Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2020-04-09 10:11:44 Published on Apr 09, 2020
America’s global leadership at a crossroads

As the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic with one grim milestone passing every other day, China’s response has been at the centre of most debates and discussions. Chinese Communist Party’s opacity in dealing with this crisis in its initials weeks, its ham-handed manner of treating whistleblowers, its use of information as a tool of diplomatic leverage and then after its recovery its attempts to portray itself as a saviour of the beleaguered nations has generated an intense global debate. After all, the very future of the global order is at stake and here is a country that is ostensibly aiming to emerge as the global hegemon.

But this deliberation is also happening at a time when America and its political leadership has shown itself thoroughly inept in managing its domestic crisis emerging out of the viral contagion as well as its global fall out. For a country that was widely viewed as the last port of call whenever such global crises had emerged in the past has been found wanting in this most serious crisis the world is undergoing since the end of the Second World War. The US is emerging out of this crisis as a power much diminished in credibility if not in its capacity to manage the externalities of such a profound situation. It has now emerged as the global epicentre of the Covid 19 pandemic, surpassing China and Italy, though the peak of the outbreak in the US still possibly remains months away.

US President Donald Trump’s leadership so far has been more defined more by its absence. For weeks he refused to treat the pandemic with the seriousness it deserved. In fact, till a few days back, he was suggesting that the early fatality numbers in the US were much less than those from the flu or even automobile accidents. “We lose thousands of people a year to the flu,” Trump was arguing in order to convince the country that a lockdown was not needed. “We never turn the country off.” In fact, he was hopeful that that the US could begin to reopen businesses by the Easter holiday this week.

Trump Administration’s recklessness was on full display early on when after the first few cases in the US, it did not show any sense of urgency but maintained that the situation was under control and would dissipate in the summer “like a miracle.” Trump seemed more interested in picking petty fights on Twitter with Democratic state governors who called for more stringent measures. And then as the situation deteriorated, America’s domestic capacity problems got severely exposed with lack of adequate medical supplies and insufficient testing.

Now, American public health officials are projecting the number of deaths in the country to be between 100,000 and 200,000. This sobering reality dawned on Trump only last week when he was forced to acknowledge the worst, saying “I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead” and that “this is going to be a very, very painful two weeks.”

The US Congress has passed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill which is the largest stimulus package in the nation’s history aimed at reviving a pandemic battered economy. This rare bipartisanship is also likely to result in another bill on infrastructure investment and additional healthcare benefits but political strains are quite visible. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has announced a new House committee would examine “all aspects” of the federal response to the pandemic, not ruling out an investigation in the style of the commission on the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Trump has shot back by calling it a “witch hunt” and deriding it as partisan politics.

That American polity’s response to the crisis would be shaped by the undercurrents of partisan politics is to be expected, given that this is an election year and stakes are high for both, Trump and the Democrats. Recent opinion polls reflect this as well with 94% of Republicans approving of Trump’s handling of the crisis, compared with 27% of Democrats. Trump’s approval stands at 49%, quite high by his standards and in a time of highly polarised domestic political landscape. As the crisis unfolds further in the days and moths ahead, Trump’s handling of it will have profound bearing on the November elections.

For the world at large, however, questions about America’s global leadership are becoming serious by the day. China, with all its faults, is presenting a model of global leadership which might seem very attractive to a large part of the world even as America's claim to global pre-eminence becomes seemingly more dubious by the day. Trump is busy picking fights with close allies like Germany and France by diverting medical supplies meant for these countries by outbidding the original buyers as well as with Canada and Latin America by forcing American companies to stop exporting hospital-grade N95 masks to them. The fact that few in the world are calling upon the US to lead and manage the global response to this pandemic should be worrying for American policymakers. The expectations are so low from Washington that even America’s closest allies are not coordinating their responses with it. The world knew that America was beginning to become more isolationist and during the coronavirus crisis that isolationism became visibly manifest. America’s relationship with the global order is at a crossroads and the rest of the world is beginning to come to terms with it with profound consequences for us all.

This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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