Germany and the WHO: Global Public Health Leader

Oliver Walter is an undergraduate student at the University of St. Andrews studying international relations and sustainable development. Much of his work focuses on the intersections between foreign policy and climate change, as well as a focus on South and Southeast Asia. When at home in San Francisco, he enjoys cycling, spending time in the outdoors, and photography.

U.S. | June 27, 2020 | Student Essay

Germany has long been a committed member of global multilateral institutions and supportive of transnational diplomacy. In recent years, it has emerged as the European Union’s preeminent political and economic leader while solidifying its role in the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a rising global power. In light of American disengagement from the World Health Organization (WHO), its position of leadership within the European Union, and successful response to the coronavirus pandemic, Germany is well positioned to the role of global public health leader in the WHO. 

         In recent years, Germany has been a consistent financial and political supporter of the WHO by funding vital initiatives in developing countries to hosting health summits and encouraging global cooperation on health issues. In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, Germany was the third highest contributing member state, and is set to increase its funding in the coming year. Specifically, German support has enabled the WHO to host summits addressing antibiotic resistance, provide healthcare in the ongoing Ukrainian civil war, and fight ebola in Sub-Saharan Africa. As in many other international institutions, Germany has been a vocal political supporter as well, championing the cause of cooperation on global health issues, namely under the helm of current chancellor Angela Merkel. German support for the organization reflects a longer-term diplomatic push to expand power through engagement with and support of global institutions.

         U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticisms of the WHO have positioned Germany as one of the few remaining allies of the organization, and consequently it has largely decided to take the mantle of leadership. In May, Donald Trump withdrew funding for the organization and pledged to “reconsider” U.S. membership. In his view, the WHO has been unfairly influenced by China and is not serving American interests. Germany, however, has continued its support for the WHO. Indeed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the WHO “the legitimate world organization for the area of health” and urged member countries to continue to work within the WHO’s framework. Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, voiced support for the WHO as well, arguing that despite President Trump raising legitimate concerns about the organization, “In the middle of a crisis, when you’re putting out fires, you can’t talk about reforming the fire brigade.” Clearly, Germany believes the WHO to be the best equipped and experienced to address the coronavirus pandemic on a global scale, especially as many countries push to reopen their ravaged economies. Coronavirus notwithstanding,  Spahn pointed out that U.S. funding enables vulnerable countries to address domestic health needs by utilizing the financial and knowledge resources of those that can through the WHO. While Germany is not financially equipped to make up for the shortfall, it can nonetheless continue its existing support and position itself as a leader within the organization.

         Angela Merkel’s domestic response to the crisis and leadership in Europe further shows that Germany is actively seeking to become a leader within the WHO and across the world on public health issues. Despite German federal law dictating the decentralization of public health related issues to individual states, Merkel’s quick action early in the crisis and reliance on experts both from Germany and the WHO convinced all 16 German state leaders that strict social distancing and lockdown policies were necessary to avoid a catastrophic outbreak. Consequently, relative to nearby hotspots in Italy and France, Germany has fared well with 9,000 Covid-19 deaths. Germany has benefitted from maintaining channels of communication with China, the WHO, and the U.S., despite all parties seemingly being pitted against each other, again exemplifying Germany’s capacity as a global public health leader. After reversing export controls, Germany has pushed for and succeeded in establishing collaboration with European partners, even resulting in German hospitals receiving patients from harder hit countries in Western Europe and sending personal protective equipment abroad. Germany’s response in Europe illustrates its commitment to transnational partnerships and institutions like the WHO.

In a recent essay, Francis Fukayama argues that the coronavirus pandemic represents a stress test for states. In it, he singles out Germany as having not only “adequate resources” but importantly “a great deal of social consensus and leaders who inspire[e] trust” and believes it will emerge relatively unscathed. It is these attributes that has and will continue to strengthen Germany’s position as a public health leader both at home and abroad. Indeed, the success of the German leadership and state bureaucracy should serve as a model for other WHO member states. Furthermore, with the WHO’s second largest funder, the United Kingdom, in the fraught process of leaving the European Union, Germany will assume the mantle of foremost European – and perhaps global – leader within the WHO. Germany’s success during the pandemic will posit the country and its response as a model in public health and pandemic mitigation, which combined with existing political and financial support of the WHO will result in Germany assuming the mantle of global health leader.

         In the wake of a disengaged America, the coronavirus pandemic, and domestic success in addressing public health issues, Germany is on course to take a strong position of leadership within the WHO. It has chosen the path of global cooperation as many nations turn inward and prioritized scientific expertise with great success. In the post-pandemic world order, Germany will be a – if not, the – global public health leader, providing yet another avenue to expand its ever-increasing power and influence abroad.

Subscribe to The German Diplomat to receive the latest articles (without any ads)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s