U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo by: Juan Manuel Herrera / OAS / CC BY-NC-ND 

BURLINGTON, Vt. — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the World Health Organization was based on the belief that the international body is a “political” and not a “science-based” institution.

Pompeo referenced “multiple rounds of reforms” advocated at WHO by U.S. representatives in Geneva and said that “each time we got reforms, there was no capacity to make that a science-based organization and not a political one.”

Pompeo said the administration concluded it would be more likely to achieve its global health security goals if it did not participate in the multilateral institution, an argument that U.S. global health experts have widely rejected.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, disputed Pompeo’s characterization of WHO.

“It is an international body,” he said. “There is no way there won’t be some level of politics affecting the decisions that a body made up of historic adversaries will go through, but it is a science-based organization, and it is one that is indispensable to the continuation of our efforts to try to prevent the next disease.”

He added that “I really shudder to think about our ability to stop the next COVID if we are not back in the WHO.”

Murphy also charged that withdrawing from WHO “seems to allow for China to step in and occupy that vacuum.”

“I am not at all convinced that it will be China that benefits from that. I’m convinced that the world will benefit,” Pompeo replied, citing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance — an international organization of which WHO is a core partner — as examples of U.S. global health leadership.

Losing influence

Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, also voiced concern about the decline of U.S. influence and leadership within United Nations agencies. Pompeo agreed that the trend is significant, describing it as an “at least 15-year-long slide” that has allowed Chinese influence to grow within these institutions and organizations.

Pompeo said the president’s budget proposal includes roughly $20 million to make permanent a team that was established to help secure the election of the Trump administration’s favored candidate for the World Intellectual Property Organization, which would focus on promoting U.S. candidates in major elections for key international institutions.

“It’s not just the leaders that matter at these U.N. organizations. They have big bureaucracies underneath them. And we are, sadly, inadequately represented at every level,” Pompeo said, noting that representatives do not necessarily need to be American but should come from countries that “understand the rule of law.”

Pompeo said he has worked with about seven other countries on an effort to change this.

“It’s a little bit of a resource issue, but it’s a lot of a focus issue, and I believe I’ve cleaned that up materially,” Pompeo said.

‘Old wine in new bottles’

The secretary also faced questions about the State Department’s implementation of the Global Fragility Act, a law aimed at reshaping the U.S. government’s efforts in fragile and conflict-affected states to combat violent extremism. Passed with bipartisan support in December 2019, it requires the State Department to draft a 10-year Global Fragility Strategy, intended to create a whole-of-government approach to these contexts.

Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware and one of the co-sponsors of the bill, noted that the strategy is due on Sept. 15 and cautioned Pompeo that “Congress really isn’t looking for old wine in new bottles.”

“I really shudder to think about our ability to stop the next COVID if we are not back in the WHO.”

— U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy

Pompeo agreed with the lawmaker’s concerns, suggesting that the “first pass” of the strategy that he reviewed was underwhelming.

“You characterized it about right. There wasn’t much that was original in there,” Pompeo said.

“I’ve asked the team to go back and take a set of fresh looks, to ask for outside views — folks on Capitol Hill, people who are experts around the world — to see if we can’t use this tool that you provided us on a bipartisan basis to actually deliver on the stated objectives of that law,” he added.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, shared concerns about the implementation of another law: the Women, Peace, and Security Act, which Trump signed in 2017. Shaheen noted that the agreement signed between the U.S. and the Taliban to promote peace talks in Afghanistan “failed to mention the rights of Afghan women and ... contains no guarantees for their continued constitutional protection.”

She asked Pompeo if a policy that leaves women in Afghanistan to “fend for themselves” fulfills the 2017 law’s requirement of “the meaningful inclusion of women in peace talks.”

“We’re doing our level best to ensure that we protect every Afghan — male and female,” Pompeo responded, adding that he has seen the tentative composition of the Afghan negotiating team and that he believed the senator would be “pleased with it.”

Transition of power

As Pompeo’s hearing got underway, Trump sent a tweet suggesting that the U.S. presidential election in November might need to be delayed due to widely discredited claims about voter fraud. Pompeo faced multiple questions about how U.S. government efforts to promote democracy abroad might be undermined by threats to America’s own democratic institutions.

“We need to set a good example about the peaceful transition of power, or else we undermine our entire foreign policy,” said Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico.

Asked whether he would respect the results of a certified election in November if Trump refuses to accept them, Pompeo declined to comment on a hypothetical but said that he will “follow the rule of law” and “follow the Constitution.”

Udall also criticized Trump’s attacks on the credibility and independence of American journalists and the effect these might have on press freedom overseas.

“Are you concerned that instead of promoting press freedom abroad, America is now providing moral support to authoritarian efforts to crack down on critical media outlets, from Russia to China to Venezuela and beyond?” he asked.

“No, I’m not remotely concerned about that,” Pompeo responded.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.