The cost of Trump’s “America First” amid Coronavirus: “If we hadn’t cut resources for tracking global health emergencies, we could have saved lives.”
Editor’s Note: Brett Bruen is part of America Unfiltered, the new joint project of EA WorldView and University College Dublin’s Clinton Institute.
This commentary was originally published by Business Insider. Since it appeared on Sunday, Trump has announced the halt of US funding to the World Health Organization:
America First is suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. Introduced during President Trump’s inaugural address, this supremely selfish worldview has formed the centerpiece of his foreign policy.
Met with derision by foreign leaders, his base absolutely loved its jingoistic brashness. This epitome of American arrogance looks particularly pathetic as we face anguish, ineptitude, and a desperate search for assistance from abroad.
We don’t need the world. Many Republicans may well believe President Barack Obama ceded too much ground to international treaties, institutions, and ideals. But Trump came in and gleefully tore all those treaties to shreds. He told us that we would be safer and stronger as a country were we not constrained by making compromises with other countries.
The consequences are now coming home to roost. Let’s start with the fact that most heads of state no longer trust Trump. They try their best to avoid contact with the American leader. There is a general feeling, based on bad experiences, that you cannot or should not tell a truth to Trump. Instead of speaking with America first, most foreign leaders prefer to talk to America last, if at all.
Even below the presidential level, coordination with other countries has been cut back. Normally there would be a large, active global coalition working on the crisis. This is noticeably absent in the current response to COVID-19.
Instead, we are arguing with allies in the G7 about scoring cheap political points against China by labeling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus.” They eventually gave up and went home without issuing a declaration on one of the most pressing crises the world has faced in recent decades. America first frequently means nothing gets done.
America First also has led a lot of other countries to put America last on their list. Whether it involves providing essential information, aid, or even just cost-sharing. The United States is no longer a preferred partner.
Our efforts are often at odds with other countries and we are paying exorbitant sums to buy up medical equipment and supplies. As one of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s advisors remarked to Reuters, “They pay any price because they are desperate.” America first is getting pretty expensive for Americans.
The Cost of Halting Cooperation
The cost of the cuts is clear. The Trump Administration has slashed and burned budgets for foreign operations over the last three years.
This year, even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they still seek to halve the funding we provide to the World Health Organization (WHO). Trump threatened this week to make immediate cuts to their budget. The Administration also pulled out the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) infectious disease expert from Beijing, where they worked closely with their Chinese counterpart. America first meant preventing pandemics was apparently not a high priority.
We are currently discovering the limits of “we can do it on our own.” The truth is that we cannot contain COVID-19 by ourselves, nor can the US alone prevent the next pandemic from breaking out. The same equally applies to terrorism, climate change, cyberattacks, and the threat of conflict around the globe. America First is endangering Americans.
We no longer enjoy the luxury of isolationism or even exceptionalism. This crisis has clearly been a humbling experience for many Americans. One would like to believe Trump or at least some of his supporters have begun to see the value in cooperating with others.
The President has not tweeted “America First” in over a month, a sign that perhaps the phrase has begun to fall out of favor. Yet for the moment, some in his Administration appear to be taking the wrong lessons from this crisis.
Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, has been using the COVID-19 pandemic to push his case for the government to intervene in the market and mandate more domestic production of certain medical supplies and treatments.
Without question we need to review our country’s capacity for crisis. Nonetheless, a large part of the problem centers around having that equipment or protective gear at the ready. In that case, it wouldn’t really matter where it was produced, as long as the U.S. Government procured and put it in our strategic stockpile ahead of time.
“We Could Have Saved Lives”
COVID-19 has shown us that no matter where we live, who we worship, or sum total of our material worth, we are all in this together. Bullying, boasting, and generally being a bad neighbor does not protect us or preserve our prosperity. It does the exact opposite.
By any measurement, America is not coming in first on COVID-19. We may well end up finishing last.
Our loss of life and the level of suffering will likely be on a scale so staggering, as to rank as unprecedented in modern history. There has to be a moment of serious reflection and reckoning for what went wrong. Part of that process must be the recognition that America First has deeply damaged our ability to effectively respond to global crises.
If there was a strong international coalition, we could have saved lives. If we hadn’t cut resources for tracking global health emergencies, we could have saved lives. If we put protecting people above pretentious patriotism, we could have saved lives.
I hope never again to hear an American president say we can go it alone.