Assistant Professor Dr Christian Kreuder-Sonnen

“The corona crisis is the epitome of a transboundary crisis”

Interview on corona crisis management of international organizations with political scientist Christian Kreuder-Sonnen
Assistant Professor Dr Christian Kreuder-Sonnen
Image: David Ausserhofer
  • Corona

Published: 16 April 2020, 08:00 | By: Till Bayer

The corona pandemic is a global threat and major challenge for numerous countries. The political actors therefore don’t stop at their borders on the search for solutions. International organizations take action in order to prevent a further spread of the virus—with the World Health Organization (WHO) leading the way. In this interview, newly appointed Assistant Professor for International Organizations at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Christian Kreuder-Sonnen, talks about why there is a kernel of truth in Donald Trump’s criticism of the WHO, and why the institution is nevertheless indispensable for global crisis management.

Mr Kreuder-Sonnen, you spent the winter semester as visiting scholar at Harvard University in the United States. How did you witness the spread of the corona pandemic there? Are you in contact with colleagues in the United States and are you following the situation?

Kreuder-Sonnen: I was in Massachusetts until the end of February. Up to that point, it was commonly believed by the U.S. administration that the virus could not seriously endanger the country; contrary opinions were dismissed as scaremongering or plots against the President. On a regional level, however, the red flags were taken seriously a lot earlier. Especially the universities, and not least Harvard, took steps like switching to online teaching—long before politics followed suit.

At Harvard University, I worked at the “Center for European Studies”, an institution with many international visiting scholars. While I left the country as scheduled at the end of February, those who originally wanted to stay for the whole year left in haste just one or two weeks later. The American colleagues who I am in touch with describe a daily life that is similar to the one here in Germany. Cambridge/Boston is not New York, of course. However, there are major worries that the country could take serious damage from the combination of a market-based health system, a weak welfare state and the governance failure of the Trump administration.

In your research, you focus on international institutions and their crisis and emergency politics. What role do international organizations play in managing the crisis of the corona pandemic?

The World Health Organization (WHO) in particular has a mandate to intervene in case of global health crises. It is its task to collect and analyse information on the outbreaks of diseases and–on that basis–declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and determine phases of pandemic alert. In the current corona crisis, the WHO declared a global health emergency on 30 January and declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March. In addition, the organization issued recommendations on how to deal with the virus; it constantly coordinates transnational research networks and publishes daily situation reports to help its member states in assessing the situation. Finally yet importantly, its Contingency Fund for Emergencies provides medical supplies and staff for response activities in more vulnerable countries.

The corona crisis is the epitome of a transboundary crisis. Not only because the virus spreads across territorial borders, but also because it consequently crosses functional system boundaries. The crisis is not just a global public health crisis, but it has also become a crisis of the global economy, security and development. Hence, in these areas, too, international organizations deal with the crisis: The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are getting ready for a growing demand in emergency loans; the UN Security Council is discussing whether the COVID-19 pandemic can become a threat to peace; and regional organizations like the European or African Union (EU and AU) try to stabilize their economic areas through financial or technical transfers.

Despite all efforts, it must be noted that so far, multilateralism has rather been weakened in many aspects by unilateral and in part nationalist behaviour of states.

Compared to other international organizations, the WHO currently is most in the spotlight. What do you think of President Trump’s recent decision to stop contributions for the institution?

This is of course primarily a PR stunt of the President to steer the attention away from his own crisis mismanagement. If Trump had listened to the scientists and to the WHO’s recommendations, many lives in the U.S. could have probably been saved.

At the same time, there is a kernel of truth in his criticism of the WHO. In the early stage of the outbreak, the WHO basically threw itself at China’s feet, copied the country’s statements word by word, and showered it with praise for its information and containment policies—though there were reports early on, according to which the Chinese authorities attempted to suppress information about the outbreak and downplay its level of danger for weeks.

Despite all justified criticism of the WHO’s approach, halting contributions is extremely counterproductive. The organization now loses about 15% of its budget in one swoop. Those funds are crucial in the fight to contain the spread of COVID-19, for example for the coordination of transnational research networks in the search for a vaccine. The employees in Geneva now get distracted from crisis management, because they are occupied with the organization’s instead of the humans’ survival.

After the first cases of infections with the new coronavirus in China became known, Taiwan warned the international community of the virus’ threat. Why didn’t the WHO react to said warning? What is your overall assessment of the WHO’s crisis management?

As far as I am aware, Taiwan contacted the WHO at the end of December via the International Health Regulations framework to draw attention to unofficial reports from China regarding a human-to-human transmission of the virus. The human-to-human transmission was only officially confirmed three weeks later. The WHO didn’t reply to Taiwan, nor did it notify the other member states—a fact, which the WHO now supposedly confirmed to the Economist.

The WHO’s non-reaction is due to the fact that China considers the Taiwanese island part of its territory and strictly objects to Taiwan’s membership in the WHO and other international organizations. Even Taiwan’s observer status in the World Health Assembly was withdrawn last year. It is evident that the Secretariat acted out of diplomatic considerations towards China, which I believe was a mistake.

My overall assessment of the WHO’s crisis management is mixed. In hindsight, I believe that on one hand, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and his crisis unit took several decisions that, in retrospect, turned out to be problematic. On the other hand, many mechanisms of the WHO’s crisis management worked well and continue to do so. It is difficult to tell how the world would have reacted to the outbreak without having had access to the WHO’s information, and which intergovernmental frictions we would have additionally had, had the WHO not recommended basic guidelines for fighting the virus.

In your work, you already dealt with the WHO in connection with the SARS epidemic in 2002 and the Ebola virus epidemic in 2014. What are the differences between then and now?

When the SARS virus first appeared in the Chinese province Guangdong in late 2002, the WHO’s mandate was a lot weaker than it is today. All it could do from a legal perspective was to wait for official reports from its member states and–with their permission–forward them to the other states. The member states were under no obligation to report outbreaks of diseases other than cholera, yellow fever, and plague.

The Chinese government had tried for months to hide or downplay the outbreak and extent of the epidemic. Unlike today, this prompted the WHO under its Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland to vigorously oppose China, publicly criticize the government, and even issue its own travel warnings for affected regions in China and other countries in the spring of 2003. Although the WHO had no legal or political mandate for that, the measures seemed to be so effective that the organization was afterwards transferred new competences, which continue to exist today.

In the Ebola crisis of 2014, however, the WHO didn’t look too well in the general opinion. Especially the non-governmental organization “Doctors without Borders” strongly criticized the WHO for having acted far too late and far too hesitantly. The organization later actually admitted mistakes. At the same time, the responsible departments in Geneva were in a tight corner, because the member states had cut funding for the crisis and emergency sectors in the years before and thus deflated them. In addition, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was not high on the political agenda of the decision-makers in Western industrial countries.

In Europe, every nation is currently taking its own measures against the coronavirus. Borders are being closed; and the German government has rejected the idea of Eurobonds to support other EU states. Will this return to the nation state be permanent? And is there still a future for Global Governance?

It is true that the nation state as main point of reference and identification has continued to gain importance compared to international organizations during the corona crisis. In large parts of the world, the interdependence during the crisis did not result in coordination and cooperation, but led to what American colleagues called “weaponized interdependence”: a general beggar-thy-neighbour approach, in which other countries’ dependencies are used to one’s own advantage. The German government, too, first defined the crisis as a national emergency and acted accordingly by means of an export ban on medical goods, for example.

This underlines a trend that has become increasingly noticeable in the past ten to 15 years, according to which international organizations and large-scale global governance arrangements are more and more under the pressure of an increasingly critical public opinion and a growing number of nationalist governments. This is reflected not least by the dismissal of further steps towards integration in the EU and by the local rise of populist parties and nationalist governments. A further issue is the new superpower rivalry between China, the United States, and Russia, which sometimes makes international decision-making impossible.

Fortunately, these developments are no forces of nature that cannot be controlled. The crisis of the liberal international order has to do with its way of distributing economic profits and losses, allocating institutional privileges, and promoting certain norms. It also has to do with political communication–national politicians constantly shifting political responsibility onto international institutions, for example–as well as with a lack of opportunities for contestation and participation of citizens around the world. In my opinion, there is a future for Global Governance especially if courageous reforms are undertaken that make it more effective in problem solving, more just in distribution, and more democratic in its processes.

This requires political trailblazers. Joe Biden winning the presidential race in the United States in November would be desirable, of course. But the German government, too, can and should step up its investment into the future of Global Governance.

The corona virus does not only affect rich industrial nations. It is arriving in many developing countries just now. What can international organizations accomplish in a crisis of this magnitude? Are they even sufficiently equipped for that?

If the pandemic hits sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, as hard as it has hit most other regions of the world, this will be a severe test—primarily for the population and the regional governments, of course, but also for international organizations. This would call for a number of multilateral institutions: the AU, the WHO, the IMF, the World Bank, the UN, etc. In a big concerted effort, the international organizations could in theory provide comprehensive support that might mitigate the worst effects.

However, there is the risk that this will once again not end in a success story for international organizations and global solidarity. The AU has moved a lot, and the WHO has also put its local crisis intervention teams on standby or deployed them already. However, both struggle with a massive lack of resources to have a serious response to an Africa-wide spread of the pandemic and its consequences on health and economic systems. IMF and World Bank, both controlled by western donor countries, have the financial means; but even in this crisis, they have been insisting on allocating loans tied to structural adjustments.

In general, with regard to the expected global recession and enormous additional expenditure for measures to respond to the crisis in the industrial countries themselves, it is to be expected that the emergency aid contributions from these countries are likely to be very small. This also makes it unlikely that the UN Security Council will agree on sending a humanitarian mission as it did during the Ebola crisis—at that time on Barack Obama’s initiative.

On 1 April, your first semester as Assistant Professor at the University of Jena was supposed to have started. Now, the beginning of the lecture period has been postponed to 4 May. How do you use that time? Did you have to go into quarantine upon your arrival in Germany? And are you prepared for digital teaching?

No, fortunately, I did not have to be quarantined, but I have practically been self-isolating in my home office for the last couple of weeks. For someone who observes crisis policy, times of crisis are always exciting and busy days: The research objects are moving in front of our eyes, and we have to classify the observed according to our theoretical and empirical knowledge. In this context, it feels especially gratifying to be preparing our new Master’s programme “International Organizations and Crisis Management”, which will start in the upcoming winter semester.

It is of course a strange start to the job, and it is a pity that I can’t meet the students face-to-face right from the beginning. With my team and my colleagues at the Institute of Political Science, we are trying to meet the challenges of online teaching as best as we can; and I am looking forward to May, when things will really start.


If you are interested in learning more about international organizations, their emergency powers and their behaviour in times of crises, Professor Kreuder-Sonnen’s new book “Emergency Powers of International Organizations. Between Normalization and Containment” will provide you with in-depth case studies and critical analyses on that topic. The International Studies Association awarded the book the renowned Chadwick Alger Prize.


Christian Kreuder-Sonnen, Juniorprof. Dr
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