COVID-19 in the Absence of American Global Leadership



Orit Frenkel | American Leadership Initiative

For the past three and a half years, the U.S. government has denigrated and weakened global institutions and alienated our allies. The impact of this “America First” policy and lack of American global leadership has harmed American interests, including our ability to address the COVID-19 global pandemic. But there are actions our government can take now to reverse this course and take on the current crisis.

While strong global institutions, alliances and international cooperation are important in ordinary times, in times of crisis they are critical. Ideally, the U.S. should build and strengthen its alliances and institutions during times of relative calm, building a strong global infrastructure and a reservoir of good will among our allies , to draw on during difficult times. Now should be the time that American leaders utilize international institutions and work with allies to show much needed leadership.

There are several key steps that the U.S. should take immediately.

First, after much stumbling and delays, the G-20 is scheduled to have a virtual summit on March 26 to develop an action plan to address the current pandemic and resulting economic crisis. Strong American leadership could have called for such a meeting sooner to avoid the current squabbling. In 2009, a U.S. led an emergency meeting of the G-20 in London, which is credited by many leaders who participated, with breaking the back of the financial crisis.

Veterans of that meeting have been calling for an emergency G-20 summit for the past several weeks. During that crisis, as CSIS’ Matt Goodman notes, the G-20, led by the U.S., played a crucial role coordinating the responses from individual central banks, focusing on fiscal, monetary and financial stability, culminating in a joint commitment by the G20 to a $5 trillion stimulus to raise output by 4 percent.

Now is the time for the U.S. to put aside its “America alone” policies and play a leadership role in this upcoming meeting, urging countries to move past their disputes and commit to joint actions, including sharing test results of new treatments and vaccines, rolling back tariffs that were dragging down global growth even before the crisis, and joint fiscal action.

Second, America’s unilateral trade policies have made response to the pandemic even more challenging. In response to the current crisis, the WTO and the G-20 should be asking countries to eliminate tariffs on needed medical supplies and other key items and to combine forces to increase manufacturing of global supplies, instead of imposing export restrictions.

During the financial crisis, the G-20 made commitments not to slide into protectionism. The Director-General of the WHO announced this week that he is reaching out to the leaders of the G-20 and urging them to “work together to increase production of needed supplies, avoid export bans and ensure equity of distribution.”

The U.S. should also permanently roll back U.S. tariffs on imports of medical equipment and key supplies from China, and roll tariffs back on Europe, both to support the U.S. domestic economy and to ease the economic burden on our allies.

Third, while the U.S. must continue to address China’s unfair trade practices, keeping U.S. tariffs high hurts the U.S. economy and consumers, at a time when relief is needed. Experts, including Wendy Cutler of the Asia Society, have called for the U.S. to roll back its tariffs on China, especially those affecting medical equipment, cleaning supplies and other key products.

Fourth, even in the midst of conflict with China over its unfair trade practices, it is vital that the U.S. cooperate with China in areas where possible. The U.S. and China have cooperated closely during past global health crises and should resume their cooperation during this outbreak.

Instead of issuing coronavirus barbs, which have escalated bilateral tensions with China, the U.S. should reach out to China to share information and strategies to fight the pandemic. The U.S. and China worked closely together both during the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. In 2005, George Bush and Hu Jintao hammered out “Ten Core Principles” of global pandemic response, which were later supported by 88 nations and agencies.

This would be an ideal time for the U.S. and China to work together and through the WHO to develop a set of global guidelines. Finally, the U.S. should work with the EU, China, Japan and other global leaders to create a fund to provide supplies and expertise to Africa and other least developed countries, which could suffer devastating losses during this crisis, with potentially disastrous health, economic and national security repercussions, lasting well after the pandemic subsides.


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