Another Virus Victim: The U.S. as a Global Leader in a Time of Crisis 1

BRUSSELS — In the name of “America First,” President Trump has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and questioned the usefulness of the United Nations and NATO, displaying his distaste for the multinational institutions the United States had constructed and led since World War II.

As the coronavirus crisis escalates across the globe, the United States is stepping back further, abandoning its longtime role as a generous global leader able to coordinate an ambitious, multinational response to a worldwide emergency.

During both the economic meltdown in 2008 and the Ebola crisis of 2014, the United States assumed the role of global coordinator of responses — sometimes imperfectly, but with the acceptance and gratitude of its allies and even its foes.

In 2003, President George W. Bush established a program, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, that has provided as much as $90 billion and is considered the largest single effort against a single disease. It is credited for saving many thousands of lives in Africa alone.

But the United States is not taking those kinds of steps today.

“There is from President Trump’s America a selfishness that is new,’’ said Jan Techau, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. While all nations act to protect themselves, he said, the United States traditionally saw that responsibility as having a broader reach.

With Mr. Trump’s unembellished nationalism and slogan of “America First,’’ his efforts to blame first China and then Europe for the coronavirus, and his various misstatements of fact, “it means that America no longer serves the planet,’’ Mr. Techau said.

“America was always strong on self-interest but it has been very generous,” he said. “That generosity seems to be gone, and that’s bad news for the world.’’

The pandemic is hardly at its peak, so judgments should be tempered, said Claudia Major, an analyst of international security at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “But this crisis is confirmation of a structural change in U.S. political leadership,’’ she said.

“There is no U.S. global leadership and no U.S. model,’’ Ms. Major added. “Success would be that you manage the pandemic at home, rally allies around you, lead the alliance, supply global public goods and organize the global response, as with Ebola.”

Instead, American institutions “don’t seem to be able to cope at home,” she said, and there is “a Trump response to act alone.’’

The United States did provide some early aid to China. But in general, the administration has left even close allies to fend for themselves. Mr. Trump has defended his ban on all travel from the European Union, but he did not bother to consult with European leaders or even give them advance notice.

The United States has the leadership of the Group of 7 industrialized countries this year, but it was the energetic French president, Emmanuel Macron, who called Mr. Trump twice in 10 days to suggest a G-7 virus summit by videoconference. Mr. Trump agreed, but left Mr. Macron to organize it.

Germans and Europeans generally are angry about accusations from German officials that the Trump administration, and reportedly Mr. Trump himself, offered $1 billion to a German pharmaceutical company, Cure-Vac, to buy monopoly rights to a potential Covid-19 vaccine.

The White House denies the accusations and the company has denied receiving a takeover offer. But its lead investor made clear there was some kind of approach.

Whatever the reality, “the point is that people think Trump is capable of that,’’ Ms. Major said. “That’s where we’ve arrived in the trans-Atlantic relationship, that people say, ‘Yes, that sounds right for the American president.’ ’’

Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to Washington, said, “Most of us see the crisis in terms of what it means for our families, our livelihoods and the future of our own country.’’

“But obviously we are also looking at how others are dealing with the situation,” he continued. “Seen from a distance, Trump’s performance has pretty much confirmed the views people over here already had of him — that it’s all about ‘me,’ with no acceptance of responsibility for earlier failures.’’

The suggestion that Mr. Trump tried to buy out the German company, “true or not, did not play well in the European media,” Mr. Westmacott said. “It felt more ‘America first’ than America in its traditional role of a big-hearted great power.’’

The contrast is to China, which made huge mistakes at the onset of the crisis, but since then appears to have managed it effectively, using harsh quarantine measures others are studying.

China is also now sending aid — needed respiratory and surgical masks, ventilators and medical personnel — to Italy and Serbia, which have condemned their European allies for not providing early and efficient help.

On Wednesday, China offered the European Union as a whole two million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced N95 masks and 50,000 testing kits. On Friday, China sent several million masks to Belgium.

The Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has even offered aid to the United States, promising to send 500,000 virus test kits and a million protective masks.

“There is a serious battle of narratives,’’ Ms. Major said. “And the Chinese have become good at what was once America’s tool, soft power.’’

The Chinese, she said, are “trying to make everyone forget that a lot of what we’re experiencing is because of their domestic failure.’’

So even as China provides aid to Italy and Serbia, she said, “it is asking, ‘Where are your European friends?’ and giving the impression that China acts, is coordinating, leads.’’

But the United States, she said, “seems unwilling or unable to lead.’’

To many European friends, the American domestic response is disheartening.

The United States “seems at least as fragmented as the European Union, if not more so,’’ said Marietje Schaake, a former European legislator now at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center.

“The U.S. looks more fragile in part because it lacks the social structures we have in Europe,” she added. “There is comfort in knowing that there is a bottom, a net that will catch you.’’

Ms. Schaake is most worried “about a breakdown of what holds society together, and the risk is bigger in the U.S. than in Europe,’’ she said. “I would wish there would be more constructive coordination instead of shouting matches and rhetoric like Trump’s, denying the problems, while a country like Germany says that if their vaccine succeeds it will be for everyone.’’

As for the European Union, it is struggling to keep its own internal borders open to free trade, let alone travel, and preserve the principles of the single market that are the heart of the bloc. Some wonder if passport-free travel will ever again be the same.

Tim King, the former editor of “European Voice,” writing in Politico, suggested that the crisis marked a “hasty dismantling of what took decades of painstaking negotiation to construct.”

But it may also be the moment, he wrote, when the European Union begins to become “a more sophisticated and mature political authority,’’ as it moves to relax its rules to deal more effectively with the crisis.

In retrospect, the crisis may also mark a moment of fundamental global shift.

“What will this mean in five years for great-power competition?” asked Ms. Major. “In 10 years will we say, ‘This is the moment that China rose and the U.S. declined,’ or will the U.S. rebound?”

In the past, the United States has rebounded, even if slow out of the starting gate.

That was true in both World Wars, when the country’s efforts to remain separated from the rest of the world by an ocean were replaced by strong commitments from the government and the society to win wars and become, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it, “the arsenal of democracy.’’

Mr. Westmacott, the former British ambassador, sees a new seriousness in Mr. Trump over the last few days.

“The tone seems to have changed, despite some unrealistic claims about the availability of new tests, with less bluster and a bit more leadership,’’ he said.

And the capacity of the United States for medical research is unparalleled in the world.

Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian diplomat, was struck by the size of the emergency funding that Congress was so quickly preparing.

“For a country that struggled with Obamacare, it’s huge,’’ he said. “This is also part of the real American greatness, the capacity to act boldly when something happens.’’