- The US traditionally sets a model for other countries during global crises and uses its resources to assist them, but that has not been the case during the coronavirus pandemic under President Donald Trump.
- Not only is the US struggling to contain its own outbreak, but close allies like the UK and South Korea that traditionally look to the US for help are fighting the pandemic on their own.
- “Trump’s ineptitude is exposed, but more than that, the US is not there to help others. We are not a global power in this pandemic, and people will remember that,” Cynthia Schneider, who was the US ambassador to the Netherlands from 1998 to 2001, told Insider.
- Governors in the US have had to handle acquiring crucial medical supplies on their own. After Trump rejected New York’s request for more ventilators, the state received 1,000 ventilators from China — a massive influx of critical aid that’s more typical of the US reponse to disasters.
- “The lack of a global health defense network that could have been empowered by American medical expertise meant that the virus blossomed wherever underpreparation and slowfootedness prevailed,” said Jack Chow, who was a US ambassador for global HIV/AIDS during the George W. Bush administration.
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As Ebola ravaged West Africa in September 2014, President Barack Obama stood in front of the United Nations and implored the leaders of the world to do more. Though Ebola never posed a significant threat to the US domestically, Obama presented it as a problem the globe had to face together.
“This is also more than a health crisis. This is a growing threat to regional and global security,” Obama said at the time. “In an era where regional crises can quickly become global threats, stopping Ebola is in the interest of all of us.”
Later that same week, Obama hosted health ministers from more than 40 nations at the White House for a global health security summit, where he renewed calls for a coordinated, international response to Ebola.
Trump has taken the polar opposite approach to the coronavirus pandemic. He’s blamed other countries for the virus, cut funding from the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday, moved to restrict the exportation of medical supplies to Canada and Latin America, and been accused by at least five countries of blocking or seizing shipments of vital supplies.
“What the Trump administration has never really understood, and you see it again here, is that global leadership is not about telling other countries what to do, it’s about being willing to be the first in line to do it… The world follows the signals we send with our own actions,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who oversaw the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as director for foreign disaster assistance at USAID, told Insider.
Trump’s disastrous coronavirus response has not only embarrassed the US in front of the entire world — with the US still struggling to provide widespread tests for Americans as its 612,000 confirmed cases outstrip every other nation — it’s created a gaping hole in global leadership that China has rushed to fill, warn former US officials who served under three different administrations.
“Trump’s ineptitude is exposed, but more than that, the US is not there to help others. We are not a global power in this pandemic, and people will remember that,” Cynthia Schneider, who was the US ambassador to the Netherlands from 1998 to 2001, told Insider. “When there’s a void, there’s always something to fill the void. China is filling the void.”
If the US is not “robustly engaging and showing leadership” in global institutions then it creates a vacuum for others to do so, Konyndyk said.
“By the US pulling back and getting into fights with these institutions, we’re just leaving more space for others to occupy. I don’t think the Trump administration has ever really understood that,” Konyndyk added.
Trump set the US up for disaster and has failed to bring the world together to fight coronavirus
After years of taking steps that weakened America’s ability to thwart pandemics, including scrapping the National Security Council’s global health unit, Trump ignored myriad warning signs of an impending global health catastrophe.
Even after he’d been briefed by the intelligence community and senior advisers on the potentially devastating impact of the virus on both public health and the economy, Trump downplayed the threat for weeks. As a result, the US was left largely unprepared for a public health crisis of this magnitude and too preoccupied to help mobilize the world to defeat the virus at a time when global cooperation could not be more important.
It also did not help matters that Trump had spent the last three years attacking global institutions the US played a vital role in founding and building up.
“Fighting the epidemic globally requires nations to unionize and act in synchrony and coordination, and the Trump administration has failed to have America activate any conventional international consortium to confront the epidemic: UN Security Council, G7, G20, NATO, central banks — all have not coalesced around any grand strategy due to Trump’s abdication of leadership in those US-anchored alliances,” Jack Chow, who was a US ambassador for global HIV/AIDS during the George W. Bush administration and former World Health Organization assistant director-general, told Insider.
‘The US is not helping anyone. The US isn’t even helping itself.’
The US is now the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with the most confirmed cases and fatalities in the world. It’s been far outpaced by other countries in terms of testing for and containing the virus — including South Korea, which had its first reported case of the virus on the same day as the US in January. Meanwhile, states across the US are struggling to obtain lifesaving medical supplies as hospitals nationwide are overwhelmed.
In the absence of help from the Trump administration, governors have rallied together to help one another, and in some cases have also received assistance from other countries. New York, which has been hit harder than any other state by the pandemic, recently accepted 1,000 ventilators from China after Trump rejected calls from Gov. Andrew Cuomo for more.
“We are not only not providing leadership in terms of how people should be behaving at a time like this, but we are ourselves requiring and relying on aid from other countries. Our states are receiving aid from China,” Schneider said.
“Even countries that might have had criticism for the US…they knew they could depend on it to be there as the strong global power to help them as they needed it. And that is completely absent. The US is not helping anyone. The US isn’t even helping itself, much less other countries. And, thanks to 24/7 global communication, that is visible for all the world to see,” Schneider said.
“The world does not have red states and blind Trump followers,” Schneider added. “The world can see the absolute terrifying and fatal ineptitude of the Trump administration. There’s no global Fox News that’s going to tell a different, false story.”
Many Americans also appear to have caught on to the ways in which the US is racing to keep up with the world, rather than setting the pace, in terms of its response to the pandemic. As of this week, 55% of Americans now say the federal government was not prepared to handle the coronavirus pandemic, and just 27% think the US is doing a better job at containing the virus than other developed countries, according to Insider polling.
But Trump has explicitly refused to take any responsibility for his administration’s failures, and routinely berates reporters who question his handling of the pandemic.
“The US has never been a perfect world power and one of our strengths has been our capacity for self-criticism, recognizing our faults, and trying to correct them. That is of course completely absent in the Trump administration,” Schneider said.
—MSNBC (@MSNBC) March 13, 2020
‘It is striking that we look so far behind the curve’
Though the US has hardly been a wholly benevolent actor in foreign affairs since World War II, it’s traditionally set a model for the world during global crises and looked to international institutions as crucial tools in solving them. That’s not happening under Trump.
“The US is just not taking the kind of role it would normally take, neither in terms of engaged moral leadership, basic coordination, getting joint statements at the G7. It’s not doing any of that. It’s jaw-dropping…It is striking that we look so far behind the curve, are so absent, and are not doing so great ourselves on the crisis. I can’t think of anything like this, honestly,” Daniel Nexon, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University and co-author of “Exit from Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order,” told Insider.
“The US is no longer a sole, global hegemon…But certainly the US is perfectly capable of exercising more leadership. Particularly under an administration that is more conventional — Republican or Democratic — you would not see the US quite so AWOL in a fight against a pandemic,” Nexon added.
Since he entered the White House, Trump has operated on a theory that weakening or sidelining global institutions means the US will have more bargaining power. In doing so, the president repeatedly attacked organizations like NATO and the United Nations, contending they’ve been unfair to the US and taken advantage of its generosity. Nexon said this has made the US appear a less reliable partner, and opened the door for countries like China and Russia to push their agendas more effectively.
“It’s ironically made the old-style institutions much more attractive to powers who disagree with the US because the US is less influential there and they can get more of what they want,” Nexon said. “It’s left the US much more isolated and flailing.”
With the US viewed as a less credible and consistent partner as a consequence of Trump’s leadership, key countries that would normally look to an American president for guidance — South Korea, Italy, Spain, and the UK — have largely sought to fight this pandemic on their own. This has resulted in a “checkboard pattern of gaps and vulnerabilities that failed to stem the virus’s exponential progression,” Chow said.
“The lack of a global health defense network that could have been empowered by American medical expertise meant that the virus blossomed wherever underpreparation and slowfootedness prevailed,” Chow added. “The crisis has laid bare the need for localities, countries, and alliances to work as one organism to break the chains of transmission.”