Trump’s exceptionalism: a risk to US status and lives

It turns out that treating allies like enemies and creating enemies out of rivals may not be a great approach to diplomacy when your problems are global – like Covid-19, writes Peter Bale

After three years of crapping all over allies – like calling Germany a deadbeat over its Nato contribution – or South Korea a bludger over US troops based there – Washington is finding rivals quite happy to move into the space it used to occupy as a trusted partner.

Coronavirus may just be the crisis that shifts global perceptions of true US power as the world’s biggest economy evidently struggles for either a coherent political response or an effective medical and logistical response – let alone helping those less fortunate.

It’s also increasingly clear that the bombastic America First stance of President Donald Trump is backfiring just when international cooperation is most needed.

"This makes America exceptional on two counts. First, it is the only nation whose leader explicitly questions the trade-off between economic growth and saving lives. Second, America is unique in lacking a clear policy."

Only this week the Group-of-Seven failed to agree a communique after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a sort of nodding dog in the back of Trump’s limo – refused to budge on describing the SARS-CoV-2 as the “Wuhan virus”.

It might have been a step back from Trump’s “Chinese virus”, but it remained a step too far for those in the G-7 who see it essential to keep China on board and cooperating with attempts to track and combat the virus – especially given its origin in China. Only the day before G7 finance ministers had managed to get out a statement using 'Covid-19'.

In remarks which could have come from Fox News, Pompeo made clear where he stood on the virus and who was responsible: “Every one of the nations that was at that meeting this morning was deeply aware of the disinformation campaign that the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in to try and deflect from what has really taken place here.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tried overnight to get a wider G-20 meeting conducted by secure phone communications, to accept the need for cooperation on a disease which was growing exponentially. He noted that the first 100,000 cases had occurred in the first three months of the outbreak.

“The next 100,000 happened in just 12 days,” he said. “The third took four days. The fourth, just one-and-a-half.”

Yet the US remains determined to go its own way – despite overtaking China in the number of cases and with New York having become the epicentre of the US outbreak while Trump still talks about car accidents and flu as a greater risk.

Edward Luce, the US national editor of The Financial Times wrote: “This makes America exceptional on two counts. First, it is the only nation whose leader explicitly questions the trade-off between economic growth and saving lives. Second, America is unique in lacking a clear policy. Its federal system offers a menu of epidemiological options. Viruses pay no heed to democracy or autocracy. They do thrive on confusion.”

So while Trump plays it solo – yet at the same time secretly trying to woo a German company with a potential vaccine to move to the United States and develop it solely for the US, and secretly ask South Korea for help with masks and ventilators – China moves on with the kind of constructive diplomacy we might have expected from Washington.

Chinese doctors are in Italy helping hard-pressed intensive care teams and masks and emergency gear are being airfreighted all over the world by Beijing and Chinese businessman Jack Ma. It is the kind of soft power at which the US used to excel.

“From Argentina to Mexico, Brazil to Peru, Latin American nations have accepted offers of support from China as the number of coronavirus cases across the region has climbed, amid growing fears about the preparedness of their healthcare systems,” Reuters reported.

As a Washington Post headline said today: "The US traditionally leads in times of crisis. Now it’s practicing self-isolation"

“In international crises, America has always been the country to which other countries have turned for leadership and to steer the ship. And now, which country is looking to the United States? No one,” Elisabeth Braw of the London-based Royal United Services Institute told the Post.

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