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Foreign Policy

America Shoots Itself in the Foot

Apr 27 , 2020
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The last months have seen various discussions in American academia about the impact the COVID-19 crisis could have on the future international order. Those discussions include an influential article by Henry Kissinger in the Wall Street Journal — “The Coronavirus Pandemic will Forever Alter the World Order.”

Most of the discussions suggest that China will rise to take the place of the U.S. as it shoulders the mantle of global leadership. Contrary to some perceptions in the United States, Chinese experts have been prudent in making such a prediction. Some believe it is still too early to talk about the changing global order because of a variety of uncertainties. Because China is not seeking such leadership, they say, Americans’ perceptions are more a reflection of their uneasiness with their country’s declining role.

But even if America’s leadership weakens, it will not be due to the intentional efforts of other actors. Rather, it will be the natural result of its own narrow-minded conduct. The global COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has revealed U.S. reluctance to lead. U.S. President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to assist and cooperate with other affected countries and his glaring suspension of funding to the WHO have tarnished the reputation of the U.S.

Leadership, by dictionary definition, means the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal. In international relations, leadership usually refers to the role a great power plays in bringing nation states together to work for shared causes, which could be improving the welfare of all or reducing potential damage. Exercising leadership demands not only the spiritual and moral capability to bring people or states together but also the willingness to assist others in need.

Put another way, leaders typically bring everybody together to make a bigger cake so that everybody, including the leaders themselves, get bigger shares. When in crisis, real leaders unite all stakeholders to reduce risks or costs so that everybody, including the leaders, can minimize their losses.

It is not reasonable to expect a leading nation-state to pursue the interests of the whole while setting aside its own interests. What is reasonable is that while they take their own interests as priorities, they would regard the quest of others for a share as reasonable. Legitimate leaders always make balanced calculations. That was what some former U.S. presidents tried to do during their terms.

The U.S. used to be a strong advocate and leader in free trade, especially after the Cold War. Free trade meant that markets of different parts of the world were connected, and the wealth of the world as a whole increased greatly. The United States has been a major beneficiary. Global GDP increased from $22.66 trillion in 1990 to $85.5 trillion in 2018, while U.S. GDP increased from $5.96 trillion to $20.5 trillion in the same period, almost keeping pace with the world total.

The U.S. has also demonstrated leadership in combating international terrorism since 2001, overcoming the financial crisis since 2008 and fighting against carbon emissions during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Unfortunately, the U.S. itself has been weakening its own leadership position since Donald Trump took office in 2017. Trump and his cronies have proclaimed “America first” in a high-profile manner. Under this principle, the U.S. is only considering making bigger the part of the cake that will be its own, rather than bringing other members together to make a bigger cake. Facing a common threats, the U.S. is not bringing nations together to remove the threats and to minimize the damage for all, but only to minimize damage to itself.

Recent years have amply shown the Trump administration destroying the U.S. leadership position all by itself. Upon taking office, Trump has employed the tactic of maximum pressure against all major economies, even its staunch allies. Countries including China, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Mexico and those in Europe have all been targets of the U.S. policy to increase trade tariffs, which have seriously undermined the principle of free trade upheld for decades by previous U.S. presidents.

Trump has also weakened U.S. leadership by withdrawing from agreements and abandoning international institutions and mechanisms. In the first three years of his presidency, the U.S. quit UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Council, and it withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA, and the Paris climate deal. By these action, the U.S. not only weakened its own leadership but also undermined global efforts in the above-mentioned areas.

The COVID-19 crisis in recent months has particularly illustrated how the U.S. is undermining its own global leadership. Facing a serious challenge, the U.S. is not leading the international community to minimize the costs and the risks but is only attempting to protect its own interests in a unilateral way.

Shortly after the outbreak of the disease in China, the U.S. was one of the major countries that declared a travel ban on China despite China’s arduous efforts to contain the virus. Trump himself called the virus the “Chinese virus,” putting his personal tendency toward racial discrimination on display. This seriously poisoned the atmosphere for global cooperation. To shift responsibility for his own slow and clumsy response to the COVID-19 epidemic, Trump and his assistants blamed China, which has repeatedly called for world cooperation in fighting the epidemic.

The Trump administration has shown little interest in cooperating with others in the global fight against the virus. The U.S. has provided only minimal assistance for other vulnerable countries, and has even strengthened sanctions against Iran, another member of the international community, which as been seriously affected by the disease despite strong calls from around the world to remove the sanctions.

Trump has not even realized the necessity of cooperating with America’s major Western allies. When COVID-19 broke out in Europe, the U.S. declared a travel ban on 26 European nations without informing its allies there ahead of time. And Trump openly showed his dissatisfaction with the 3M company for exporting cloth masks to Canada, a close ally and neighbor of the U.S.

Mid-April saw Trump suspend funding for the WHO, unreasonably blaming the organization for not doing enough to deal with the pandemic. This move, as noted by global pundits, is like pushing the pilot out of a flying plane, and will seriously undermine the organization’s capability to guide the global fight against the coronavirus. And that, in turn, will further undermine America’s credibility.

In one word, the idea that drives “America first” is pitting America against other parts of the world, since it is considering its own interests ahead of others. By doing so, Trump is in fact giving up the policy of his predecessors to lead the world, and he is destroying the trust the international community had placed in the U.S.

Last but not least, the U.S. this time has not demonstrated its capability to lead the world by managing its own affairs well. Successful management of its own affairs should characterize any country that purports to be a leader. Unfortunately, Trump failed to take advantage of the window of opportunity created by China for putting down the coronavirus in America — even though China had sacrificed greatly to contain the spread. As a result of its mishandling, the U.S. has become the most seriously affected country in the world as of late April.

It is true that Trump might not care whether the U.S. plays a leadership role or not. With “America first,” he proved himself to have little interest in maintaining the U.S. position. Sometime in the future, perhaps not too far, Americans might ask how the U.S. lost its leadership. The answer is clear: only the U.S. itself. It has destroyed its own reputation.

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