President Trump has told state and local governments to compete with one another to buy scarce medical supplies. The result has been supply-chain chaos and rising prices. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has responded by trying to organize a consortium of states to buy supplies together. Didn’t we already do that during the Constitutional Convention in 1787? By limiting the federal role to a “backstop,” Trump is ignoring centuries of efforts to enhance Washington’s capacity to address pressing national problems.
As you would expect, a president who has little interest in fostering a unified response domestically has even less interest in marshaling international cooperation to fight covid-19. Once Trump belatedly realized the severity of the pandemic, he tried to shift the blame to China, thereby widening a rift with the world’s most populous nation. It’s true that Chinese leaders at first tried to minimize the coronavirus outbreak to avoid any embarrassment. But Trump also refused to believe the bad news — and he trusted the false assurances of Xi Jinping that everything was under control. (Trump on Feb. 7: “President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation.”)
Following a March 26 phone call with Xi, Trump has dialed down his “Chinese virus” rhetoric. Now he is heaping blame on the World Health Organization. He claims: “The W.H.O. really blew it.” Not really. Yes, you can fault the WHO for fulsomely praising China’s response to the virus, including its “transparency,” even though it is widely believed that Beijing falsified its statistics. But the WHO has no power to compel compliance among its 194 member states. It needed to stay in Beijing’s good graces to get international experts into Wuhan and to get accurate information out.
Once it was able to do that, the WHO declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30. Almost a month later, on Feb. 27, Trump was still predicting that covid-19 would miraculously “disappear.” The WHO was ahead of the president not just in recognizing the severity of the outbreak but also in distributing test kits around the world while the United States was still struggling to roll out tests of its own.
Rather than working to strengthen the WHO and other international organizations, Trump is predictably using the present crisis to undermine them. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even torpedoed a joint statement from the Group of Seven nations on the coronavirus because our allies refused to refer to it as the “Wuhan virus.”
Now U.S. allies such as Canada and Germany are furious that Trump has been trying to block them from getting badly needed medical supplies. The most recent flare-up occurred last week, when Trump ordered Minnesota-based 3M to stop exporting a small portion of its N95 mask production to Canada. On Monday, Trump announced a deal with 3M to allow the export of a few million masks to Canada while 3M imports 166 million masks into the United States, mostly from its factory in China. But bruised feelings among U.S. allies will remain because they see Trump’s lack of concern for their welfare. Trump hasn’t even bothered to extend sympathy to Spain and Italy, the European countries hardest hit by covid-19.
The European Union is hardly covering itself in glory, either. Its member states initially reacted to the pandemic by closing borders and hoarding supplies. Gradually, E.U. members have been doing more to help one another, with Germany, for example, treating a small number of coronavirus patients from Italy. But now, France, Spain and Italy are upset with Germany for refusing to issue euro bonds to help weather the economic storm.
The only countries that appear to be stepping up internationally are Russia and China — but their aid often isn’t worth much. Many of the test kits and masks that China exported to Europe don’t work. But at least Moscow and Beijing are making an effort to expand their global influence during this crisis. Trump isn’t even in the game. It never occurs to him to aid developing countries whose inability to fight the virus threatens not just their populations but ours.
He sees the current crisis as an opportunity to close borders, shut down international supply lines and alienate allies — in other words, to pursue his nationalist agenda. In the process, he is accelerating the destruction of the liberal international order built after World War II by the Greatest Generation.
That is a tragedy, because major threats — such as pandemics, global warming, terrorism, narcotrafficking, weapons proliferation and financial panics — do not respect national boundaries. We cannot wall ourselves off from the world’s problems, so we had better cooperate with other nations in addressing them. Trying to impose an “America First” solution on a global crisis will hurt America first and foremost.