through West Africa.
At the time, President Barack Obama sent 3,000 American troops to the region to help with the response on the ground. And Samantha Power, former ambassador to the U.N., convened the U.N. Security Council for its first ever meeting over a public health crisis and helped pass a resolution declaring the outbreak a “threat to international peace and security” — a step that led to an infusion of funds and resources for the response effort.
“Like so many 21st-century challenges, Ebola was not a zero-sum fight in which some countries could ‘win’ by pursuing their interests in a vacuum,” Power wrote in her book “The Education of an Idealist.”
I spoke with Power at a digital event hosted by The Wing last week. We discussed what the W.H.O. would look like without American contributions and the lessons learned from the Ebola crisis.
The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity. You can watch the full video here.
Walk me through the immediate ramifications of cutting funding to the W.H.O., which President Trump declared this past week that he would do.
Seventy percent of U.S. funds, roughly, go to H.I.V., malaria, vaccinations. So you may be making a political statement and trying to thumb your nose at China but what you’re doing is cutting funding from children getting measles and polio vaccines.
The main job of the World Health Organization is actually to gather information from the various countries that comprise the U.N. and publicize information that needs to be turned into an alarm. That is something that they did in this case but they were a little bit later than we wish they would have been. But it’s hard to pin any dimension of our lack of preparedness on the World Health Organization. So that coordinating, alarm-issuing role is very significant.
Unfortunately, international organizations are very dependent on the governments that comprise those organizations. It’s not as though the U.N. secretary general gets to march into the Wuhan wet market and poke around. He’s dependent, as is the head of the World Health Organization, on the Chinese government allowing that kind of access. While that seems kind of lame on one level, imagine if we were talking about the United States.
The W.H.O. also gathers resources from the member states, particularly the wealthier ones, the donor states, and then provides supplies to developing countries and governments that just don’t have the ability to manufacture them or to afford them. I mean, the country of South Sudan only had four ventilators at the start of this crisis and fewer than 200 doctors in the whole country. So that pooling of resources to send to those areas is critical.
In a recent opinion piece in The Times, you argue that America’s chances of recovery from the coronavirus outbreak are tied to the well-being of other countries and therefore the U.S. needs to lead global efforts to stem the spread of the virus. Could you explain exactly why our fates are so linked with the fate of other countries?
I’m old enough to remember when it was not controversial to note how linked we are. It’s a pandemic that came from somewhere else, traveled presumably on an airplane with somebody, unwittingly, and has wreaked havoc on our communities, our economy, our psychology. But it has become something you kind of have to argue now, to say “actually, it matters what happens beyond our borders.” We have so many family ties with people living in other countries. Our global supply chains, at least for the time being, stretch like capillaries into the deepest recesses of many developing countries. Our trade ties extend to other places. Normalcy elsewhere matters to normalcy here. We know that viruses don’t respect borders. But that also requires thinking about the recovery in similar terms. We have to buckle down and do what we need to do here, but we won’t be able to return to normal until the hot spots are calmed around the world.
What do you think this crisis has done for the respect of global organizations and for the respect of America around the world?
Some of the lesson learning in the United States will be related to globalization and it will be healthy. There will be a question about how we make ourselves less susceptible to disruptions in global supply chains.
But the scapegoating of international institutions is a travesty and it’s completely antithetical to our interests. Out of a crisis like this, we should be looking to strengthen the authorities of those bodies that have access to information from all over the world. And to pull funding from the World Health Organization at the height of the greatest pandemic since 1918 is a massive blow to U.S. leadership.
But the most significant blow to U.S. leadership is the handling of the pandemic at home. The most significant source of our leadership, over time, is our soft power and is the model of our democracy. So when we end up with partisan understandings of what has happened and now we’re leading the world in deaths — that is seen everywhere in the world.
It’s some irony that the pandemic was grotesquely mishandled inside China’s borders but because of the U.S.’ retreat, President Xi can stand up and say that he’s leading the world by making a substantial financial contribution to vaccine research. That narrative would have been unthinkable. There will be an enormous excavation and digging out that will be needed by the next president.
Some of the countries that have been doing well in this pandemic — New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan and Finland — all have something in common: They have female leaders. What can we take away from that? Is it just a correlation or do you think there’s a real cause-and-effect here?
It is so striking the extent to which that correlation exists. Of course, there are a few countries that have performed very well — Australia, the Republic of Korea, for example — that are led by men. But the qualities of leadership in each of them — which vary even among the women, I mean, Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern are very different leaders — is some combination of expressed empathy, a kind of intellectual humility, an ability to change course when something doesn’t appear to be working and an inclusive message. Those qualities of leadership are associated with women’s styles of leadership.
But what would maybe tip a little into causality is — imagine what it took for any one of those women to get to where they got. There’s a reason that 85 percent of countries are not governed by women, that our boardrooms look the way they do. So what it took for those women to become the head of state, chances are you’re going to be cool in a crisis and lead with some combination of toughness and humanity.
But also imagine in those countries where these female leaders are the ones navigating the crisis — those kids are growing up and seeing women leaders and this is the Winston Churchill moment, this is the Blitz of London moment. So almost irrespective of why it is, the impact on what boys and girls expect in leadership will set the sense of possibility for young girls and women all around the world.
In your book, “The Education of an Idealist,” you describe how, during a call with the White House about Russia sanctions, your son Declan is trying to get your attention.
After failing to get your attention, he “stomped away muttering ‘Putin, Putin, Putin — when is it going to be Declan, Declan, Declan?’”
I know that a lot of parents — especially mothers — are struggling to work from home and shoulder much of the unpaid care work. What advice do you have for families right now and how can women come out of this with their career and, frankly their sanity, intact?
I love that scene because I do think even though it’s a pretty esoteric circumstance, every parent, man or woman, can relate to that tension of just being pulled in a professional direction and then having your child banging on the door, and you’re hiding under the table. Everybody has their own version of this. And people who don’t have kids have their own version of just barely hanging on, just the juggle and the inelegance of it.
So the answer to your question is, you’re not alone. It’s hard when you feel that the institutions are just ingrained with this expectation that it’s going to be the woman who takes care of the sick parent or oversees the home schooling.
And, the second thing is we need to publicize more that it’s not OK. You called it unpaid care, and I love even that shift to that phrase. It’s acknowledging what is work and what might detract from one’s ability to be as timely or as perfectionist as one would like to be on one’s work product. In the post-Covid “what are we learning?” phase, we have to ask what is the social infrastructure that we have that leaves us so fragile and so vulnerable. So much of that is shrouded day to day and then this opens it up.
What is your fondest memory from your White House years?
One night, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama invited Cass Sunstein, my husband who I met on the Obama campaign, and me to dinner with a group of their friends. I called my stepfather, Eddie, to come babysit our kids — 4 and 1, at the time.
By the way, Cass and Obama were colleagues at the University of Chicago and Cass is famously very messy. So we get to the White House and everybody’s already seated out on the balcony, having drinks, and we walk out there and Cass kicks a glass of wine and it just shatters. Obama looks up and says: “Leave it to Cass to break the White House.”
And then we retire to go to dinner after the drinks and my phone rings. It’s Eddie and I hear my daughter screaming in the background. And I’d left such clear instructions as to how to feed her. I’d left my milk, everything. So everybody else is going to the dinner and I slip off to the side on my cellphone and try to explain to my father how to feed my child. And he’s not understanding, she’s going crazy, Eddie is getting mad at me because I’m not explaining it well even though I’m explaining it perfectly — it’s just going up and up and up. Next thing I hear over my shoulder is “let me talk to him.” And it’s Obama. So he takes my phone and he says: “This is the president. You got this.” And proceeds to walk him through how to calmly retrieve the milk and feed my daughter.
And then, as we’re walking from there, Obama asked me to be the U.N. ambassador.
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