March 23, 2020
IntelBrief: Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes the Drastic Absence of U.S. Global Leadership
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has exposed fundamental weaknesses in many Western countries, including the United States and its European allies, as they struggle to stem the tide of new cases and respond to existing ones. Even though a significant portion of the blame lies with China for covering up the early signs of what grew into a pandemic, Beijing is now seeking to portray itself as a savior, providing masks and testing kits to countries throughout the world. China’s media has highlighted the country’s outreach to Europe, Africa, and Asia, juxtaposing China’s benevolence with the United States. Meanwhile, the United States is suffering from a lack of testing kits, open hospital beds, and even basic necessities like personal protective equipment for doctors, nurses, and medical workers as COVID-19 cases surge. In previous times of crisis—the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the Ebola crisis of 2014—the United States helped lead an international response. With COVID-19, Washington’s dearth of leadership is glaring, and will have long-lasting implications well beyond the current crisis.
By delivering much needed supplies and sending Chinese scientists and medical experts to offer advice, China is using diplomacy and soft power to recreate the narrative surrounding COVID-19. And from early indications, it seems to be working. Countries that would normally look to the United States in a time of crisis have observed Washington’s own failure to deal with the coronavirus. Europe has also been shunned in favor of help from China. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic declared that, when it came to assistance in battling the coronavirus, ‘the only country that can help us is China,’ while obliquely referring to European solidarity as a ‘fairy tale’ that never existed. Russian disinformation efforts have exacerbated existing tensions and complicated government responses.
The reality is, the United States has been declining as a global power for some time now. The coronavirus has merely exposed this hard truth. By abdicating leadership on the most pressing challenges of our time, from combating climate change to championing human rights, the United States has allowed an authoritarian country like China to dominate the narrative of the coronavirus response, as Beijing gains access and influence through the provision of generous aid packages and foreign assistance. European countries were neither consulted nor informed before the Trump administration imposed a travel ban on their citizens. China is effectively exploiting this rift in transatlantic relations. Germans were furious when a story was published allegations reporting that U.S. President Donald Trump was aggressively pursuing the purchase of a German biopharmaceutical company, CureVac, in order to obtain ‘exclusive access’ to a potential coronavirus vaccine. To President Trump’s supporters, this is simply ‘America First’ operationalized. To the rest of the world, it shows an America out of touch with reality, no longer a symbol of hope that it has been for hundreds of millions of people throughout the world for decades on end.
Much like coronavirus testing kits for those Americans that need them, American leadership is hard to come by these days. Recent reporting suggests that President Trump continued to downplay the threat posed by the coronavirus even after numerous classified briefings from the intelligence community throughout January and February. The failure in leadership is not only on the international level, although that is where it is perhaps most apparent. Domestically, Americans have been forced to rely on each other, and on civil society organizations and local and state governments to make up for the missteps of the Federal government. Meanwhile, upon learning about the dangers posed by the coronavirus, several U.S. senators, aware of the threat posed by COVID-19, chose to take this time to dump millions of dollars in stocks, rather than convey the threat to the American public. The United States is in frantic a race to the bottom. If the country is able to rebound from the disaster, it will be in spite of, not due to, the Trump administration, which has displayed a failure in moral leadership now laid bare for the country—and for the world—to see.
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