US secretary of state Mike Pompeo at a news conference at the state department in Washington, the US, on March 31 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ANDREW HARNIK
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo at a news conference at the state department in Washington, the US, on March 31 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ANDREW HARNIK

Washington — US Secretary of state Mike Pompeo once warned that international organisations such as the UN must be “reformed or eliminated”. With the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the US and the world, he’s now embracing them.

At a briefing this week, Pompeo heaped praise on what he called “these important institutions” such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and touted — as he’s done several times in recent days — the US’s financial contributions to global bodies, without mentioning how often he’s supported slashing US funding to them.

“Our generosity, our pragmatism, aimed at saving US lives now and in the future is also exemplified through our work with multilateral organisations,” Pompeo said. “They not only help citizens around the world but they protect Americans and keep them safe here as well.”

It was a jarring shift for a secretary of state who, like his boss, has railed against the UN and in 2018 went to Brussels — home to the EU and Nato — to voice scepticism against the very idea of multilateralism and to question the usefulness of such agencies.

The animosity wasn’t just rhetorical. In its proposed 2021 budget, as in years past, the Trump administration proposed cutting voluntary contributions to the WHO by more than half, to about $58m, and sought steep cuts to the UN writ large.

The sudden turnaround is characteristic of a broader softening in tone for Pompeo and an administration that, after playing down the threat of the coronavirus for weeks, is confronted with a reported caseload larger than any other nation, along with a critical shortage of protective gear.

The change is most evident in the rhetoric towards China, the target of scathing criticism from Pompeo. The secretary of state had previously insisted on calling the global disease the “Wuhan virus,” even after President Donald Trump initially said the term wasn’t appropriate.

Pompeo, who previously led the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), may have been influenced by a US intelligence report concluding that China deliberately concealed the extent of the virus outbreak, undermining international efforts to get ahead of the pandemic.

The top US diplomat helped scuttle a joint statement from Group of 7 (G7) nations on March 25 over his insistence that countries identify its origin in China. That earned a rebuke from France, which urged nations to “combat any attempt to exploit the crisis for political purposes”.

A statement from G20 leaders the next day, including the US and China, was far more conciliatory. It called for a “global response in the spirit of solidarity,” and Pompeo has stopped using the term “Wuhan virus”.

“When I read the G20 statement, I was astonished the Trump administration had signed up to it,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defence policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “It would be a silver lining of this terrible pandemic if this administration moved from its narrow, stingy interpretation of US national interests to one that understands that the US engaged in the world achieves our interests.”

The reason for Pompeo’s change can be traced back to Trump, who has taken more drastic action — and sought to protect US supply chains to China and elsewhere — as reported infections in the US overtook the rest of the world’s and deaths continue to rise.

Two senior administration officials said the change was an outgrowth of Trump’s phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 26. One of the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said there was a growing recognition that a shoving match with China was counterproductive to the coronavirus fight and made US officials look petty as American cities including New York became overwhelmed by the pandemic.

That tracks Pompeo’s own evolution: In a press briefing on March 17, he used the phrase “Wuhan virus” six times, and then again four times in a March 25 press briefing.

After Trump spoke with Xi on March 27, Pompeo dropped the phrase entirely. He wouldn’t bite when Fox News’s Sean Hannity asked him about the phrase. In a briefing Tuesday, Pompeo referred to the virus simply as Covid-19.

James Carafano, the vice-president for national security and foreign policy studies at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said the decision to call out China was a deliberate move after Chinese officials spread the false claim that the virus originated in the US. But China later “decided to back off,” he said, so the US shifted its rhetoric too.

He said Pompeo’s shift on international organisations also reflects a desire to push back against China’s efforts to co-opt those bodies.

Angry rhetoric

“Our rhetoric tends to be tough and angry but the US does use these institutions when they serve our interests,” Carafano said. “We do want them to function efficiently and effectively when we need them.”

Pompeo even appeared to soften his commentary slightly on another facet of US foreign policy that’s earned him heated criticism: the determination to press ahead with the maximum-pressure campaign against Iran even as its government struggles to contain the coronavirus.

“The US understands this is a humanitarian challenge, a humanitarian crisis, and we are deeply committed to ensuring that humanitarian assistance gets to the people of those countries,” he said.

Pompeo’s stance may also have been chastened by Congress, where some Republican members wondered why the top US diplomat was initially keeping such a low profile as the virus spread and vented their anger at the state department over its early reluctance to help the tens of thousands of US citizens stuck abroad amid airport and border closures.

On March 16, a state department spokesperson said US citizens shouldn’t rely on the US government to get them home. Then, according to one person familiar with the internal deliberations, some members of Congress and their staffs raised their frustration with the department, including by going directly to Trump. Days later, the department created a task force to help Americans get back. It has since arranged flights for more than 30,000 people, boasting of the accomplishment.

For some, there’s more to be done. In a letter to Pompeo on Tuesday, Democratic senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and several others urged the US to contribute at least $500m to a UN appeal to help displaced people.

“This is an administration that has enthusiastically taken the fight against multilateral institutions to every corner of the globe,” Murphy said. “I think they need to create an impression that they are co-operating with other countries but that just isn’t the truth.”

Bloomberg