Washington’s foreign policy establishment, meanwhile, laments that, at a time of global crisis, Trump has seemingly left the field and abandoned the banner of global leadership. Its denizens issue a steady stream of commentary on what the world may look like when the pandemic passes, though no one knows when that may be. But it’s obvious that global concerns and priorities may change.
“The first months of this crisis suggest that the world order that emerges on the other end is likely to be permanently altered,” wrote Ben Rhodes, a former adviser to President Barack Obama. “America’s response to 9/11 committed the familiar mistake of hastening a superpower’s decline through overreach; the Trump presidency, and our failure to respond effectively to COVID-19, show us the dangers of a world in which America makes no effort at leadership at all.”
The pandemic casts the signature theme of Trump’s foreign policy in shadow. His “maximum pressure” campaigns — the sanctions squeezing the Iranian regime, the efforts to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, the stalled push to compel North Korea to denuclearize, the bullying tactics used in trade spats with Europe, China and other countries — hinged on Trump’s penchant for seemingly tough unilateral action. But a global public health crisis is exposing the limits of “America First,” as even the world’s most powerful country has found itself seeking foreign assistance in the battle against the virus.
Already, on both sides of the Atlantic, calls are growing for the administration to consider a significant rethink, particularly when it comes to Iran — which, in part through its regime’s own colossal mismanagement, has been ravaged by the coronavirus. The sanctions Trump reimposed on Iran as part of his gambit to smash the 2015 nuclear deal had already crippled the Iranian economy and appear to have enfeebled its public health capacity at a dire time of need.
“Iranian medical workers and global public health experts say it is not possible to determine exactly how much U.S. sanctions have affected Iran’s capacity to fight a virus that by official counts has infected more than 35,000 Iranians and killed at least 2,500 — some estimates put the toll far higher — while spawning outbreaks in other countries,” reported The Washington Post’s Erin Cunningham last week. “But they say it is clear that the Iranian health-care system is being deprived of equipment necessary to save lives and prevent wider infection.”
Politicians in Europe and Trump’s domestic rivals have all called for either a suspension of sanctions or other temporary measures to expedite humanitarian support for Iran. The Trump administration, unmoved, has only ratcheted up sanctions on both Iran and Venezuela. On Monday, about two dozen former top diplomats and national security envoys issued an appeal to the White House, urging the administration to ease sanctions and do more to enable humanitarian trade with Iran.
“Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has upended every aspect of the global economy and of human lives and health, it has drastically changed the impact of a U.S. policy designed for a different purpose and conditions,” read the letter, which was drafted under the joint aegis of the Iran Project and European Leadership Network (ELN). “Just because Iran has managed the crisis badly, that does not make its humanitarian needs and our security ones any the less. Targeted sanctions relief would be both morally right and serve the health and security interests of the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world.”
The Trump administration argues that it’s already facilitating humanitarian support to Iran despite the sanctions and that the regime should have the resources needed to provide for its citizens and obtain necessary equipment. But critics say that the U.S. restrictions have chilled even permitted trade with Iran and scared away foreign entities from taking the risk. Monday’s letter urged Trump to consider steps that, while maintaining sanctions, would encourage other countries and companies to fully pursue authorized transactions with the Iranians.
It would mean a kind of end for Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign. Nevertheless, suggested Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, an expert on Iranian affairs who participated in a briefing call organized by ELN, it would be in keeping with the Trump administration’s stated support for the Iranian people. Doctors and nurses are “key pillars of Iranian civil society,” independent of the theocratic regime, he said, adding that “what we’re describing in this statement is ultimately a demand for the Trump administration to live up to its own rhetoric.”
There are similar calls on other fronts. In Venezuela, the United States has stepped up its pressure on Maduro, indicting him and some of his close associates on narcoterrorism charges. The country’s health-care system is broken, while difficult conditions abroad in the shadow of the pandemic have forced thousands of Venezuelan refugees to start making the forlorn trek back to their ruined homeland.
“It is very dangerous and irresponsible at the moment of the coronavirus pandemic,” Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and a critic of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, wrote to my colleague Adam Taylor in a recent email. “The U.S. should be helping Venezuela and other countries to contain this devastating pandemic.”