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The United States Can Still Win the Coronavirus Pandemic

The Trump administration has made one mistake after another—and, with some foreign-policy changes, could emerge with more global power anyway.

U.S. President Donald Trump with China's President Xi Jinping
U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images

An event like the new coronavirus forces all of us to make rapid judgments and decisions—in our personal lives, in our financial dealings, in how we do our jobs, and in what we think is going to happen. Whether on Twitter, in interviews, or here at Foreign Policy, prognosticators are offering up hot takes daily, based on whatever information they can gather and the worldviews (i.e., theories) on which they typically rely.

I’m no exception. I’ve already offered a quick “realist” interpretation of what is happening and suggested the crisis was likely to reinforce nationalism, strengthen the state, accelerate a shift in influence toward Asia, reduce confidence in U.S. leadership and competence, and encourage a partial retreat from hyperglobalization. In a Foreign Policy symposium last month, I suggested the end result would be a world “that is less open, less prosperous, and less free” than the world of today.

I stand by those forecasts, but I have also spent some time over the last several days considering whether some of my expectations might not be borne out. In particular, I’ve wondered if my initial forecast of a shift in influence from West to East is going to be as profound as I thought. Despite all the mistakes the Trump administration has made and continues to make—missteps and misjudgments that will cause thousands of otherwise preventable deaths and billions of dollars of economic damage that could have been avoided—it’s still possible that the flexibility, inventiveness, and adaptability of American society, combined with smart initiatives at all levels of government, will enable the United States to get through the worst phase of the crisis and recover fairly quickly. Don’t get me wrong: The situation is grim and is going to get worse, but the question is how matters will look a year or two from now. Needless to say, I’ll be delighted if the country turns out to be more competent and resilient than I thought.

Similarly, Asia’s success story may not turn out to be as impressive as it now appears. There’s no question that countries such as Singapore and South Korea have done an excellent job in mitigating the impact of the coronavirus, but the effectiveness of China’s belated response is uncertain, because we do not know if the figures being reported out of China are accurate or not. Experts have long understood that Chinese economic statistics were unreliable (a common feature in authoritarian regimes), and the pandemic got rolling in part because Chinese authorities suppressed news about what was happening until it was too late to contain it. (The authoritarian impulse to deny reality also goes a long way toward explaining U.S. President Donald Trump’s lethargic response as well.) Beijing’s recent decision to expel a number of foreign journalists does not lend confidence to official statements about the progress it has made.

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

If China is still concealing the true extent of the virus and it restarts economic activity prematurely, it could suffer another punishing wave of infections, and there are worrisome if not entirely unexpected signs of a second wave in other parts of Asia. This could also happen in the United States, of course, which is why it is a good thing that Trump has abandoned his desire to reopen the economy and fill the pews later this month on Easter Sunday. My point is simply that while the U.S. response thus far has been badly bungled, the overall response may—repeat, may—look better a year from now. If that proves to be the case, then the coronavirus won’t necessarily herald a profound shift in global influence. As the national security expert Rachel Kleinfeld wrote on March 31, global responses to date do not vindicate authoritarianism: Some democracies have done very well in reacting to the crisis, and some dictatorships have reacted very badly. In other words, regime type doesn’t appear to be the critical variable here.

There is another reason why the United States may get out of this in better shape than one might initially think: the dollar. It remains the world’s reserve currency and is still considered a relatively safe asset in times of economic uncertainty. The rush to safety amid the global economic crisis prompted by the pandemic has strengthened it already, and foreign demand for dollars will make it easier for the United States to borrow. Indeed, according to Paul Poast of the University of Chicago, “If anything, the economic turmoil brought about by #COVID19 is simply reinforcing the dollar-dominance.” Insofar as the dollar has been an important aspect of America’s enduring global influence, then the coronavirus may not do as much damage as one might otherwise think.

The extent of long-term damage to America’s global position will depend on two main factors. First, can the United States get the pandemic under control at home, so that it can safely restart its economy and so that other nations will decide that Americans still know how to respond in a crisis? The country will have to do a lot better henceforth than it has done so far, but it certainly isn’t impossible. Second, does the United States maintain an “America first” approach to this global problem, or does it begin to exhibit the kind of global leadership that it showed after World War II, the 9/11 attacks, or the financial crisis of 2008?

Thus far, America’s response has been a case study in diplomatic malpractice, which is hardly surprising given who is in the White House and who is running the State Department. Instead of working to get other major world powers on the same page, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was mostly absent from view during the first phase of the crisis. Then he blew up the recent G-7 meeting by insisting any joint statement had to call the coronavirus the “Wuhan virus.” If Pompeo’s goal was to increase foreign resentment of the United States and make the country look petty rather than principled, he could hardly have come up with a better approach. Add to this his continued obsession with Iran, at a moment when all states face the same peril and hot spots anywhere are a potential threat to others. There are hints that the United States might be moving toward a more flexible stance, but thus far the U.S. response has been cruel, short-sighted, and politically tone-deaf.

To be sure, Congress has authorized some modest increases in U.S. foreign assistance and aid to multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, but, according to Scott Morris of the Center for Global Development, “If you look at the whole body of international response in this package, it’s frankly pretty modest, very small, plus ups in the U.S. agencies.” One certainly does not see the kind of creative multilateral leadership that previous administrations have exerted.

Is my desire to see the United States exercise greater leadership at this moment at odds with my commitment to a grand strategy of offshore balancing and my repeated criticisms of liberal hegemony? Hardly. Offshore balancers (aka “restrainers”) do not oppose extensive U.S. engagement in world affairs; in fact, most of us favor strengthening the State Department and believe diplomacy should be America’s first impulse and sanctions, coercion, and military force should be used sparingly, and only as a last resort. As I put it in The Hell of Good Intentions, “under offshore balancing, diplomacy takes center stage.” And this is true in spades when dealing with the combination of a global pandemic and looming global recession.

What restrainers oppose is military commitments that do not enhance U.S. security; efforts at regime change, social engineering, and nation-building in far-flung lands of little strategic importance; a tendency to issue ultimatums instead of looking for creative compromises; and the bloated military budgets that an unrealistic foreign policy requires and that rob the country of the resources it needs to maintain prosperity and preparedness at home in the United States.

Is it too late for the Trump administration to pirouette from incompetence at home and indifference abroad? I’m not optimistic, but it’s not impossible. As I’ve noted before, perhaps Donald Trump’s sole virtue as president is his ability to reverse course without apology or shame and to pretend that whatever he’s doing today is what he meant to do all along. He’s already trying rewrite the history of his failures at the start of this crisis, and there’s no logical reason why he couldn’t use this moment as an opportunity to restore a modest degree of confidence in American judgment and goodwill overseas. If he did, the long-term damage to America’s global position might be significantly attenuated. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, I continue to hope that Trump will finally heed a piece of advice frequently attributed to Mark Twain: “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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