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John Ivison: Trump has abandoned America’s leadership role during the COVID-19 crisis

John Ivison: Trump has abandoned America’s leadership role during the COVID-19 crisis
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The announcement by the Liberal government that it will contribute $159 million to fight COVID-19 in poorer countries was couched in its usual hipster social justice blarney – the aid will be in line with its “feminist international assistance approach,” it said.

Sending money overseas will be unpopular in some quarters for more nativist reasons. When the first tranche of assistance was announced last month, Conservative leadership candidate Erin O’Toole tweeted “foreign aid can wait.”

But opponents of an international response are wrong. This is a global pandemic and to subdue it will take global action.

Unfortunately, that is not the conclusion that has been reached by the president of the world’s only indispensable country in a global crisis.

Donald Trump paid lip service to a united front in a G20 leaders’ communique late last month. But every action – from blocking the export of face masks to Canada to trying to buy exclusive access to a German-made vaccine – have belied his professed multilateralism. An order of 200,000 masks bound for Germany was allegedly “confiscated” in Bangkok by the Americans, on the grounds they were produced by a U.S. company – 3M – in China. A German official called it “an act of modern piracy”.

Trump’s supporters will cheer his America First response. But this inward-looking approach is antithetical to the values that have made the United States successful – in Harry S. Truman’s words, a country “built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”

Truman was president when the Marshall Plan was introduced to kick-start Western European prosperity and stop the spread of communism.

After the 2008/09 financial crisis, both the Bush and Obama administrations recognized the need for American leadership on the world stage.

But Trump has relinquished that role, even as he talks about making America great again.

While Trump has slept, China has been busy – donating face masks, test kits, protective suits and expertise to 100 or so countries. At the height of the crisis in Italy, a delegation of Chinese medical experts and 31 tonnes of supplies arrived to help.

According to the Xinhua news agency, there is no geopolitical component to this largesse. Western politicians “gauge the heart of a gentleman by their own standards…. The paranoid should stop politicizing and distorting Chinese assistance,” the state-run propaganda agency said.

This inward-looking approach is antithetical to the values that have made the U.S. successful

However, just because we in the West are paranoid, it doesn’t mean the Chinese aren’t intent on becoming the biggest geopolitical force in the world.

Trump’s abdication of responsibility means that when this is all over, 100 countries will think better of China and worse of the U.S. – including, perhaps, Canada.

As Trump was directing 3M to stop exporting respirators to Canada, the Trudeau government was chartering a cargo flight to China to pick up millions of masks.

It’s not too late for the U.S. to change tack. COVID-19 has not yet taken hold in developing countries. There are more cases on the Isle of Man than there are in Bangladesh; more in Ireland than in India.

But, until there is a vaccine, the virus will spread and it will be devastating in countries that are so crowded people are unable to social distance, or so backward there is no running water for hand-washing.

No wonder India issued a total ban on leaving home for 21 days – the legacy of the Spanish flu that killed 18 million Indians a century ago, more than all the casualties in World War One.

When it does hit, health systems will be unable to cope. Economies are already crashing, as demand for exports dries up and investors withdraw capital at record rates. Emerging market stocks are trading at far below historic valuations, as uncertainties about disease preparedness, debt sustainability, economic recovery and tourism revenues linger.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 6, 2020, in Washington, DC. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Canada has, by international standards, responded remarkably. Stories are still emerging about the biggest peacetime mobilization of industrial capacity, as suppliers switched from auto parts to making ventilators, face shields and gowns.

The federal employment department has processed 2.24 million Employment Insurance claims since March 16, close to a whole year’s work, thanks to the administrative innovation – hitherto believed to be an oxymoron.

But countries without a robust industrial base or those unable to afford generous welfare provisions will be swamped.

The G20 statement on international coordination is a start – it highlighted the need to maintain dollar liquidity, retain open markets and target action by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

But the prospects for action without U.S. leadership are modest. G7 foreign ministers couldn’t even agree on a joint statement after the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the document refer to the disease as the “Wuhan virus”.

Songwriter Tom Lehrer contended that satire died when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But Richard Nixon’s former security advisor knows a wildfire when he sees one, having ignited a few.

In last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, he suggested the COVID-19 crisis will alter the world order. “The pandemic has prompted an anachronism, a revival of the walled city in an age when prospects depend on global trade and the movement of people,” he wrote.

The implication is that Trump’s America First rhetoric has weakened the U.S. led liberal world order, creating a vacuum that China is filling.

The Canadian government has an obligation to do what it can to safeguard what Kissinger called “Enlightenment values” – the right of people to pursue lives protected from the violence of anarchy or tyranny.

Meanwhile, the American president risks becoming an Ozymandias-like figure, the “King of Kings” who was subject of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about the fragility of even the greatest of empires. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Shelley wrote. Indeed.

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