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Foreign Policy

Atlantic Ocean Is Getting Wider

May 20, 2020
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has been trying to scapegoat China for its own inadequate response, blaming China for “covering up.” Misguided politicians have even filed frivolous lawsuits to “hold China responsible.”

With friction heightened by the clamor in the U.S. for economic decoupling, bilateral relations have plunged into a situation more dire than anything seen since normalization in 1979.

At the same time, counterintuitively, the pandemic — something that should have drawn the U.S. and its allies in Europe closer — has, in fact, driven them apart. 

The U.S. has resorted to a beggar-thy-neighbor approach in its containment response, shoving the European Union’s trust to a new low. In a speech, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed that Europe should be held responsible for the spread of COVID-19 in America, and made an abrupt announcement that all travel from Europe to the U.S. would be suspended for 30 days, except for that from the United Kingdom. The EU retorted that U.S. actions were driven by unilateralism and said the travel ban was improper without prior consultation with the EU.

European media have accused the U.S. of blocking the shipment of masks bound for Europe and having them transshipped to the U.S. And when Trump attempted to buy exclusive access to a promising vaccine being developed by a German biotech company, it was greeted with a furious backlash in Europe, sinking the deal.

In a nutshell, the “America first” god worshiped by Trump means pursuing U.S. interests at the expense of others, aggravating the misgivings and widening the chasm between the U.S. and Europe.

To deflect domestic discontent over the administration’s incompetent handling of the crisis, Trump falsely accused the World Health Organization of low efficiency and subsequently suspended U.S funding. His decision was criticized by the EU, which called it a nonsensical move during the outbreak of pandemic. The UK, Finland, Latvia and Iceland responded by increasing their funding for the WHO. Just recently, China’s President Xi Jinping pledged $2 billion to support the organization, more than double the annual U.S contributions in 2018 and 2019.

The U.S. and EU have had heated exchanges at multilateral gatherings at the G7, G20 and United Nations. Secretary of State Pompeo insisted on including the term “Wuhan virus” in the G7 statement in breach of WHO regulations and was met with pushback from other foreign ministers. The meeting concluded without the customary joint statement.

After the U.S. announcement that it would halt funding for the WHO, the other six G7 leaders expressed support for the WHO in their virtual summit meeting, highlighting how isolated the U.S. is. Because of the disruption, neither the meeting of G20 finance ministers nor the one for health ministers produced strong statements on international cooperation to fight the pandemic.

French President Emmanuel Macron called for coordinated actions to fight the outbreak and a global cease-fire when hosting the United Nations P5 virtual meeting. Nevertheless, French proposal was left by the wayside because the U.S. rejected a reference to the WHO in the proposal.

Apparently, the U.S. observes unilateralism while Europe upholds multilateralism. The contrast could not be more stark.

The pandemic battered the U.S. and European economies, including a sharp reduction in bilateral trade. It threatens to aggravate the already bleak prospects of a U.S.-EU free trade agreement. Trump has been threatening to impose a 25 percent tariff on automobiles that originate in Europe, a modern Sword of Damocles.

Another point of contention is the appointment of a judge for the World Trade Organization’s appellate body. Because Trump rejected the appointment, the WTO appellate court is now in limbo and unable to function. Trump restated his stale threat that the U.S. might withdraw from the WTO.

The EU and China, along with 15 other WTO members, are proposing an interim dispute settlement system — the Multiparty Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement, or MPIA —to uphold the dispute settlement mechanism until the appellate body becomes functional again.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified trade frictions between the U.S. and the EU. Far from supporting EU integration, the Trump administration has been noticeably hostile. Trump shows little interest in supporting a coordinated economic response to fight COVID-19, in a distinct departure from Barack Obama’s vigorous support for the eurozone in the wake of the financial crisis. While the U.S. has delivered medical supplies to the EU during the ongoing pandemic, that doesn’t offset the perception the U.S. is largely absent in Europe’s health crisis. 

Trump’s lackluster leadership, coupled with tensions between federal and state governments in the U.S., is undermining the country’s global standing. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas publicly expressed that the initial response playing down the severity of the pandemic suggests the American model is not suitable for Europe to follow. A distinct change in attitude is that few European governments look to Washington for leadership anymore.

The pandemic has already left a devastating economic trail, with implications for European national defense budgets (a source of perennial tensions across the Atlantic). After the global financial crisis, European defense spending was cut by 24 billion euros. If this magnitude of damage is repeated, more trouble will follow.

To sum up, the ongoing pandemic will catalyze sour relations between Europe and the U.S. With relations already reaching a new low, the distance across the ocean seems to be widening.  

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