The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
It should come as no surprise that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose foreign policy doctrine is called “America first,” vastly underestimated the importance to U.S. security of defeating the novel coronavirus pandemic abroad. Trump was slow to recognize that the United States could not seal itself off from the virus: on February 26, the president predicted that the number of infected Americans would soon go down “close to zero,” while the White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow insisted that the United States had “contained” the threat because its borders were “pretty close to airtight.” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross even assessed that the troubles in China “will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America.” But of course American borders were not airtight at all, and the United States is now home to the highest number of reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in the world, with more than 7,000 deaths, a number almost certain to increase exponentially in the coming weeks.
With the domestic toll rising, the administration and many governors have belatedly implemented aggressive containment measures, and Congress has stepped in with a $2.2 trillion stimulus package to provide temporary economic relief to American workers and businesses. But Washington is still not doing nearly enough to prevent and mitigate the spread of the disease beyond U.S. borders—in some cases, the administration has even cut foreign assistance and rejected diplomacy where more of both were needed. The health and safety of the American people are the rightful priorities of the U.S. government, but concentrating narrowly on fighting the virus at home while allowing it to spread abroad would be as shortsighted as focusing on fighting a fire only in one’s own home when one’s whole neighborhood was engulfed in flames.
Trump insists that he is “the President of the United States . . . not the President of other countries” and that “we have to focus on this country” while “they’re working on their countries.” His approach overlooks the fact that failing to defeat the pandemic abroad undermines our ability to get it under control—and restore our way of life—at home.
Well before the current crisis, the Trump administration repeatedly proposed drastic reductions to foreign aid and funding for global health. In February of this year, even as the novel coronavirus was spreading in China and beyond, the administration proposed to cut U.S. foreign aid programs for fiscal year 2021 by 21 percent. The cuts included 35 percent of funding for global health programs, amounting to around $3 billion and encompassing a reduction of 50 percent in U.S. support for the World Health Organization (WHO). In pursuit of other immigration and foreign policy goals, the administration slashed assistance to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Syria, and the Palestinian territories, all of whose budgets and health-care systems were already under great strain. At the United Nations in 2018, Trump announced that “moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.”
Trump hasn’t completely ignored the rest of the world. Since the start of the pandemic, the administration has announced an additional $274 million in international aid. But that is a drop in the bucket at a time when more than a million people around the world are already infected with the deadly virus, national budgets everywhere are stretched thin, and the global economy is heading into a severe recession. Nor does the $2.2 trillion stimulus package, which Congress passed and Trump signed on March 27, adequately address the global dimension of the crisis. That entire bill allocates only $1.5 billion—less than one-tenth of one percent of its total—to support the international activities of the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin has pointed out that the bill provides almost as much to Amtrak as it does to fighting the virus abroad.
Some of the Trump administration’s most recent proposed cuts in foreign assistance could prove particularly counterproductive. On March 23, for example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced plans to reduce assistance to Afghanistan by $1 billion in 2020 and threatened to cut another $1 billion in 2021. But the Afghan government is already strapped for cash and gets some 75 percent of its revenues from international donors. Its public health infrastructure is poor. If Kabul has to adopt austerity measures as COVID-19 spreads, the already fragile government could collapse. Afghanistan’s Minister of Public Health said on March 24 that without social-distancing measures, up to 16 million Afghans could ultimately be infected. The problem would not be limited to Afghanistan: according to the EU border agency Frontex, some 17,000 Afghans crossed the Aegean Sea into Europe in 2019, and as many as double that number are expected to do so in 2020.
The administration’s proposed cuts in foreign assistance could prove particularly counterproductive.
Yemen, too, faces cuts in aid from Washington. Seeking to press the Houthi leadership to ease restrictions on aid delivery to areas under its control, the Trump administration suspended around $70 million in assistance to those areas. The cuts—which provide some exceptions for certain “crucial, lifesaving activities” but not for basic health care—could prove catastrophic, and not just for Yemenis. Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, told The Washington Post last week that her organization was “running out of money” and would have to close lifesaving operations in the next month if further funds were not forthcoming. So far, there are no reported cases of COVID-19 in Yemen, but an outbreak seems only a matter of time. Yemen shares borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman and maintains extensive interaction with Iran, which has one of the highest infection rates in the world, a problem only exacerbated by the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
The damage does not end there. Trump has ended all U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority, including humanitarian, development, and public health assistance, ostensibly in order to pressure the Palestinians to embrace the administration’s Middle East peace plan. But this move, too, is likely to damage global efforts to fight the virus. Washington has further cut funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency, which is the primary provider of health-care and basic services to millions of Palestinian refugees. One consequence of these measures is that COVID-19 could soon overwhelm Gaza’s anemic health system. According to the WHO, Gaza has only 15 available ventilators for its entire population of nearly two million, in one of the most densely populated areas of the world.
Megan Doherty, the senior director of policy at Mercy Corps and a former foreign assistance adviser at the State Department, notes that refugees and displaced populations “are particularly vulnerable to the virus, because in overcrowded camps, distancing is impossible, and residents lack access to information, soap, and clean water.” Refugees elsewhere in the region, including in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Libya, Jordan, and Egypt, are also highly vulnerable to the virus, which will continue to threaten global populations at least until a vaccine can be deployed.
Faced with this global crisis, Trump may try to leave other countries to handle their own problems while he puts up walls around the United States. But this vision is a dangerous fantasy. Even if the United States were to permanently deny entry to nationals from large parts of Asia, Africa, or the Middle East, desperate people from those regions will inevitably make their way to the United States through Mexico, Canada, and Europe. And even if it were somehow possible to prevent people from coming in from those countries, the costs to the United States of sealing itself off from its most important trading partners would be greater than those of working to contain the virus in the source countries to begin with.
The more realistic option is for the United States to lead a determined international effort to end the pandemic. There is extensive precedent for such leadership not just in wartime but in the field of global health. In 2003, the administration of President George W. Bush recognized the spread of HIV/AIDS as a threat not only to global health but also to global and U.S. security. It established the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which marshaled medical, diplomatic, and foreign aid resources to save millions of lives worldwide. Similarly, in response to the devastating Ebola outbreak in 2014, President Barack Obama worked closely with the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and foreign governments to contain and treat the deadly disease, including by sending teams of U.S. experts to assist other countries.
In the current crisis, however, the United States has exercised no such leadership. On March 26, the G-7 partners failed to agree to a joint statement on the pandemic because Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted on branding the pathogen the “Wuhan virus.” Trump enjoys a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is the current chair of the G-20, but little evidence suggests that the administration is using that organization to guide a coordinated international response. Indeed, Trump’s failure to lead a coordinated global response, together with his practice of berating, belittling, and bullying the United States’ closest and wealthiest allies, has, remarkably, allowed many to view China as a more responsible global leader than the United States. On March 31, the leaders of Ecuador, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, and Singapore proposed the sort of global alliance to fight the pandemic that once would have been led by the United States.
The coronavirus pandemic is a threat to U.S. national security.
Much time has been lost and many opportunities missed, but the administration and Congress can still act. The administration should abandon the illusion that an infectious disease can be stopped at American borders, and Secretary of State Pompeo should start to build a coalition to combat the pandemic through existing organizations such as the WHO, G-7, and G-20, or new ones if necessary.
At the same time, Washington should rethink the assistance cuts that will condemn many to death and doom domestic containment efforts. Instead the United States should provide financial lifelines, independently and through the International Monetary Fund, to countries whose fragile economies have left them without the resources to cope with the crisis. It should put aside costly trade wars—essentially taxes on American businesses and workers who are already suffering—and set an example of what leadership looks like for our European and Asian allies, who should join the United States in a closely coordinated global campaign.
The coronavirus pandemic is a threat to U.S. national security. Further legislation and supplemental funding should reflect that reality by including more resources for international scientific collaboration, more U.S. support for vulnerable populations, and flexible emergency funding for a global response. That response would include shoring up critical health-care infrastructure and public education, facilitating the global development and distribution of therapies and vaccines, aiding refugees and displaced people in overcrowded camps, and providing support to American humanitarian organizations on the frontlines.
We know from past pandemics that progress is possible. But first we must recognize that Americans will really be safe only when the rest of the world is safe as well. In September 2019, Trump proudly proclaimed to the United Nations that “the future does not belong to globalists. . . . The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.” Six months later, with Americans dying in horrifying numbers, such a worldview is only the latest victim of a deadly pathogen that respects no borders and can be defeated only with a truly global response.
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