By Washington Post Editorial Board
THE COVID-19 epidemic is inflicting grievous damage on American lives and the economy. It may also mark a decline in U.S. leadership in the world. If so, the loss will be particularly regrettable, because even more than the other injuries, the diplomatic harm will have been senseless and self-inflicted.
The cause is straightforward: President Trump has abdicated the role played by U.S. presidents in every previous global crisis of the past century, which is to step forward to offer remedies, support other nations and coordinate multilateral responses. Most recently, presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama led international efforts to stem the 2008 financial crisis; they also initiated robust U.S. responses to the AIDS and Ebola epidemics.
Mr. Trump’s principal engagement with the world since the novel coronavirus began spreading internationally has been to shut down travel between the United States and other nations. He brags almost daily about his decision to prohibit travel from China in January; when he closed down visits from Europe a few weeks later, he did so without consulting some of the United States’ closest allies.
The United States currently holds the rotating leadership of the Group of Seven nations, but it was French President Emmanuel Macron who took the initiative to organize a G-7 videoconference summit on the virus, after two phone calls to the White House failed to prompt Mr. Trump to act. A virtual summit this week of the larger Group of 20 is being organized by, of all countries, Saudi Arabia; the pariah regime of Mohammed bin Salman is taking advantage of the leadership vacuum created by Mr. Trump.
Normally, the secretary of state could be expected to be traveling the world at a time like this — at least virtually — to get U.S. allies working together on ways to head off a global recession, or to ramp up the production of vital supplies. So it was striking that when Mike Pompeo, who has kept a low profile in recent weeks, issued a statement on the epidemic Monday, it was no more than another excoriation of Iran’s supreme leader.
The big winner from this unprecedented U.S. retreat looks to be China. Having stemmed the initial outbreak on its own soil, the regime of Xi Jinping is now offering aid, including desperately needed medical masks and ventilators, to hard-hit Italy and Serbia as well as the European Union more generally. The head of one of China’s biggest companies, Jack Ma of Alibaba, is offering test kits and masks to the United States — along with 54 countries in Africa.
Mr. Trump is trying to place blame for the pandemic on China by childishly referring to the “Chinese virus.” But he has opened the way for the Xi regime to cast itself as the new global leader filling the shoes of the United States. Two veteran China watchers, Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, warned in a recent Foreign Affairs article that this could become a “Suez moment” for the United States, like the 1956 crisis that spelled the end of Britain’s role as a global player. If so, Mr. Trump will bear responsibility for more than a slow and bumbling response to the epidemic at home; he will have presided over the eclipse of the United States as the world’s convening power.
Courtesy of the “The Washington Post” Newspaper.