According to the Financial Times, Donald Trump has threatened to quit the World Health Organization (WHO).

Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from the World Health Organization unless it demonstrates independence from China, in an escalation of his attack on the body.

In a letter to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, Mr Trump said he would take one of several dramatic actions unless the global health body committed to reform within 30 days.

“If the World Health Organization does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the WHO permanent and reconsider our membership in the Organisation,” he wrote.

I don't see any benefit the USA could gain by doing so. What benefits would there be for the US if this threat was followed through on?

  • 5
    Do you have a non-paywalled version of the article?
    – qwr
    Commented May 31, 2020 at 21:26
  • @qwr Just do a Google search for the "site:ft.com Donald Trump threatens to quit WHO" and it will let you in. Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 15:35
  • No direct benefits, but send a message to other world organizations (including the UN) that don't expect support from the US if an organization continues to allow China to gain out of proportioned influence through its politics designed to harm/humble the US.
    – r13
    Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 20:30

8 Answers 8


What the US would gain is unclear, besides saving some contribution money.

What Trump gains is turning the narrative away from criticism of his leadership with regards to the Covid crisis and reframing it as something for which he doesn't have to take any responsibility because it was all China's and the WHO's fault.

Basically, the Covid story is here to stay. Make it about WHO shortcomings rather than Trump shortcomings.

Other presidents might have been wary of the reactions of US allies at picking a fight with the WHO, especially when their expertise is much needed. Trump however has frequently indicated he doesn't care much about what the rest of the world thinks and many of his core supporters like that about him.

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    Trump apparently posted a four-page letter on the subject. Does this not list his reasons for wanting to withdraw from the WHO? Either way, while I don't disagree with what you wrote, I would argue the core of the answer should focus on concrete reasons, facts and well-supported claims. Any opinions about motivations should be a footnote (at most). This is true even if those opinions are disguised as fairly objective statements that only exist because of what they imply ("that's probably why Trump posted the letter"). We are trying to keep things a bit more objective here.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 31, 2020 at 3:03
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    Just curious, what kind of "much needed expertise" WHO provides? Commented May 31, 2020 at 19:44
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    Another highly voted answer with ZERO cited sources or even (numerical) figures for the matter.
    – qwr
    Commented May 31, 2020 at 21:24
  • I don't think Trump threatens to withdraw the US from WHO was solely focused on "shifting" the blame. For the start, he had threatened or withdrew the US from many world organizations and treaties such as the Paris Agreement. In the end, he saw the WHO has been heavily influenced by China, and is gradually difficult for the US to work with and put in the trust on WHO's works/advocations, then why pay the due to support an organization that disrespects the US's interests/claims.
    – r13
    Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 20:12

Leaving the WHO would release the US from the legal obligations of its membership; chiefly those set out by the International Health Regulations of 2005. These are fairly wide ranging and pithy, far too in-depth to describe thoroughly in an answer here, but a good summary may be found in the WHO's publication International Health Regulations (2005): A brief introduction to implementation in national legislation.

The IHR (2005) are the international legal instrument designed to help protect all States from the international spread of disease, including public health risks and public health emergencies.

The purpose and scope of the IHR (2005) are very broad, focusing upon almost all serious public health risks that might spread across international borders. According to Article 2, the purpose and scope of the Regulations are:

"to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade." (emphasis added)

To this end, the IHR (2005) contain rights and obligations for States Parties (and functions for WHO) concerning national and international surveillance; assessment and public health response; health measures applied by States Parties to international travellers, aircraft, ships, motor vehicles and goods; public health at international ports, airports and ground crossings (together referred to as “points of entry”); and many other subjects.

Considering that the IHR have been implemented by 196 state parties as of April 2013, including some non-members of the WHO, such as the Holy See, it seems questionable whether the US would seek to depart from them. However, as Trump appears to be questioning the WHO's authority and neutrality, it is unlikely he would want the US to remain legally obligated to report health emergencies to the body, for example. In addition, when the regulations were being implemented in 2006, the US was one of only two WHO members who registered "reservations and understandings" relating to them, the other being India.

Further to Italian Philosophers' answer, which also goes into the domestic political benefits for Trump personally, I'll just put a figure on the contribution money mentioned; the US currently owes the WHO around 200 million dollars, roughly 40% of which is their assessed membership fees for 2019, the rest being the 2020 fees. It seems unlikely that the US would pay this if it withdrew from the body.

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    It might be worth mentioning that Trump said that the money would go to other (unspecified) health organizations instead. Commented May 30, 2020 at 23:00

This is not a cost-benefit calculation based off money contributions

Condemning WHO is a political statement relating to the facts that:

  1. Taiwan is kept out of WHO by China,
  2. (Arguably) there was misleading information that has been coming from the WHO in the initial stages of the pandemic,
  3. China has a lot more influence on WHO than US would like.

This points to a future cost-benefit calculation where US tries to look for, support, define and test its allies in a fight against imperialist China (as portrayed by Trump) in both economic and military way.

By condemning WHO and their actions You can also rather easily create a narrative where anything China touches is evil. This paired with early pandemic coverup in China, their treatment of their own citizens, concentration camps, their treatment of Uyghur, Christian and other religions, the take-over of Hong-Kong, South China Sea disputes, Tibet situation, damming of the Mykong river (that flows among others through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia) and a whole slew of human-right-violations that happen there everyday can be an effective way of "creating an enemy" to fight even if the fight means simply that you will not buy stuff that's made in China.

Thus, it seems to be a way to curb the belt-and-road initiative, limit the chinese takeover of African property through debt-traps, limit their political, financial and production powers to avoid loss of power US has held for a long time (for better or worse).

  • 9
    I think this answer best summarizes the reasons in favor of withdrawing from the WHO. Commented May 31, 2020 at 18:26
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    where US tries to look for, support, define and test its allies in a fight against imperialist China. I am pretty sure none of the allies are particularly impressed with attacking the WHO, not China, at this particular point in time. So, as a communal containment policy, it achieves very little, quite the opposite. China put itself in a corner, basically even for the reasons outlines in Trump's 4 page letter, but the US is painting itself as the bad guy by cutting off the WHO. I don't believe even Trump doesn't realize that, so containment's just not the primary goal. Commented May 31, 2020 at 18:47
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    and let me add that I feel, as time goes on, and as Xi becomes more and more obnoxious all-around, quite a lot of sympathy for constraining China from become even more domineering and unpleasant. This maneuver is counterproductive in that sense, as most of the world sees plainly that's it's America First, or rather Trump First, that drives this, not any desire for justice and respect amongst nations. Commented May 31, 2020 at 19:03
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    impressed was a bit flippant and sloppy. Let's put it differently - what you are talking about is to build a coalition. My take on it is that hurting the WHO, at this time, for what seems to be blatantly partisan reasons is precisely the kind of activity that will make Western-aligned countries, turn away from US leadership and be unwilling to join a coalition. So, this action does not merely clarify other countries' positions, it modifies them, making it less likely countries will unite to contain China. It's a mistake Obama, or Bush, would not have made. Commented Jun 1, 2020 at 17:51
  • 2
    I doubt Trump even knows that Taiwan exists. And if he does, he probably thinks it's a U.S. air base. I don't see how Taiwan makes it top of your answer here.
    – PatrickT
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 7:06

The US gains nothing, and in fact loses quite a bit. While I can't find any polls on the question - either the withdrawal is too recent, or my Google skills aren't up to the task :-( - I'd bet that most Americans don't think the withdrawal is a good idea, just as they did not approve of cutting WHO funding.

However, the US withdrawal is not about possible advantages to the US, it's about the behavior patterns of Donald Trump. Whenever something goes wrong, he tries to blame it on someone else rather than taking responsibility himself. So faced with his mismanagement of the COVID-19 situation, he has been trying to shift blame to China, the WHO, and others.

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    Good answers don't have "I bet" - they have polls and evidence cited.
    – qwr
    Commented May 31, 2020 at 21:20
  • 3
    @qwr: If you can find polls, feel free to modify the answer to include a link.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 1, 2020 at 5:17
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    According to this americans seem to be happy with the WHO: "The survey found that some 77% trust the WHO, ranking it above all other entities tested. This includes (...) the military."
    – Daniel
    Commented Jun 1, 2020 at 18:17
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    "The US gains nothing" You may not agree with what it gains but it gains autonomy and the ability to counter China's influence (Whether you agree with these or not). "not about possible advantages" Just because you disagree with the advantages doesn't make them disappear. "Mismanagement of the COVID situation" So you'll focus on "his" mismanagement and willingly ignore WHO's mismanagement?
    – WernerCD
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 2:35
  • 1
    @Daniel: Thanks! That poll predates Trump's actions by a couple of months, but I'd be surprised if opinions had changed that much.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 5:52

Trump's letter to Dr. Tedros of the World Health Organization clearly lays out Trump's reasoning: the WHO is "not serving America's interests" and so the US should not support the organization. To quote the concluding paragraph:

It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world. The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China. My Administration has already started discussions with you on how to reform the organization. But action is needed quickly. We do not have time to waste. That is why it is my duty, as President of the United States, to inform you that, if the World Health Organization does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization. I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organization that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving America's interests.

The U.S. has been the largest contributor to WHO. The US from FY 2010 to FY 2019 has made assessed contribution of $109 million to $119 million and voluntary contributions from around $100 million to $400 million. The US participated as a WHO executive board member and provided technical support and partnering activites. (source: kff)

Trump's belief is that the US saves on resources provided to the WHO including funding and expertise, and gains by not supporting anti-American interests. Specifically, Trump believes "Despite the fact that China provides just a small fraction of the funding that the United States does, the WHO has shown a dangerous bias towards the Chinese government." "The American people deserve better from the WHO, and no more funding will be provided until its mismanagement, cover-ups, and failures can be investigated." The failures cited in the White House briefing statements include:

According to Morning Consult polls, net approval among voters has declined 29 percentage points from earlier in April, so that "55% approve of the United Nations-led group’s handling of coronavirus, compared to 30% who disapprove." Among Republicans net approval is at -10%.


The USA can use money as a lever to seek more control and accountability from the WHO. A Chinese delegate (Margaret Chan) was director of the WHO from 2006 to 2017, and after her, China has sought to keep as much influence through the new director.

France found it's earliest case of Covid-19 from November 2019 DNA sample archives, one month before the Chinese started reporting the illness, so there are arguments about the WHO's efficiency in China, and the undetectable rise of Covid-19 is being used as a tool for accusation of the WHO. That accusation is fomented by the WHO's lack of urgency in the declaration of a pandemic.

The WHO is also degraded by money, (it spends more on executive travel than on health) business class last minute flights, five star hotels, and WHO executives are good targets for bribes. The American government is also degraded by businesses, career politicians and money and they want to reduce frictional foreign influence of the WHO.

The USA and the EU have very little leverage over the accountability of the WHO, because it governs itself and elects and appoints it's own staff.

A 2 billion pound organization, which has millions of dollars of contracts in countries where money is very difficult to trace, the WHO would benefit from reform. That is one possible benefit of suspending funding.

Sometimes, organizations that govern pharmacy and health regulation authorities can become so corrupted with time, it is best to gut them of all their operatives and replace them with a modernized organization which does it's job safely. That happened in the UK when Blair completely dismantled the pharmacy and health regulation safety authority and built a new one which actually did it's job.

There is less long term strategy in USA foreign policy. "short term-ism" is the defining theme of US foreign policy according to a Cambridge friend who is an Asian current affairs analyst. The WHO decision may be like the Paris Agreement, which benefits a US special interest (its fossil fuel industry) in the short term, and impoverishes the US economy in the long term.

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    What do you mean by foreign influence of the WHO? The WHO is a membership organisation, of course it has "foreign influence". It's not independent of its members and never can be.
    – gerrit
    Commented May 31, 2020 at 10:37
  • 1
    Thanks, Indeed. I mean frictional foreign influence from regions which conflict the USA's interests. quotes: "What is the Controversy Over Taiwan at the WHO" ... "[T]he sudden Chinese belligerence at the border has coincided with India’s chance to assume a leadership role at the World Health Organization by taking over as the chair of the WHO executive Board on 22 May" ... Commented May 31, 2020 at 10:50
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    Ok, I double checked it's "last minute flights and business class, and five star hotels" apnews.com/7c645221c40d450b863b695085b4a03b Commented May 31, 2020 at 13:37
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    There is a report from 2017 about first class plane tickets under Dr Chan from associated press news, same page as above. Commented May 31, 2020 at 13:53
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    “France found it's earliest case of Covid-19 from November 2019 saliva archives”. This is one among many disingenuous arguments in this answer. The search for patient 0 started after the pandemy was identified (duh). Should the WHO have reported the pandemic in November 2019? Or maybe in July 2019 so we could start to manufacture masks in advance? Commented Jun 1, 2020 at 9:50

The main benefit for Trump is that is brings US foreign policy and health policy closer in line with his values.

Trump is fundamentally a US Foreign Policy Jacksonian. This is the one of Mead's 4 schools of US Foreign Policy that has often been caricatured as "isolationist". Jacksonians tend to believe strongly in a self-sufficient USA that avoids all possible foreign treaties, alliances, and disputes. They are skeptical of any centralized authority, and particularly those that aren't directly answerable to the voting public of the US. They are also skeptical of the prospects of the US doing any good in the world at large, so international agreements and ties are viewed as constraining the US to no benefit to itself, and great potential harm.

So the benefit, as Trump sees it, is that the USA will now be fully free to conduct its own health policy without any interference from the UN, a body dominated by members who were appointed from foreign capitals and are working to serve their own leaders' interests, not the US's.

  • 4
    Just want to put a marker down here that I personally am not a Jacksonian, so this is decidedly not my own opinion, and I hope I'm not promoting it. However, I'm trying to give the fairest shake I'm capable of to this POV.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 14:26
  • 1
    In what way has the WHO interfered with US health policy in the last few months? I thought the WHO only recommends policies/gives guidance, but countries are free to follow or disregard those policies. It certainly doesn't seem like the US followed WHO guidelines particularly well in the last few months.
    – Voo
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 14:43
  • 1
    @Voo - This answer does not assert that they did. Again, I'm not arguing for this POV. I don't agree with it. If you think you have a good argument that parts of it are nonsense, I don't really have it in me to disagree.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 14:47

At the risk of being obvious, Trump's letter clearly delineates his reasons.

Both Trump and WHO have made mistakes in regard to this crisis. At the time when China was in full lockdown and European countries were declaring local quarantines, Trump expected it all to just disappear.

That said, WHO has been of limited value in response to this particular public health crisis. The quarantine and distancing measures were implemented on behalf of individual nations. Even mostly-favorable sources acknowledge WHO's mistakes. Both Trump and the WHO underestimated the threat.

There is a difference, though: the president's job is to judge the priorities, including choosing between lives and money. Kafkaesque as the 2016 election was, the American voters did choose the lesser of two evils, at least in their opinion. National presidents get to choose what to prioritize; in this case, Trump prioritized the economy over safety, rightly or not. The WHO, on the other hand, has a singular mission, protecting the public health, in which it has failed.

What the US gains is a way to make a statement. The money in question is fairly inconsequential for the US budget, but it's significant for the WHO. Exercising the ability and the will to control that funding allows Trump to affect the WHO's priorities.

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    I have no clue what the line Kafkaesque as the 2016 election was, the US did choose what appeared to be the lesser of two evils, and national presidents do get that priorities excuse is doing in an answer about the WHO.
    – gerrit
    Commented May 31, 2020 at 20:37
  • 1
    Iff the US perceives problem in the WHO it could try to fix these problems. Commented May 31, 2020 at 22:18
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    Re: "nothing would have been different if WHO had not existed." Even if this dubious assertion was true in the present instance, it neglects to factor in WHO's obvious long term value to the US. It would be like saying that one's car insurance policy was useless because it didn't pay for one's most recent claim, or that car seatbelts are useless because in collisions seatbelts don't save everyone every time. Besides which WHO performs various other functions and deeds, (i.e. international data collection, global ambassadors, having helped eradicate smallpox, etc.).
    – agc
    Commented Jun 1, 2020 at 7:35
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    @gerrit - You clearly have no appreciation for the evils that can be unleashed upon the world by someone using the wrong email server. Let's all pray we never have to find out.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 17:51

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