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Opinion

Editorial: Trump’s insistence on ‘America First’ is stunting the global fight against COVID-19

Orinda Care Center, a skilled nursing facility where 27 people tested positive for the virus.
(Maura Dolan / Los Angeles Times)

It was obvious even before Donald Trump became president that he disdained cooperation with other nations, including traditional allies, and that he had little interest in shoring up international institutions that the United States helped to create.

As president, he has made good — or rather, bad — on his campaign promise to put “America First,” which in practice has often meant “America alone.” He has undermined U.S. influence at the United Nations, questioned the foundations of NATO and made this country less secure as well as less influential by repudiating international agreements.

This is old news. What is new is that Trump’s insular approach to foreign policy — coupled with his early attempts to minimize the threat posed by COVID-19 — is undermining U.S. leadership in rallying the world to deal cooperatively with the pandemic. Such global coordination is vitally necessary to replace the current patchwork of national and regional efforts, some of them sorely inadequate.

As Nicholas Burns, the veteran diplomat who served in foreign policy positions in both Republican and Democratic administrations, put it in a March 25 article in Foreign Affairs: “Unfortunately, President Donald Trump has spent the last three years demeaning and degrading” the institutions of U.S. foreign policy “and denigrating the kind of U.S. leadership and global collective action they promote — which is one reason for the world’s inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic thus far.” Burns is an advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, but his view is widely shared among foreign policy experts.

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Obviously, any president’s first duty during this public health crisis is to protect the people of the United States. No one is suggesting that Trump embrace a sentimental one-worldism. But because of the global nature of this menace, American lives are threatened by a failure of this administration to galvanize international support for a strategy to control a pandemic that knows no borders.

American influence in the world arguably had been ebbing even before Trump was elected, and there were tensions between the U.S. and its NATO allies over defense spending by European nations during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. But Trump has dramatically increased the estrangement with allies by calling NATO “obsolete” (a characterization he later withdrew) and deciding to pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord on climate change and the international agreement designed to forestall Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. The rejection of the Iran agreement not only caused a rupture with America’s European allies, it also amounted to a rebuff of the United Nations Security Council, which enshrined the agreement in a resolution.

Trump consistently has made it clear that he had little respect for that institution’s founding principles, suggesting that its rationale is to protect the sovereignty of its member states. In his 2019 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he said: “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.”

Given the president’s cranky aversion to internationalism, it’s not surprising that the administration hasn’t made maximum use of the U.N. to address the pandemic, for example by securing the adoption of a Security Council resolution similar to the one passed in 2014 during the Ebola crisis. Such a resolution would declare that COVID-19 constitutes a threat to international peace and security and create a mechanism for coordinating assistance to its victims.

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Because both the U.S. and China exercise a veto in the Security Council, adoption of such a resolution would require cooperation between the two countries. Lately the president has moderated his harsh language about China, avoiding the term “Chinese virus” and praising Chinese President Xi Jinping. But it’s not clear that he’s willing to join hands with China on an international approach to dealing with the outbreak. That, rather than competition with China for preeminence, should be the goal.

To be fair, the U.S. has engaged with other nations on some issues related to the pandemic. For example, Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell have joined with other finance ministers and central bank officials in seeking to ameliorate the economic effects of the contagion.

But the president is the most important voice of the executive branch. The question is whether this emergency can impel Trump to reverse course in foreign policy the way he did in domestic policy when he signed a $2-trillion coronavirus stimulus package and invoked the Defense Production Act to boost the supply of ventilators and protective masks. A nation traumatized by this pandemic can only hope that that the answer is yes.


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