Elephants in the Room

Congress Has Been AWOL on U.S. Coronavirus Diplomacy

The invisibility and silence of Congress is another reason for America’s shocking abdication of global leadership.

The U.S. Capitol at dusk in Washington on Feb. 6, 2018.
The U.S. Capitol at dusk in Washington on Feb. 6, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Countless columns have been written about the Trump administration’s abdication of U.S. leadership during the global coronavirus crisis, a vacuum that China has used to launch a massive influence campaign around the world. Far less has been said about the failures of the U.S. Congress during the crisis. While the executive branch has a greater ability and more tools to conduct U.S. foreign policy, this doesn’t excuse Congress’s nearly total absence from global coronavirus coordination and diplomacy, which could help ensure that the United States isn’t outmaneuvered by its global rivals during the coronavirus crisis.

The invisibility of U.S. Senators and Representatives around the world stands in stark contrast to Congress’s role in the past. For many decades, legislators and their staffs have been among the most important players in U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy—representing the United States abroad, exchanging views, building trust, and helping coordinate policy during crises. Whatever survives of once-deep U.S. relationships with allies and partners abroad is in many cases unthinkable without the work done by generations of members of Congress. The contrast to Congress’s current invisibility and silence is striking.

To compete with China’s extremely cynical but effective coronavirus diplomacy, the United States must be more active, visible, and creative in helping other countries manage the pandemic and its consequences. At the moment, the United States can’t respond to China in kind, since Beijing’s coronavirus diplomacy revolves around the provision of medical supplies and staff to countries in dire need. Unlike China, where the pandemic has abated and these supplies are now surplus, the United States doesn’t have excess ventilators, protective equipment, or doctors to match Beijing’s global aid.

But that doesn’t mean the United States has nothing to offer other countries in their battle with coronavirus—if Washington can find the will to leverage substantial U.S. comparative advantages over its adversaries. Congress can and must contribute to this effort in the coming weeks and months. Here is what Congress needs to do to help ensure that China can’t exploit the pandemic to boost its global influence at the expense of the United States:

Provide more funding for coronavirus aid. The $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress in March included a minuscule 0.05 percent for foreign assistance, which has traditionally made up around 1 percent of the federal budget. By comparison, the European Union and its member states are allocating $22 billion in grants and loans to countries around the world to help them deal with both the pandemic itself and its economic fallout.

The United States can’t compete with China on the cheap. To maintain global leadership, Washington must provide far greater assistance to other countries—resources that must be appropriated by Congress. As a start, the next stimulus bill should include a foreign coronavirus assistance package in the range of $20 billion. This isn’t charity, but a cost-effective and absolutely essential investment in the preservation of U.S. influence around the world.

Conduct virtual delegations to engage with foreign countries’ policymakers and publics. The foreign travel that congressional delegations regularly do is one of the most underappreciated tools of U.S. global engagement. These visits are a diplomatic force-multiplier, demonstrating that the United States is committed to the success of its friends and partners, while building stronger lines of communication with countries that have a less intimate relationship with the United States.

While it’s understandable that members of Congress are currently focused on the plight of their constituents, ignoring the rest of the world fails their constituents in other ways. This can be easily corrected by creating virtual congressional delegations, where members of Congress reach out to foreign leaders, officials, businesspeople, and civil society representatives—just as actual delegations would. With this engagement, they should draw attention to the coronavirus assistance that the United States has already provided and emphasize that U.S. support will continue to flow until this common enemy is defeated. A few members of Congress are engaging with foreign audiences individually, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

Mobilize the U.S. private sector to engage abroad. With the U.S. economy stalled, companies are reaching out to Congress for assistance. This dialogue should go both ways, especially when that aid helps sustain overseas operations. Members of Congress should urge U.S. companies—including those in their constituencies—to assist countries and communities where they operate. U.S. coronavirus diplomacy must leverage the global footprint and good corporate citizenship of American companies.

The U.S. image abroad is substantially defined by the actions—and inactions—of its private sector. To be effective, U.S. coronavirus diplomacy must be a public-private partnership that leverages the global footprint and good corporate citizenship of the U.S. private sector.

Engage foreign media. While members of Congress are understandably focused on domestic media to communicate with their constituents, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill must put in much greater time and effort to connect with foreign media, as many of their predecessors have done in the past.

Their message should be threefold. First, the United States is actively helping countries around the world manage the health, economic, and other challenges of coronavirus, including the relevant U.S. assistance to the media outlet’s country. Second, despite unquestionable difficulties, the United States is not the unmitigated disaster zone many are making it out to be and takes pride in its ability to counter the disease without crushing individual liberties or harming its democracy. And third, China’s monthslong coverup of the coronavirus outbreak prevented each and every other country in the world from starting preparations on time at the cost of tens of thousands of lives; any aid from Beijing should therefore be seen as a form of compensation rather than Chinese generosity.

That most foreign media rarely reach out to congressional offices doesn’t make the task any less urgent. Media in Ukraine, for example, where Alibaba founder Jack Ma donated $80 million in what most Ukrainians see as coronavirus assistance from China as a state, is unlikely to seek comments from Capitol Hill. Yet dozens of members of Congress have traveled to Ukraine in recent years, have immense credibility with Ukrainians, and could effectively convey the messages just outlined. Congressional communications staff must therefore be proactive in pushing members of Congress to issue frequent statements about U.S. efforts abroad and reach out to foreign media themselves.

Demonstrate a bipartisan consensus on holding China accountable. Numerous bills have been filed in response to China’s coronavirus cover-up. They include legislation that would allow the administration to impose sanctions on foreign officials who deliberately conceal or distort information about a global public health emergency; other bills would amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to create an exception for damages caused by China’s handling of the outbreak, provide for an evaluation of supply chain risk and dependence on China in pharmaceuticals, and call for other measures aimed at Beijing. So far, however, most of these bills are Republican-only initiatives. What Republicans view as legitimate and much-needed measures to hold Beijing accountable and reduce U.S. overdependence on China, many Democrats view as efforts to deflect attention from President Donald Trump’s and his administration’s alleged mishandling of the coronavirus crisis at home.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress must set these differences aside. If there is any area where bipartisan consensus has a long and highly effective tradition, it’s in representing essential U.S. values and interests abroad. A good first step would be a joint resolution that unequivocally condemns what is already known about Beijing’s coronavirus cover-up and its consequences for the world.

Second, Republicans and Democrats should agree to launch mechanisms to further investigate the cover-up and lay out options for a U.S. response. House Republicans have assembled a China task force to develop legislative measures, but Democrats opted not to participate. This inability to come together on such a critical matter of U.S. interest demonstrates disunity to the world and severely undermines U.S. coronavirus diplomacy.

Even if Congress is late to the game, it doesn’t mean it can’t start now and play a decisive role—as it has so often in the past—in safeguarding U.S. global interests. Much like the administration’s coronavirus diplomacy, Congress can make up for its sluggish start with an aggressive and disciplined course-correction, starting with the next stimulus bill. As leaders on Capitol Hill draft this piece of legislation, it’s absolutely vital that they finally allocate the resources needed to support the United States’ friends and partners around the world. If they fail to do this and continue to abandon their long-held role in global engagement and diplomacy, Congress will bear a substantial share of the blame for letting China and other adversaries take advantage of the crisis to expand their global influence at the United States’ expense.

Daniel P. Vajdich is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, president of Yorktown Solutions, and a former advisor to several Republican presidential candidates.

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