America First? The Coronavirus Couldn’t Care Less

The only way Washington can truly defeat the pandemic is by resetting its diplomatic agenda.

U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on
U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on during a news briefing on March 20. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In recent years, the White House has raised the drawbridge against trade, immigration, long-standing alliances, and international institutions. The limits of this approach have been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic: “America first” means nothing to germs that know no borders.

A key facet of Washington’s strategy in fighting the coronavirus hinges on the Trump administration’s ability to convene and lead other nations. Even if the United States momentarily subdues the virus, an outbreak in some far-flung corner of the world could quickly restart a new spiral of American infections—long before a vaccine is approved. Now more than ever, the United States’ health and therefore security depends on the world’s most fragile health systems and governments. That interdependence—and the imperative it creates for cooperation—should have prompted an immediate rethink of a blustering, unilateralist diplomacy. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continues advancing, mostly unchanged, a policy agenda that predated the virus.

Before COVID-19’s onslaught, U.S. foreign policy focused primarily on major-power rivalry with China and Russia and, secondarily, maximum pressure campaigns to force Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela to change course. (With North Korea, of course, the administration has supplemented sanctions with direct talks.) These inveterate challenges require vigilance and constant management. But now, an invisible, lethal enemy also demands that U.S. diplomacy adapt to contain an omnipresent danger.

As the coronavirus spreads at an exponential rate in the United States and elsewhere, President Donald Trump’s State Department isn’t adjusting fast enough. Instead, Pompeo seems focused on stoking the president’s ego rather than rallying the international community. Public health coordination with China, a rising world power with abundant resources and scientific expertise, needs to be at the center of any international effort. Organizations such as the G-7, the United Nations Security Council, and the World Health Organization can’t respond effectively amid U.S.-China confrontation.

So far, Trump and Pompeo have engaged Beijing in a pointless blame game. China initially hid important information about the extent of the problem from U.S. epidemiologists, scientists, and the WHO. But more recently it has been assisting developing countries and U.S. allies in Europe ravaged by the virus—and facilitating donations of ventilators to New York City. Skeptics point out these moves may come with strings attached. But right now, countries in dire need appreciate help where they can find it. Despite their intensifying competition, Washington and Beijing need to find ways to come together against the virus.

Pompeo similarly squabbled with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whom he accused of dishonesty over the country’s devastating coronavirus outbreak. While leading U.S. and European voices have urged him to remove roadblocks complicating the timely delivery of aid to the Iranian people, he has refused. In Afghanistan, after Pompeo was unable to broker a power-sharing agreement between factions, he announced the withdrawal of $1 billion in U.S. aid. Reports subsequently emerged of deep cuts in U.S. assistance to war-torn Yemen in response to Iran-backed Houthi rebels’ restrictions on aid distribution. Instead of helping shore up brittle societies, these actions threaten to leave the people of Afghanistan and Yemen more vulnerable to the coronavirus—an outcome that could eventually lead to secondary waves of infections around the world.

U.S. military allies aren’t faring much better. More than 4,000 local workers at U.S. bases in South Korea were placed on unpaid leave this month over a disagreement on defense cost-sharing. The European Union evidently learned of Trump’s plans to shut down travel from the region at the same time as everyone else did, stirring up consternation and confusion.

Put together, these are zero-sum steps that do nothing to stem a spreading global pandemic.

For generations, top U.S. diplomats have displayed generous leadership in times of crisis and united countries against global threats. They coordinated the First Gulf War coalition against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and led responses to arrest the AIDS epidemic in Africa starting in 2003, deal with the financial meltdown of 2008, and fight back against the Ebola outbreak in 2014. U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama often did not agree on foreign policy, but they both understood the United States must take the lead in fighting global threats.

Despite recent missteps, the world is still hungry for U.S. leadership. No other country is better positioned to provide it. In these unprecedented times, every country is fighting a common enemy.

The immediate focus must be on saving lives by ensuring the world’s health systems will not be overwhelmed by the virus’s rapid spread. That means supporting and building the research and development programs to provide faster, more accurate, wide-scale testing, efficacious therapies, and vaccines.

The State Department must step forward to unite the international community. It should revisit foreign aid cuts, provide support to refugees and other at-risk populations, and reconsider the impact of sanctions on humanitarian aid. With budgets tight, existing funds can be repurposed to address the most urgent pandemic challenges. But leaders in Washington should also invest more overseas precisely because it advances the health and economic well-being of Americans—and can preempt the need for future, far more costly U.S. interventions. According to one recent estimate, the record $2.2 trillion stimulus passed last month devoted a scant 0.05 percent to foreign aid.

Under U.S. leadership, the G-20 can assist countries in understanding what national strategies are working and shed light on private sector and academic efforts to test more people for the coronavirus and discover therapies and a vaccine. No other country has the resources, the international experience, or the will to lead. The group can foster more international scientific collaboration among likeminded nations, help coordinate travel and border restrictions, and share national experiences on how to ease lockdowns after flattening the curve.

So far largely disregarded by its most powerful members, the U.N. should declare the coronavirus a threat to world peace and security, as it did during the 2014 Ebola response, and build on France’s recent Security Council efforts to promote cease-fires and peace-building in war-torn countries such as Syria and Yemen. Words alone won’t tame the epidemic or bring an end to international violence, but they can inspire global action. As the first 100-plus days of the virus have amply demonstrated (not to mention the worsening of global crises from climate change to Iran’s nuclear threat as the United States has turned inward), a coordinated response is unlikely without U.S. leadership. And when the crisis has abated, the United States ought to organize a meeting of global leaders to understand its lessons and prepare future joint strategies.

The pandemic is also exacting a heavy economic toll. While finance ministers and central bankers work to coordinate stimulus and extend loans to struggling economies, the State Department should be encouraging countries to curtail trade barriers on food and medical supplies. As essential domestic supplies are secured, Washington can set a positive example and lead interagency support for the distribution of testing equipment, ventilators, and medical items to the world’s poorest and hardest-hit regions. Restrictions only invite retaliation against essential imports, putting more American lives in danger. They produce national shortages, promote hoarding, and bid up prices to disproportionately harm the developing world.

One thing is for certain: Using the pandemic to double down on major-power rivalry or apply maximum pressure on bad actors won’t address a global public health crisis—not when what happens in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, could impact Washington. U.S. leadership overseas isn’t a substitute for a well-managed domestic response, but it is an essential complement to effective action at home and can safeguard against subsequent viral waves.

In past world crises, the United States has habitually rebounded after stumbling out of the gate. That was the case in both World Wars. After focusing inward, the United States regrouped to lead the community of nations to victory. History must repeat itself in the global war against COVID-19. It’s time for a major diplomatic reset.

Thomas Pickering served as U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 1997 to 2000.

Atman Trivedi is a Managing Director at Hills & Company and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He worked on India policy at the State and Commerce Departments and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Twitter: @atmanmtrivedi

Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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