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With Trump's Coronavirus Response, U.S. Forfeits Global Leadership Role

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting about the coronavirus response with Gov. Phil Murphy, D-N.J., in the Oval Office on April 30.
Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting about the coronavirus response with Gov. Phil Murphy, D-N.J., in the Oval Office on April 30.

Since the day he took office, President Trump's "America First" policies have been at odds with the traditional U.S. global leadership role that's been in place since the end of World War II.

Trump has questioned the value of NATO and military alliances in Asia. He's pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord and the nuclear agreement with Iran. Many analysts say the most striking example has been the president's approach to the coronavirus, where the U.S. has struggled with the pandemic at home and offered little or no leadership abroad.

"I would like to think that the world's leading democracy gave an example of how well it dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, better than China," said Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford University historian.

"But it doesn't look good," added Garton Ash, who's also a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a strong proponent of trans-Atlantic ties. "The American health system and the American political system are coping with this much worse than many European democracies are."

The coronavirus has affected more people in more countries than any other single event in generations. Yet the pandemic has unfolded in a world where no one has offered substantial international leadership.

Setting the tone

With more than 3 million cases spread across the globe, neither the U.S. nor anyone else had the resources to help every afflicted country. But analysts say Trump could have done much more to send a reassuring message abroad, particularly to U.S. allies.

There should be "some element of international leadership in coordinating a global response to what is, after all, a global threat," Garton Ash said.

Trump canceled most U.S. flights to European countries, a move widely seen as necessary, though poorly handled because the U.S. didn't provide a head's up before making the announcement. The president has also suspended U.S. funding for the World Health Organization and demanded an investigation of how it dealt with the early days of the crisis.

Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, said when he traveled to the Soviet Union as a college student in the 1980s he was struck by how much ordinary citizens admired American values and its global leadership.

"Part of the reason that we won the Cold War, a big part in my view, is actually because our ideas were better," said Bremmer. "The American dream, liberty, freedom of speech, rule of law, a regulated free market — the kinds of things that people in the former East Bloc could only dream of, and did. And I think American exceptionalism meant a lot back then. I certainly don't think it does now."

American exceptionalism

The U.S. response to the coronavirus has re-ignited the debate over American exceptionalsim, the idea that the U.S. has a special role to play in the world, and whether that time has passed.

Many critics of U.S. foreign policy would welcome an end to the outsized U.S. role in global affairs. Those critics include both foreign rivals and many U.S. citizens, said Bremmer.

Bremmer, himself a sharp critic of Trump, says a diminished U.S. global role reflects a long-term trend. Many Americans now see this role as a burden, and also feel misled by U.S. leaders and institutions.

"The idea that Trump is somehow responsible for this is ludicrous," said Bremmer. "It allows you to believe that if you just get rid of Trump then American exceptionalism will return. And no, the reason that Trump became elected is because large swaths of the American population were so disillusioned."

Stephen Walt, an international relations professor at Harvard, said it's important to distinguish between places where U.S. involvement has gone poorly, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and where the U.S. has been a positive force, in many humanitarian efforts and in stabilizing the global economy.

"The United States has traditionally been quite good for the last 70 or 80 years at coordinating international responses to global problems," Walt said. "And there are things the United States could have done by leading a more coordinated effort in response to this pandemic."

From afar, many have wondered why the U.S., with its all its wealth, resources and scientific prowess faces such struggles in dealing with the virus. With more than 1 million confirmed cases and more than 60,000 deaths, the U.S. has been hit harder than any other country.

Many U.S. allies have fared much better. South Korea identified its first coronavirus case on Jan. 20, one day before the U.S. South Korea announced Thursday it had no new domestic cases of the virus, the latest sign it has managed to control the outbreak.

"Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the U.S. until now: pity," wrote journalist Fintan O'Toole in the Irish Times.

"The U.S. went into the coronavirus crisis with immense advantages: precious weeks of warning about what was coming, the world's best concentration of medical and scientific expertise, effectively limitless financial resources, a military complex with stunning logistical capacity," he added. "Yet it managed to make itself the global epicentre of the pandemic."

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1 .

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.