Q&A

Democrats Push for Foreign Aid in Coronavirus Stimulus Fight

While Congress and the White House remain far apart on COVID-19 stimulus talks, some Democrats hope to restore lost U.S. prestige by adding foreign aid to the bill.

Rep. Joaquin Castro wears a face mask
Vice Chair Rep. Joaquin Castro wears a face mask during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing in Washington on Sept. 16. Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

It’s not just American families and businesses that are caught in the political crossfire as the Trump administration and Congress argue over the latest stimulus package to deal with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. One influential House Democrat is worried that if the talks sputter, it could further harm U.S. prestige around the world that has already been damaged by the White House’s handling of the pandemic. 

Texas Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro, who heads up the oversight and investigations panel on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is campaigning to become chairman of the powerful committee in the next Congress, told Foreign Policy that a proposal backed by Democrats to help distribute a coronavirus vaccine to allies and help with deepening poverty caused by the pandemic would show that the United States “remains a North Star” in fighting the virus after the Trump administration exited the World Health Organization and distanced itself from the European bloc’s effort to combat the disease. 

“The simple fact is that the world has started to move around us because of President [Donald] Trump’s poor response,” Castro said. “That can only go on for so long, before the world figures out that they don’t need you in the same way that they did before.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Foreign Policy: If a stimulus bill does go through, what does that mean for America’s global response to the virus? If it fails, what would we be missing?

Joaquin Castro: I’ve been advocating for $20 billion in foreign assistance, and I was encouraged to see in this last Heroes Act in the House of Representatives, there was $10 billion that would have been appropriated. In the Senate, there was about $4.4 billion in their version in July. I think it’s important, because there’s a great need, not only in the United States, but across the world. People are suffering and nations are reeling from the effects of COVID-19. And the United States for generations has been a leader among nations of the world in terms of global health.

I think if we’re able to successfully include foreign assistance, it would be important substantively because countries need the resources, and we need to be able to fund cooperation toward finding a vaccine, but also providing protective gear and other equipment in countries where those are scarce and also to help countries start getting back on their feet economically. But it would also be a signal to the world that the United States, even through very difficult times in our own country, remains a North Star around the world on these issues.

FP: What are the long-term impacts of the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization, and do you have any concerns about the administration’s response to the pandemic on the international front? Has the administration given you or the House Foreign Affairs Committee any sense of what they’re doing on the global response?

JC: Unfortunately, the Trump administration has not only failed the American people in its response to the coronavirus but also has failed to position the United States as a leader around the world in combating COVID-19, in partnership with other countries. Whether it’s withdrawn from the World Health Organization at the height of the pandemic, as you mentioned, the USA-EU Task Force, the lack of commitment so far on foreign assistance, all of these things represent a kind of failure. But there’s longer-term damage to the standing of the United States, when it comes to our reputation and how nations perceive us. And the simple fact is that the world has started to move around us because of President Trump’s poor response. That can only go on for so long, before the world figures out that they don’t need you in the same way that they did before. 

And they’re long-lasting consequences for the United States of that situation. And really, I think damage to the world, because we do have a lot to offer. We have a lot to offer in terms of our science and our research, our economy. You know, the things that we have worked with the world on for literally for generations, are now being compromised by this administration.

FP: There is speculation that the White House is considering launching its own global pandemic response mechanism, while seemingly continuing to undermine the WHO from the outside. Has Congress been briefed on what those plans might be? 

JC: In terms of what their plan is, I have not been briefed in any kind of comprehensive way. There may have been a conversation here or there, but not briefed in a comprehensive way about what the administration’s strategy is, with respect to how we’re going to work with the world to combat COVID-19 to find a vaccine, but also to provide relief in terms of PPE and equipment and hunger, because of the extreme poverty that we’re now seeing around the world.

I chair the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and we’re starting to take a closer look at the pandemic response. It’s really a job that’s beyond a single committee in Congress, but we have talked about making sure that we are very engaged with the administration in holding them accountable, in conducting oversight. That said, it’s also clear that [the Trump administration has] become less cooperative on many different inquiries across the board. There’s a great part of me that thinks that they’re trying to simply wait out until the election to decide how much they’re going to cooperate and send witnesses from the administration in front of Congress. I’m part of the Intelligence Committee, I’m part of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and [I’ve] even seen it on Education and Labor. [There’s] this lack of cooperation, [a] growing lack of cooperation from the administration.

FP: What are some of the top oversight questions you’d like to see the administration answer when it comes to the global U.S. response to the pandemic?

JC: I’d like to know what cooperation they did engage with around the world. We know they pulled out from the World Health Organization. What kind of cooperation was there? And also, you remember, a few months back now, there was reporting that the Trump administration was trying to find a vaccine in Germany for which the administration wanted the exclusive right to use for the United States. So that’s an area that I think that we’ve not gotten to, that we should. What kind of efforts [have they] made to either work with other countries or to lock out other countries? In a way, that’s uncharacteristic of how the United States has conducted itself for a long time.

Let’s imagine there’s a second Trump administration. We’ve not been given a blueprint for how the Trump administration intends to approach the global coronavirus response really next week, or even next January. Because for the most part, it’s been a policy of disengagement to this point. So there’s just a lot of questions about what we’ve done so far, with respect to cooperation. And then where are we going from here?

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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