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Covid-19 Challenges "America first"

ARTICLES - 16 April 2020

At the time this article was written, Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland had just announced tighter containment measures. According to available statistics, the United States have recently taken the lead in the global rankings of Coronavirus cases, with more than 644,823 registered cases. The health situation has particularly deteriorated in some of the most densely populated areas of the country, especially in New York and California.

According to most experts, the administration has been extremely slow in grasping the scale of the tragedy to come, despite the time advantage offered by the relative distance and isolation of the United States from Eurasia. According to Ron Klain, coordinator of the Obama administration's response to the Ebola crisis (and close advisor to Joe Biden), the administration's inability to provide timely testing represents a "massive failure". Worse still, President Trump’s denial of the extent of the crisis was relayed by conservative media such as Fox News, while media coverage of the virus was accused of political manoeuvring aimed at sabotaging the president's economic success, which endangered the lives of many, often elderly viewers. According to a recent poll, more than 60% of Republicans still believe that media coverage of the virus is exaggerated.

Presidential rhetoric has since been reversed as Trump now speaks of a "war" against the virus, still very much anchored in his unilateral and nationalist instincts. In his first speech to the nation on March 11, he indeed condemned European countries for their failure to control this "foreign virus", and announced the closure of US borders, without consulting the country’s allies. The German government has since exposed an American attempt to buy out a German laboratory in order to gain exclusive rights to a potential vaccine. Transatlantic relations are yet another victim of the crisis.

According to available statistics, the United States have recently taken the lead in the global rankings of Coronavirus cases, with more than 644,823 registered cases.

Moreover, the White House still seems to oscillate between a firm health response to the crisis and a priority given to economic recovery. In fact, the president hopes to limit the markets shock as much as possible and even promised, against all medical rigour, the reopening of businesses by Easter. On Tuesday March 31, while Trump spoke of 100 000 possible deaths, adjusting his crisis communication, many Americans had the feeling that a catastrophe was slowly coming.

Thinking in times of crisis is not easy. Most experts, including the author of these words, are tempted to find instant confirmation of their prior beliefs. The greater the uncertainty, the more attractive the comfort zone. This only reinforces the admiration for Marc Bloch, capable of discerning in the midst of a catastrophe the reasons behind the strange defeat of 1940. At this stage, while the country is only at the onset of the crisis, raising questions appears more sensible than attempting to find definitive answers.

Chinese-American Suez?

How the world will look like after Covid-19 is stirring up debate in Washington. Many foreign policy journals, such as Foreign Policy, offer interesting reviews by experts proposing scenarios of a post-crisis world. But very often, these articles reinforce pre-existing visions, rather than propose truly new grids of analysis. Harvard realist historian Steve Walt predicts a strengthening of conflicts, Singaporean strategist Kishore Mahbubani sees yet another sign of the United States passing the torch to China in a "China centric" globalization; while liberal John Ikenberry wants to believe in the emergence of a reformed internationalism. Foreign Affairs published extensive articles on the backlash against the flaws of globalization that this crisis, revealing the vulnerabilities of our integrated production chains, has highlighted. But, here again, are we witnessing a rupture or a reinforcement of a pre-existing trend in the United States as well as in Europe, between the protectionist wave, the demand for local production and environmental requirements? And to what extent can this popular demand really be matched by a concrete decline in the globalisation of companies? Does this crisis really demonstrate the dangers for companies of being exposed to Chinese production structures, when the danger is also widespread since Europe, the United States and China have been hit by the epidemic?

Eclipse of American power? Barack Obama's former Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs, Kurt Campbell, and researcher Rush Doshi talk about a "Suez Moment", indicative of a transfer of power in favour of Beijing, reinforced by the White House's lone wolf: "The status of the United States as a global leader over the past seven decades has been built not just on wealth and power but also, and just as importantly, on the legitimacy that flows from the United States’ domestic governance, provision of global public goods, and ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises. The coronavirus pandemic is testing all three elements of U.S. leadership. So far, Washington is failing the test." But historian Walter Russell Mead, the Jacksonian theorist, offers a more optimistic reading of American leadership in the Wall Street Journal, recalling the many crises in which the United States stumbled before making the right decisions, such as during World War II. On the other hand, it is possible to confidently predict a strengthening of great power strategic competition with Beijing. Two thirds of Americans believe that the development of the virus is China's fault. The White House is focused on the Chinese responsibility for the initial rise of the "Wuhan virus", to the point that the final G7 statement was halted because it did not use this terminology. The coronavirus will strengthen the influence of strategists advocating economic decoupling with China.

Democratic experts are no exceptions. As one European diplomat complained to me, most of the debate in these circles focuses on the necessary fight against Chinese or Russian "disinformation" in helping Europe, rather than on initiatives to strengthen international organisations such as the WHO or the G20 after the crisis. To date, there is still very little debate on this aspect, including on the Democratic side. If the latter wants to renew the transatlantic tie, it is above all a question of rallying Europeans into an alliance of liberal democracies in the face of Russian and Chinese revisionism, rather than reforming and strengthening the multilateral system, which would imply a degree of cooperation with these actors.

Two thirds of Americans believe that the development of the virus is China's fault. The White House is focused on the Chinese responsibility for the initial rise of the "Wuhan virus"

Failure of Trump’s populism? Too soon to tell.

What about domestic policy? The first polls seem to indicate that a majority of the American population (52%) supports the President's handling of the crisis, while his general confidence level is at 47%, its highest since the beginning of the presidency (a support already strengthened after the anticlimactic impeachment). Probably a rally around the flag effect linked to the crisis (before it reached its peak) with two elements to be noted. First, these polls indicate support that transcends the partisan divide alone, which is extremely rare in this presidency. Second, they once again contradict the predictions of Trump's collapse (or even resignation) made by many commentators. Democratic candidate Joe Biden continues to dominate the polls for the November election, but some political analysts note that his lead is weaker than Hillary Clinton's at the same time. Moreover, the media attention given to the coronavirus crisis has completely overshadowed the Democratic campaign, and Joe Biden seems to be absent from the debate, further reinforcing the referendum effect around Trump's character.

More fundamentally, beyond the question of political personalities, could this crisis mark the comeback of centrist leaders and the failure of the populist thesis? This is the proposal of political scientist Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, close to Bernie Sanders' campaign. Before the crisis, the debate within the Democrats pitted those who hoped for a "return to normal" like Biden, lulled by the hope that Trump represented only an aberrant parenthesis, against left-wing populists like Sanders or Warren who wanted to seize the opportunity to open a broader debate and win back Trump's voters. Covid-19 regrettably restricts this "field of possibilities" in Hamid’s opinion,and rehabilitates pragmatic solutions and measured leaders offering technical solutions rather than ideological dreams. Who wants to dream when death is around the corner ?

The Trump Presidency will be judged by its ability to respond to the humanitarian urgency of the pandemic and the economic crisis it is causing. But it would be very bold to draw hasty conclusions. International relations experts are hoping for a renewed popular enthusiasm for global cooperation and a strengthening of the institutions in charge of responding to pandemics, the reign of the benevolent experts. But history abounds of crises, epidemics or economic shocks, which had the opposite effect: reinforcing nationalisms, closure phenomena, conspiracy theories and the search for scapegoats.

What if the United States came out stronger?

It is tempting to see the reaction of the Trump administration as an accelerator of an often-announced American decline. The brutal economic crisis, which has deprived more than 16 million Americans of a job in less than a week, a record figure, further highlights the flaws in the country's healthcare and welfare system, as French economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zuckman point out in the New York Times.

The rescue plan, voted unanimously by the Senate, represents 6% of US GDP, a ratio far higher than that of European countries.

But it is far too early to draw conclusions, and the European observer must remain modest. One ought to remember that the American system has proven resilient and flexible in the past. This system benefits from both the strengths and weaknesses of its federal model. Suffering from scattered responses between states and from a vast and difficult territory to control, it also benefits from its multiplicity of actors. Imposing lockdown does not depend solely on a federal government ruled by an undecided leadership, but also on individual initiatives of private companies, mayors or governors.

Above all, the American political system can demonstrate, in times of crisis, an incomparable ideological elasticity and capacity for recovery.

As the book by Yale economic historian Adam Tooze Crashed shows, the 2008 financial crisis, born out of the speculative practices of American banks, nevertheless resulted in a strengthening of American economic power - particularly the dollar as an international reserve currency - to the detriment of Europe. The Fed, through the liquidity swap programme strengthening the liquidity of central banks around the world, as well as Congress which had voted massive bailouts, enabled the United States to overcome the crisis before Europe, the latter being committed to lasting austerity rules and suffering from incomplete economic and monetary integration. This week, the US Congress voted, with exceptional speed, an unprecedented $2.2 trillion bailout package, largely made possible by the support of Republicans converted to the virtues of statehood by the ideological flexibility of their leader. The rescue plan, voted unanimously by the Senate, represents 6% of US GDP, a ratio far higher than that of European countries. The plan includes direct payments of $1,200 for individuals with an income of less than $75,000, $150 billion to support the health industry, $500 billion for local institutions, $350 billion in loans and support for SMEs, and 4-month unemployment insurance in addition to state subsidies.

The geopolitical balance of power upon the end of the pandemic is likely to depend more on the ability of actors to bounce back from the economic crisis than on the human suffering caused by the epidemic. In such a situation, it is possible that the United States will demonstrate unexpected resources, - and national unity in its foreign policy - in the strategic rivalry with China, which was lacking until then. In the meantime, the next few weeks are going to be very tough.

 

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