A LEADERLESS WORLD IN CRISIS
If you are wondering how the world functions without a global problem solver, this is it. The planet is experiencing the most far-reaching crisis of this century and every country is fending for itself. The world’s most powerful country, the United States, is minding its own business.
The Trump Administration is focused almost exclusively on America’s public and economic health and welfare, seeking to flatten its curve, treat its coronavirus victims and identify an effective vaccine that will provide long-term immunity. While President Donald Trump himself has noted in daily briefings at the White House the rising number of countries that have reported COVID-19 cases — the pandemic will kill hundreds of thousands, infect millions and generate trillions in economic impact before it’s done — there has been no call for a global Coronavirus Marshall Plan.
Even at home, individual states have taken the lead in response to the crisis, with Washington playing a supporting role. The Trump administration has established a global “air bridge” to identify sources of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ship them rapidly to the United States. But there is no comparable effort to marshal PPE for developing countries that lack the public health infrastructure needed to confront this deadly outbreak.
Defending himself from criticism he responded too slowly, the President routinely cites in rebuttal his steps to seal America off from the world. His State Department pretends it is exercising global leadership, but the amount of foreign assistance provided so far is remarkably small, especially given the growing need.
While China has taken some steps to fill the vacuum on a country-by-country basis, the Chinese leadership does not share America’s traditional faith in multilateral action. But rather than organizing a truly global response to the pandemic, Trump and his national security team have been more focused on identifying global scapegoats instead.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blocked a G7 statement last month because other ministers refused to refer to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus.” China may well have covered up the scope of the outbreak and been slow to share vital information with the rest of the world. When the crisis recedes months from now, there should be a candid assessment of what went right and what went wrong with the global response. China needs to be more forthcoming than it has been thus far.
Just this week, the United States suspended American support for the World Health Organization, claiming that the WHO response was mismanaged and that the agency should have been more critical in its initial assessment of what transpired in Wuhan. But a true global leader would be increasing, not decreasing resources available to the WHO in the middle of such an unprecedented emergency.
To Trump, there is no such thing as enlightened self-interest. Long skeptical of alliances, international organizations and foreign aid, he governs by grievance, whether real or perceived. The WHO is the latest in a lengthy list of foreign targets.
Even when it comes to the ultimate solution, a vaccine, rather than build a process of global scientific collaboration, the Trump administration’s first instinct was to narrow the competition. It attempted to purchase a multinational firm based in Germany that was already working on a vaccine, just the latest example of his America First philosophy in action.
The President’s global outlook is narrow, transactional and zero-sum. He does not believe in the concept of an international community. The world stage, he believes, is an arena where countries compete rather than collaborate.
None of this is a surprise. Throughout his tenure in office, Trump has been clear that he was elected to advance the interests of the United States. In fact, this has been the case with every American President. But especially since World War II, from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, each President believed it was possible, and indeed necessary, to advance American and global interests in tandem. Trump is the first to see them as mutually exclusive.
With the world in distress and the superpower nowhere in sight, the question arises whether America’s 75-year run of unrivaled global leadership is over.
The answer is yes, for reasons of both domestic American politics and international geopolitics.
There is no disputing America’s retreat in recent years. It has accelerated under the Trump administration, but started years before. The American election in 2016 was the fourth in a row where the candidate advocating the more expansive foreign policy lost.
And Trump’s skepticism towards globalization and embrace of nationalism is certainly not unique to America. Britain’s Brexit movement is the flip side of the same coin.
The United States remains the world’s most influential country, but its unipolar moment ended long ago. China is a global power in its own right. Russia is a revanchist power determined to undermine the foundational bonds that unite America and its many global allies and friends. Both seek to balance American power.
In fact, power is more dispersed than it was 20 years ago. Not so long ago, what really mattered was the P5, with the United States as its strongest advocate. But the UN Security Council has not played a meaningful role in the current crisis. The G7 is still relevant, but the G20 better reflects today’s multipolar world.
There are plenty of multilateral structures with real impact. Europe is struggling, but the EU retains significant power. The African Union and ASEAN have growing influence. OPEC still matters as we saw with the recent negotiation to stabilize the price of oil.
Individual countries, even those not imbedded in such international structures, can command the world stage. What were we worried about before the coronavirus pandemic? Internal conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen and international confrontations with Iran and North Korea. None of them are superpowers.
While a significant majority of Americans remain skeptical of American interventionism that has defined American foreign policy in recent decades, a clear majority of Americans still see themselves as internationalists. They know that unilateralism, divisiveness and indifference make problems harder and more costly to solve in the long run.
Whether American retrenchment becomes a more permanent feature of American foreign policy depends on the choice American voters make in November, when Trump seeks re-election. He will be opposed by former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden has a deep track record in international affairs and strong beliefs in the importance of global engagement and cooperation.
The 2020 election will be dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath. One of the obvious lessons learned is that borders and walls do not offer protection from the major challenges facing the world and the United States, whether health, economics, climate, migration or security.
This choice, whether America continues to step back from the world or begins to lean forward again, will shape American foreign policy for a generation.