Trump holds a press briefing with members of his Coronavirus Task Force at the White House, March 2020
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

The world has never before confronted a crisis quite like COVID-19, one that has simultaneously tested both the limits of public health systems everywhere and the ability of countries to work together on a shared challenge. But it is in just such moments of crisis that, under all prior U.S. presidents since World War II, the institutions of U.S. foreign policy mobilize for leadership. They call nations to action. They set the agenda for what needs to be done. They chart a path beyond the point of crisis.

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump has spent the last three years demeaning and degrading these very institutions 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. To date, world leaders have done alarmingly little together to blunt the crisis. The United Nations Security Council is silent. The World Health Organization (WHO) offers a useful global clearinghouse but lacks a global megaphone to lead. European Union nations have defaulted to national solutions and closed borders to their neighbors for the first time in generations. China hid the crisis from the world in its critical early days. And Trump has been especially disengaged. Beyond individual phone calls with world leaders, he has made just one attempt to organize countries to band together—a single conference call with European, Canadian, and Japanese leaders in the G-7 forum he currently chairs.  

Depending on how long it lasts, COVID-19’s impact could match that of a world war, in terms of the number of people it affects, the changes to daily life it brings on every continent, and its human toll. And the impact on business, trade, and markets could result in the most devastating global economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Such worst-case scenarios will be hard to avoid without American leadership. National leaders, including Trump, have understandably focused first on addressing the threat to their own citizens. But the pandemic must be fought simultaneously at the global level, with the full support of powerful countries—those that have a capacity to organize, set priorities, and unite disparate and often conflicting national efforts. For all the changes to the geopolitical landscape in recent years, one basic reality has not changed: such global action is impossible if the world’s strongest country, the United States, is either absent or acting alone.

THE CRISIS LAST TIME

Compare the extraordinary inactivity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic with the global financial crisis of 2008–9. Governments led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and then Barack Obama employed the G-20 to unite the world’s most powerful economies to work together on a global solution. Both Bush and Obama understood that the United States, with all its power and immense credibility, had to lead if the world was going to prevent the Great Recession from becoming a Great Depression.

Throughout its history, the United States has been fortunate to have visionary, charismatic leadership at times of great crisis: George Washington during the Revolution, Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II. Trump, unfortunately, has not proved himself to be anywhere close to such a leader. His character drives him to divide rather than to unite at home. His “America first” foreign policy instincts drive him to act alone in the world rather than in concert with others. He seems incapable of imagining that the United States might be made stronger and more effective by confronting a crisis in lockstep with its allies and partners.

Trump seems incapable of imagining that the United States might be made stronger and more effective by confronting a crisis in lockstep with its allies.

Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, those tendencies have defined the international aspects of Trump’s response. In his daily press conferences, he rarely mentions concrete work being done in tandem with other governments. He has initiated no significant international action. And he has dramatically weakened many of the federal agencies that would normally lead the global response to such a crisis: the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense (which he very unwisely disbanded in 2018). It was not a slip of the tongue last week when Trump referred publicly to the “Deep State Department.” Is it any wonder that the institutions of government he routinely derides, and has starved for funds and leadership, would prove so catastrophically unprepared?

Any other recent American president would have confronted the crisis much more urgently from the start. The priority would have been the home front, of course. But both Obama and Bush, like many presidents before them, would have also understood the need for an all-out global effort, led by the United States and its allies, to confront the threat together.

NOT TOO LATE

The Trump administration has lost valuable time since December, but it is not too late to assemble an international coalition to begin to limit COVID-19’s ruthlessly efficient global contagion. What might such an effort look like? The administration should join with other global leaders to launch at least three high-level international efforts to tackle the most difficult challenges posed by the pandemic—one made up of top leaders, one made up of economic policymakers, and one made up of U.S. and Chinese officials.

The first should be a G-20 leaders steering group to focus on the health and economic challenges ahead. Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to start, should begin meetings via teleconference to discuss how to blunt both the health and economic impacts. This leadership group should meet weekly if necessary to assess progress and resolve the inevitable disputes and misunderstandings of such a massive global undertaking. They should appoint and empower trusted senior cabinet-level officials to meet daily to identify the roadblocks in the international response; to resolve practical problems impeding relief efforts; and to partner on long-term plans that can ultimately bring the crisis to an end. Trump can create this group at a first meeting this week. There is no time to waste.

The agenda of this steering group will need to be broad and ambitious. The most urgent issue is to agree that national public health officials must exchange quickly and effectively accurate data on the number of people affected and tested and the mortality rate in countries around the world. This alone would be of inestimable help to the experts seeking to understand and model the impact of the virus and thus predict its arc going forward. There will need to be agreement on the central clearing-house for this exchange of information, whether that is the WHO or another body that can work more efficiently.

These leaders must also push countries with greater capacity to agree on a joint effort to transfer material assistance, training, and know-how to countries with weaker public health systems. As the pandemic will likely persist for most of 2020, it will be critical for countries that have largely recovered to extend help to those in greatest need. That is unlikely to happen without top-down pressure from leaders such as Trump and Xi.

Trump and Xi at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 2019
Trump and Xi at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 2019
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

It is also not too early for leaders to assign a group of eminent global public health experts to determine what has gone right so far, what needs to be urgently fixed, which international institutions are failing, and what (if any) new ones may need to be created. Leaders need to demand that governments be better prepared, individually and collectively, for the next crisis. (This is an especially acute weakness of the United States, of course, whose level of preparedness and early response has been among the weakest of any major nation.) The G-20 should also work to coordinate the many research universities and private companies working on a vaccine. Governments are not in most cases well suited to carrying out research themselves, but they can cut through regulatory red tape, provide seed funding, and, most important, agree on an equitable means of distribution once the vaccine is available.

National governments have also struggled with how to help the hundreds of thousands of people stranded in foreign countries, with borders slammed shut with surprising speed in every part of the world. Embassies and consulates now need help to protect their citizens caught in the no man’s lands of the pandemic. The G-20 countries are in the best position to help organize special flights and humanitarian convoys. One has to go back 80 years, to the start of World War II, to find a time when so many people have been left helpless outside their countries’ borders.

This high-level steering group would also allow leaders to communicate more effectively in advance of national decisions that will inevitably affect other countries. When Trump, for example, announced that he intended to stop travel by Europeans to the United States, he did so without any significant consultation with the European Union, whose leadership was understandably furious as a result. (That one act may for years color the way European governments and citizens view the United States.)

Most important, in place of such dissension, world leaders should deliver a united message of resolve to fight the pandemic together and to plan for our ultimate deliverance from it. Even a simple public message of solidarity would help—particularly from Trump, who has reached out precious few times to convey American sympathy to those suffering abroad. The world needs hope, and these leaders can provide at least a measure of it.

PREVENTING A GREAT DEPRESSION

With major economies grinding to a halt, Trump and other leaders should also take personal oversight of a second high-level group, this one made up of finance ministers and central bank presidents from G-20 countries and others. In the face of the most serious economic crisis in nearly a century, their focus should be to more closely align fiscal and monetary policies to limit the severity of a likely global recession.

U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and his central bank colleagues in Canada, Europe, and Japan set a good example earlier this month in coordinating a first tranche of common measures to stimulate the global economy. But these countries cannot hope to steer effective global action without officials from Brazil, China, India, and other rising powers at the same table.

There are also some immediate problems that need fixing. One is to lower tariff barriers on the medical products and parts that will be essential to a more successful health response. This won’t be easy at a time of economic distress when the temptation of national governments will be to protect their own markets, but the costs of failing to do so will be enormous. Another is to evaluate the sanctions currently in place on governments such as Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela and to lift any that are impeding vital humanitarian aid, at least temporarily. Citizens of these countries, who are as vulnerable as anyone to the coronavirus, should not pay with their lives for the sins of their governments. Just as important, uncontrolled outbreaks will threaten new waves of infections beyond their borders.

WHEN TWO TIGERS UNITE

Finally, the Trump administration needs to establish much more frequent communication between Washington and Beijing—between Trump and Xi themselves, between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his counterpart, and between Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and his counterparts. As the two major global powers, the United States and China must do more to mitigate the worst aspects of the crisis and to provide public leadership. The low point of this crisis politically has been the failure of Washington and Beijing to set aside broader tensions and combine forces to combat the pandemic.

If anything, distrust and hostility between the United States and China have gotten worse. During the last few weeks, they have fought a running war of words over who is ultimately responsible for the pandemic. Chinese officials set a low bar by claiming—falsely and outrageously—that the U.S. military planted the virus in Wuhan to weaken China. But Trump has not helped by referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.”

Distrust and hostility between the United States and China have gotten worse.

For the sake of both their own citizens and the rest of the world, Washington and Beijing must stop the blame game and start working together on solutions. If China and the United States can’t communicate and cooperate effectively, it will be next to impossible to avoid further tensions—dividing a world that, now more than ever, should be united for common action. But there is also much at stake for the two superpowers’ reputation and credibility. While China is rightly praised for its rigorous social-distancing campaign and recent humanitarian aid to the European Union and others, it continues to come under intense (and deserved) criticism for initially suppressing information about the epidemic and, even now, for not sharing complete data on infections. Trump, meanwhile, is not even trying to lead globally. That image—of a United States that was not there to help during the most serious crisis in most people’s lifetimes—could do irreparable damage to how the rest of the world views the country going forward.

A global crisis of this magnitude carries a final, and potentially deadly, risk. If countries turn against one another, competing for scarce resources and failing to communicate responsibly, it is not unthinkable that conflict and war could result.

A WAR WITH ONE SIDE                                         

When the world faced a very different crisis at the start of World War II, it was the confident and united leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that created the alliance critical to ultimate victory and forged a vision in the Atlantic Charter for what would come in its wake. Leaders and commentators have compared the current struggle to war. What makes this crisis different, though, is that every country and all citizens are now on the same side.

To have a chance of prevailing, we need focused, determined, and effective leadership and genuine collaboration from Trump and other global leaders. They will largely determine whether the world can meet this existential test. In an age of nationalism and “America first,” the truth should be clear for all to see: nothing in human history has so clearly demonstrated how the fate of everyone—all 7.7 billion people—in our highly connected world is now linked.

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  • NICHOLAS BURNS is Professor of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School; he served as U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008 and as U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 2001 to 2005.
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