The administration’s ability to manage these issues, preserving U.S. interests even as its attention and resources are sapped by the domestic pandemic fight, will help determine the starting point for its post-virus position in the world.
Nowhere is the risk of waning U.S. global influence more visible than in its relationship with China, already strained before the pandemic. President Trump has sought to make Beijing a scapegoat, viewing the fight against the virus as a strategic competition and possible reelection advantage, rather than heeding the advice of some within his own administration to postpone a reckoning and assignment of blame until the immediate crisis has passed.
China has picked up the mantle, “touting its model as the best equipped . . . at a time when the U.S. seems to be faltering, a time when it’s struggling to project its model,” said Robert Malley, the president of the International Crisis Group, an international security think tank.
Strained relations will only grow worse as both countries experience rising unemployment, said Daniel Lynch, a professor of international relations at the City University of Hong Kong.
“Once you get into the election campaign, Trump is going to be lashing out and blaming everyone he can. China will be at the top of the list,” Lynch said. “If there are several months of that, in a context in which the U.S. looks very pathetic because of its response to the virus, I think it could have some lasting damage.”
More broadly, on issues tied to the pandemic and not, the U.S. voice at times has been overwhelmed by fast-moving facts on the ground, or a dearth of information.
Japanese officials are loath to admit that the crisis has dented U.S. leadership in Asia, but the region has largely dealt with the pandemic without looking to the United States. From wearing masks to mass testing, the West has not been part of the conversation, and close allies Japan and South Korea — with far more experience dealing with epidemics — have largely found their own solutions.
With the Trump administration notable by its absence, Japan has staked out its own leadership credentials, donating masks, money and medical supplies to China at the height of the outbreak in Wuhan. More recently, it arranged to send the antiviral, anti-influenza drug Avigan to at least 20 countries after it was found to have helped patients recover in China.
While the eyes of the world are elsewhere, North Korea has conducted a series of missile tests — the most in a single month in March. Even before the virus outbreak, Kim Jong Un had moved to a more hard-line position on U.S. disarmament demands. Although he still seems to see some value in his relationship with Trump, Kim has taken advantage of the world’s distraction to continue to develop weapons systems.
To some extent, the wheels of U.S. foreign and national security policy continue to turn, virus or no virus. When two Russian anti-submarine patrol aircraft entered the Alaskan air defense zone on Wednesday, they were intercepted by U.S. F-22 fighter jets.
The State Department, with about 20 percent of its Washington workforce in the building, has released a steady stream of non-virus pronouncements over the past few weeks, celebrating International Roma Day, U.N. Mine Awareness Day and Senegalese Independence Day. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials have participated in video conferences and phone calls with foreign counterparts, sometimes involving non-virus matters.
The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaigns against Iran and Venezuela have continued apace, with new sanctions and reams of fact sheets. U.S. indictments against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and others in his government were followed by a proposal for an interim government and elections, one of the few diplomatic initiatives to emerge during the pandemic crisis.
In a recent foreign ministers meeting of the G-7, which was held virtually, the United States helped set up “very good coordinated work streams” among health ministers, finance ministers and others, said one of several senior European officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s performance.
But in the past, the official said, U.S. administrations would step forward in international crises to say that “we’re going to make sure all the pieces of the jigsaw fit together, that no one is causing trouble. . . . We are America, and we are going to do it.”
Now, despite U.S.-inspired coordination on many levels, “there’s not a lot of top-down strategic narrative around it. That’s what I find curious . . . it does leave everybody short.” While U.S. withdrawal from global leadership did not begin with Trump, the official said, “the temperament of this administration” seems to have exacerbated it.
In the Middle East, the pandemic descended at a moment when Turkey and the United States, after years of acrimony, had at last agreed on an issue — the necessity of stalling a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive in Idlib, one of the final rebel redoubts.
The Trump administration praised Turkey’s decision to send thousands of troops into the province, in the northwest corner of Syria, and said the United States was seeking other ways to help, short of providing boots on the ground, including by sharing intelligence.
U.S. officials, sensing an opportunity to drive a wedge between Russia and Turkey, repeatedly highlighted and denounced Russia’s central role in the offensive, which displaced nearly a million people and set off a humanitarian catastrophe in a matter of weeks.
But the rapprochement now appears to have stalled. Washington rebuffed a Turkish request for Patriot missile defense batteries, and in early March, Turkey and Russia struck a cease-fire deal over Idlib that included joint military patrols between the two nations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Turkey would make the S-400 missile defense system it has purchased from Russia “operational” this month, a move that would trigger U.S. sanctions.
“Because of the coronavirus, I don’t think people [in Washington] spend much of their time” on what is happening in the region, a senior Turkish official said on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. “Information from the United States is at its lowest level. . . . There is no discussion on this issue.”
In Syria, the administration has not moved to withdraw the about 650 troops remaining, which is about a third of what the number was before Trump ordered a withdrawal more than a year ago. Since then, much of the territory they controlled, along with Syrian Kurdish allies, along the northeast Syrian border with Turkey, has become occupied by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies.
The pandemic has further complicated the U.S. mission in Iraq, where troops were already at risk from Iranian-backed militias. The spread of the virus has caused the U.S.-led coalition to suspend the training of local troops, even as the Americans have withdrawn hundreds of troops out of smaller military bases and consolidated them in a few centers.
The administration is increasing pressure on the Iraqi government to push against the militias. “We believe that we bring a lot to Iraq,” including economic and security assistance as well as trade, David Schenker, the assistant secretary of state for the region, said in a briefing for reporters Thursday.
“But it is on the Iraqis, if they value that relationship, to take certain steps, and that includes providing protection to the coalition forces who are in Iraq if they want those forces to remain,” Schenker said.
Iraqi officials said that protection is unlikely. “No judge will issue an arrest warrant against a senior militia member if he wants to stay alive,” said one senior Iraqi military official. “Let’s be honest. If the militias want to attack” the Americans, “we can’t stop them.”
The administration this week announced a high-level “strategic dialogue” with Iraq, to be held in June. But assuming such a gathering could take place during the pandemic, Iraq has no permanent government that could participate. There has been no official prime minister in Baghdad since late November, when Adel Abdul Mahdi stepped down in the face of mass protests. After a visit from the new head of Iran’s Quds Force, a U.S.-backed candidate, Adnan al-Zurfi, withdrew his candidacy on Thursday when key Shiite parties turned against him.
In Israel, the virus outbreak forced the two sides of the country’s year-long political stalemate to join forces in an emergency unity government. But two weeks after the former Army chief of staff, Benny Gantz, agreed to serve with his rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the factions have failed to reach a deal over, among other issues, the annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
U.S. officials had urged a delay in annexation plans, which were envisioned in the Trump administration’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, until the political upheaval was settled. But there has been little indication the United States has played any significant role in the current talks between Netanyahu and Gantz.
In North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the United States has been mostly absent or lacking influence in key crises.
The administration has said repeatedly that humanitarian and medical aid for virus-stricken Iran is exempt from U.S. sanctions, and it blamed Tehran’s Islamist government for failing to help its own people. But other nations have urged the United States to be more proactive in helping the Iranian people. U.S. regional allies have become increasingly divided over the issue, with Saudi Arabia standing firm with the United States, even as the United Arab Emirates has shipped tons of medical equipment, testing kits and other crucial supplies to Iran.
In Yemen, the United States has cut tens of millions of dollars in health care, hygiene promotion and other aid programs, saying that Houthi rebels would interfere with its delivery. But the timing, amid rising concerns about the virus emerging in the area considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, has been widely criticized.
“When #COVID19 hits, Yemenis will be uniquely vulnerable,” Oxfam America said in a series of tweets. “We asked @USAID officially to pause its suspension. . . . We are all worried about the lives that will be lost.”
This week, Saudi Arabia declared a unilateral cease-fire in its five-year war against the Houthis. It said it would contribute $500 million to humanitarian response plans there and an additional $25 million to help combat the spread of the virus.
Simon Denyer in Tokyo, Anna Fifield in New Zealand, Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem, Louisa Loveluck in Baghdad, Kareem Fahim in Istanbul, and Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo contributed to this report.