The virtual summit is clearly needed to mobilize a response to a pandemic that respects no borders. It’s a sign of the times, however, that the United States is nowhere to be found in organizing a more coordinated global response. Historically, the international community would have looked to the United States for leadership, and we would have been out front, establishing standards, best practices for containment, working out common approaches to travel, identifying medical shortfalls, sharing information on vaccine development and trials and developing stimulus packages.
In a world where pathogens can be transmitted at warp speed, “America First” offers us little protection. President Trump’s belief that national sovereignty and national interest are paramount — and each country pursuing its own interests will promote peace and well-being because no one has an interest in war — ignores the lessons of history and the realities of a globalized, interconnected world. Every nation for itself, the basic premise of the Trump approach to the world, ignores that there are threats to humanity and we are not immune.
It is no surprise that when you berate allies, you don’t have them when you need them. Similarly, it is no surprise that when the United States does not lead, others fill the vacuum. We have seen that in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where the Russians have filled the vacuum and even now are compounding a humanitarian catastrophe.
We are seeing it right now with China, which, after the fact, has responded more aggressively to the pandemic at home and abroad. Note what Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union Commission, tweeted on March 18: “Spoke to Chinese PM Li Keqiang who announced that China will provide 2 mil surgical masks, 200,000 N95 masks and 50,000 testing kits. In January, the EU helped China by donating 50 tons of equipment. Today, we’re grateful for China’s support. We need each other’s support in times of need.”
Referring to the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus” won’t alter the reality that China is working with others and acting like a global leader and we are not. Others will likely forget that a lack of Chinese transparency early on (not to mention a system that punishes reporting bad news) almost certainly added to the severity of the pandemic globally. But there’s no denying that China is now cooperating with countries to contain the spread (and we, too, could benefit from working with the Chinese and others to alleviate some of shortages in masks and testing kits).
We should be concerned that, after the pandemic, the Chinese may further act to fill the vacuum of world leadership. Their actions won’t just harm U.S. interests but also will threaten human rights values and open societies more generally. It may seem odd to say that at a time when we have an administration in Washington that does not share similar values in our relations with others — and has largely squandered our soft power, the power of attraction. But the United States remains for many an emblem of decency, openness and hope.
While working to preserve our role internationally is essential, first there must be a strong approach to coping with and responding to the virus here at home. But it is folly to think we will have all the answers and there is nothing to be gained by working with others, particularly as it relates to anticipating what may still be coming. For one thing, many countries in the Southern Hemisphere have not suffered great outbreaks yet — and many are poor or with limited means for dealing with the pandemic. That contingency will be upon us soon enough, and if it is not dealt with, we are likely to have a re-emergence of the pandemic even after the outbreak recedes.
So by all means, President Trump and key Cabinet officials should join the virtual G-20 leaders’ summit next week, but not just to listen. They should be proposing working groups to: develop best practices; identify shortfalls of medicines, including anti-viral drugs currently proving helpful for treatment; test and distribute a vaccine; and address common economic needs. Perhaps most importantly, they should also focus on collectively working out a package of financial, technical and medical assistance that will be needed to help those poor countries that have not yet experienced the outbreak.
It is not too late for the United States to lead. Unfortunately, the costs of not doing so will be with us for a very long time to come.