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Just when it’s needed most, global diplomacy becomes the latest casualty of coronavirus outbreak

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A waiter at a restaurant in Rome attaches tape to a chair to ensure that customers sit about 3 feet apart.
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Diplomacy by nature is a personal endeavor. Long, face-to-face meetings with officials from all over the world. Building trust, gaining cooperation, trading secrets.

Can this be achieved at a long distance? Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and the foot soldiers of U.S. diplomacy under President Trump are about to find out as the coronavirus pandemic closes conventional channels of contact and cancels numerous plans, trips and programs for American officials and their global counterparts.

The State Department announced next week’s long-planned meeting in Pittsburgh of foreign ministers from the Group of 7 top economies will be conducted “virtually.” State officials declined to provide details, but the move presumably means the foreign ministers from Canada, Britain, Japan, Germany, Italy and France will not travel to the U.S. for the mini-summit.

It remains unclear what will happen to the larger summit of G-7 presidents and prime ministers that Trump is to host at Camp David in June.

On Thursday, Pompeo — who has repeatedly said one of the most important tasks of America’s top diplomat is “showing up” — also suspended dozens of the department’s educational exchange programs for 60 days and was reassessing a number of overseas trips, aides said.

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Separately, the United Nations was scaling back operations worldwide and closing agencies, such as its human rights division in Geneva and its maritime safety board in London. It shortened a major New York conference on women’s equality from two weeks to one day. In Washington and elsewhere, foreign policy think tanks were postponing sessions, sending analysts home and shifting briefings from auditoriums to the internet.

The disruptions come precisely at a time when more cooperation and conversation are needed in the international and multilateral arena, experts and current and former diplomats said.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty” on all fronts of the coronavirus crisis, said Stephanie Segal, an economist formerly with the Treasury Department. “There is hunger for more policy coordination.”

Traditionally, experienced diplomats can find workarounds in such crises, counting on already well-established relationships, protocols and technology to keep lines of communication open, said Daniel Fried, a veteran diplomat who served as an assistant secretary of State under George W. Bush.

But with this administration’s unorthodox, rule-busting “America first” approach to foreign policy, Fried and others worried that Pompeo and his team will be ill-equipped to bridge the chasms opened by a lack of in-person contact.

Trump’s Oval Office speech Wednesday night highlighted the chaos created when there is no coordination or outreach in handling such a fast-widening crisis.

The president, without advance consultation with most European leaders, announced he was barring travel to the U.S. from 26 European countries, many of which belong to the European Union, a bloc he has long criticized. In his speech, he said European travelers had “seeded” the virus in many U.S. cities, though experts questioned that assertion.

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“A good bureaucrat can work with anything,” Fried said. “But you don’t pick fights with allies. You need decent relations so you can pick up the phone.”

Trump exempted Britain from the new travel ban, even though it has reported dozens of coronavirus cases. Americans and businesses are also exempted. Even so, the sudden travel restrictions led to panicked crowds at several European airports.

“This is not how a great country manages its relations with its closest allies,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank in Washington. “There was no diplomacy.... It was a domestic political desire to offer a big announcement and to blame someone.”

She said such “personality-driven” diplomacy “completely neuters the institutions and all the relationships that make the mechanics of crises like these work.”

The speech, written by White House advisor Stephen Miller, an anti-immigrant ideologue, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, was laden with rhetoric that blamed COVID-19 on a “foreign virus.” Trump and others in his administration have repeatedly referred to the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” to emphasize its origin in that Chinese city.

In past global crises, American presidents typically took leadership roles and moved quickly to bring nations together and rally international support. Trump continues to view the response to the virus as a competition, frequently comparing the number of U.S. cases and deaths to those of other countries.

China, in fact, made an effort at outmaneuvering Washington on the global stage. As Trump banned travelers from Europe, China sent aid to Italy, the hardest-hit country in Europe.

“The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action,” European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a joint statement Thursday.

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Trump has long been dismissive of diplomacy. He has ordered huge cuts in the State Department budget every year since taking office. Numerous senior positions at the department and in embassies remain vacant or filled by “acting” officers or inexperienced political appointees. Trump has said he likes it that way.

But the coronavirus crisis exposes the risks involved.

“What the coronavirus crisis reinforces is that governments really do matter,” said Jon Alterman, a global security expert at CSIS. “It’s relationships between government officials that matter. And if you can’t forge those relationships, if you can’t forge the partnerships, you live in a whole different world.”


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