Trump Just Missed a Perfect Opportunity to Reassert American Leadership

The G-20 helped beat Ebola. Why can’t it do the same for the coronavirus?

U.S. President Donald Trump at the G-20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, on Dec. 1, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump at the G-20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, on Dec. 1, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump missed an opportunity to establish the United States as a global leader in the coronavirus crisis. At the March 26 virtual summit of the G-20, the leaders of 19 of the world’s most powerful nations plus the European Union met by videoconference to lay out a global response to the pandemic. The result was a bland statement that did little more than outline measures that individual countries were already taking to deal with the crisis. G-20 leaders pledged to “do whatever it takes” and “stand ready” to “take any further action that may be required.” But aside from some additional funding for the World Health Organization and a directive for health and finance ministers to talk separately, the summit yielded no substantive new commitments.

It was a missed chance for the G-20—a forum created precisely to respond to crises such as these, but which has largely served as a photo opportunity for leaders and an occasion for long-winded communiques that reaffirm existing commitments and pledge future cooperation. Even more, last week’s summit was another forgone chance for the United States to provide global leadership by helping to drive a coordinated response. Without U.S. leadership, efforts to contain the spread of the virus and mitigate its global economic impacts are destined to fall short.

The G-20, after all, was set up to deal with global crises requiring dramatic action by the world’s most powerful developed and developing countries, which together account for 90 percent of global GDP and two-thirds of the world’s population. During the global financial crisis in 2008—within weeks of the collapse of Lehman Brothers—the leaders of China, Russia, India, Brazil, and other rising powers joined those from established democracies for the first G-20 summit in Washington, D.C. They agreed to cooperate on monetary policy, stimulate economic growth, and develop a framework for regulatory reform to prevent future financial crises.

And it was during another virus outbreak—Ebola—that the G-20 catalyzed immediate and concrete action to help contain a potentially catastrophic crisis. At their 2014 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, G-20 leaders committed to provide medicine and equipment, send trained medical teams to West Africa, and establish a fund to assist poor countries in containing the deadly epidemic.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

The G-20’s responses to crises in 2008 and 2014 stand in stark contrast to what we are witnessing today. Government actions to stem the spread of the virus—closing borders, restricting travel, shutting down businesses—have been largely uncoordinated, limiting their effectiveness in spreading a disease that knows no borders, and exacerbating its impacts on the global economy and supply chains.

Why the widely different responses? One need not look further than the role of the United States. Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Washington took the lead in mobilizing collective action, using its power and influence to get other G-20 governments to commit to necessary action. But thus far in the current crisis, the United States has failed to step up to the plate. Driven by his disdain for alliances and multilateralism, Trump has downplayed or even ignored the need for global coordination, limiting his administration’s efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic to the U.S. border. With coronavirus cases surging in the United States and needed medical supplies in short supply, the administration has struggled to lead an effective response at home, let alone lead or cooperate abroad.The administration has struggled to lead an effective response at home, let alone lead or cooperate abroad.

As a result, the global response to the coronavirus has been for every nation to fend for itself—the opposite of what a forum such as the G-20 stands for, and more like the “G-Zero” world described by the political scientist Ian Bremmer, in which no nation is able or willing to assume the mantle of leadership.

Global action is self-evidently needed, and managing a response to a global pandemic is precisely the type of activity for which the G-20 was created. So what should the G-20 do?

First, it should move quickly to establish a framework for cooperation on mitigation and suppression measures. To effectively contain the virus and manage the widely expected secondary outbreaks, G-20 leaders need to better coordinate the implementation of lockdowns, travel restrictions, testing and screening at airports, and the eventual reopening of national borders. At the same, G-20 governments must follow through on last week’s promise to increase funding for WHO and to commit to allowing health monitors to access impacted regions in order to ensure transparency.

Second, the G-20 should help coordinate the allocation of critical medical equipment, including masks and ventilators, which are running in short supply around the globe. With the lives of medical first responders on the line, leaders at national, regional, and local levels have been forced to compete with one another to gain access to these scarce supplies, driving up prices in a bidding war. As production is ramped up, the G-20 should develop guidelines to ensure a rational system for prioritizing access and distribution of these items, particularly as the virus spreads to less developed nations.

Finally, the G-20 should specify joint actions its members will take to reduce the economic impact of the crisis. Leaders need to implement coordinated fiscal stimulus measures and take steps to increase lending capacity. As Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, recently noted, “Global confidence will recover only when both the public and markets see that governments collectively have stepped into the breach.”

While the G-20 can and should play an important role, democracies will also need to turn to other forums and organizations where they can work more closely with like-minded partners. This holds especially for areas where cooperation with China and Russia will prove difficult.Democracies will also need to turn to other forums where they can work more closely with like-minded partners, especially in areas where cooperation with China and Russia will prove difficult. The G-7, for example, can help facilitate joint research on vaccine development and coordinate production of scarce medical supplies, both of which will require a significant degree of technical and industrial cooperation, including better control over critical supply chains. The G7 can also take action to counter Beijing’s disinformation campaign about the source of the virus. Another useful grouping could be the D-10 gathering of democratic nations, which expands the G-7 by South Korea, Australia, and the European Union. Others have called on NATO to play a stronger role in fostering trans-Atlantic cooperation on this crisis. But even these venues will not be of much value if the United States fails to lead, as demonstrated by the recent stalemate among the foreign ministers of the G-7 on a joint statement regarding the pandemic, reportedly because of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence that the document include a reference to the “Wuhan virus.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world, a coordinated response among the world’s leading powers is becoming ever more urgent. Effective action, in the G-20 or any other forum, will require real leadership from the United States. That, too, is an uncertain prospect in these troubled times.

Ash Jain is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former member of the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff. Twitter: @ashjain50

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