The COVID-19 crisis is the optimal time to demonstrate leadership. We don’t see that in the United States or its leader. Does COVID-19 herald the end of the postwar liberal international order?
Donald Trump apparently thinks the COVID-19 pandemic is reality TV. He would like the season finale to be broadcast on Easter, as he imagines the end of the unprecedented crisis being celebrated harmoniously in packed American churches. People loudly burst out in song, they hug each other once again, and the stock markets regain their confidence.
Trump would absolutely love that. He does not want the solution to the COVID-19 crisis to be worse than the problem. While the world locks down and takes strict social distancing measures, the American policy response has been disorganized and many states have not taken the crisis seriously.
Unlike France, the United States is not a unitary state. Like Belgium, it is a federal country, with 50 fairly autonomous states, all of which create their own policies. California and Maryland have formal shelter-in-place orders, while Arkansas and Arizona have done little beyond urging their citizens to be careful. New York is in the worst shape by far and is receiving federal support. Military field hospitals are being built and the hospital ship USNS Comfort is moored in New York Harbor to accommodate the overflow of infected patients.
Trump clearly enjoys his daily press conferences, where he rages against all the “fake news” about the “Chinese” virus. He mainly shows his own ignorance and incompetence, and would be wise to leave communication to medical experts like Belgium does.
The American Role
That lack of serious leadership is even more evident on an international level. COVID-19 is a global crisis that has mercilessly spread to every continent except Antarctica. Since the end of World War II, we, in the rest of the world, have been able to count on the power and coordinating role of the United States at such times. In a world without a central government, it is difficult to organize joint action. Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Charles Kindleberger once noted that the global economy is much better off when one country mainly takes the rather expensive leadership role and single-handedly rescues the system in times of crisis.
The liberal international system that the U.S. launched in 1945, built around the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and NATO, laid the foundation for 75 years of political stability and economic prosperity. When that system faltered during the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. played its leadership role with flying colors. U.S. bailouts helped European banks, too, and the Federal Reserve provided dollar credits in Asia, Europe and Latin America. George W. Bush and Barack Obama organized a joint budgetary solution through the Group of 20 industrial and emerging-market nations, and were firmly opposed to new global protectionism. After six months, the worst of the crisis was over and recovery could begin.
The “Wuhan Virus”
As we have known for some time, Trump shows little interest in such a role. Rather, he sees himself as a transactional president who wants to make deals for America. It is no coincidence that he approached the German pharmaceutical company CureVac to obtain exclusive rights to a potential coronavirus vaccine for the United States. Trans-Atlantic solidarity does not exist. He would undoubtedly have made NATO allies pay large sums of money to use the vaccine for their citizens. So far, only one virtual meeting of the Group of Seven has taken place, and the group of the seven richest industrialized countries could not even agree on a joint press statement. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, insisted they refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus.”
While solidarity with Italy and Spain is slow to emerge in the European Union, and the harsh contrasts between the North and South are reappearing, the complete absence of the U.S. is quite concerning. It was Chinese and Russian planes that landed in Rome with doctors and medical equipment to support the Italian population. The Italians will not easily forget that. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also spoke of his “brother” Xi Jinping and was devastated over the total lack of European and Western solidarity.
The geopolitical consequences of the COVID-19 crisis may be severe for the West. Many countries are turning inward, and protectionist and anti-immigrant sentiment is rampant. Countries once again realize that their dependence on the global economy leaves them vulnerable and is more a threat than an opportunity. Trump himself started that trend in 2016. COVID-19 may well be the death of the liberal international order that made America a superpower. Not even President Joe Biden will be able to turn the tide that quickly.
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