A view from Washington: The America First pandemic

There will be no transatlantic response to the coronavirus. It will drive us apart rather than bring us together – as pandemics always do.

Pandemics bring out the worst in human nature. Most emergencies – natural disasters, financial crises, and even war – bring us together as a community. They create a shared sense of mission, a spirit of the trenches, that we can overcome adversity together. Pandemics, by contrast, pull us apart; they isolate us, and make us afraid of our neighbours.

Fear of one another can tear at the fabric of a nation. So, naturally, national leaders try to channel that fear away from the home community. They seek to define the virus as coming from abroad; they impose border controls, declare a war-footing, and seek to protect their own. It doesn’t matter if these measures contradict the science or even worsen the spread of the disease. The intent is to sustain the national community, even if it means sacrificing the international one.

US President Donald Trump’s America First philosophy is purpose-built for this effort. Trump may not know much about public health or epidemiology, but he instinctually understands how to create an “other” to hate. As such, he has labelled the virus as “foreign”. At first, the other was China – where the virus originated – so the Trump administration banned flights from the country. Now that the epicentre of the virus is Europe, Trump has banned flights from the continent and blamed Europeans for their ineffective response.

Trump is not alone in this approach. Europeans are not behaving much differently, closing their own borders and banning the export of medical equipment. Trump’s behaviour also reflects the mood of the country (to the extent that I can discern it without leaving the house). At a time of crisis, people want protection. In the United States, they expect that protection to come from the federal government. They want their protector to define the enemy and establish a cordon sanitaire – a zone in which they are safe from its predations. Almost by definition, this requires strict border controls to keep the danger out. Overwhelmingly, the critique of Trump is that he has not acted quickly or strongly enough, not that he has failed to seek enough international cooperation.

Trump may not know much about public health or epidemiology, but he instinctually knows how to create an “other” to hate

None of this matters much to the virus, of course. It doesn’t care whether you are Chinese, European, or American. Borders mean very little to a microbe. The virus has come to America; people are already getting sick and dying.

But it will matter a great deal to politics and international relations. It will be particularly important for Europe and for transatlantic relations, which are based – much more than most international relationships – on a foundation of trust and solidarity. The core of transatlantic relations is the unusual idea, enshrined in NATO’s Article 5 (on collective defence), that America and Europe will come to each other’s aid in times of need. That commitment defines transatlantic relations far more than European defence spending or the presence of American soldiers in Europe.

After the 9/11 attacks on the US, the European decision to support the invocation of Article 5 had an important symbolic meaning. It said, in essence, that we are in this together and we will do what we can to help. That mattered less for the fight against terrorism than for the continued vitality of transatlantic relations.

Today, some have called on Trump to invoke Article 5 in the fight against the coronavirus. Of course, NATO has few tools with which to combat a disease. But, frankly, it wasn’t all that useful against al-Qaeda either. The effort now, as then, is to reinforce transatlantic solidarity at a time of crisis. The problem is that, unlike al-Qaeda, a virus demands separation; the public on both sides of the Atlantic want it, and Trump’s America First doctrine provides a ready justification for it.

So, there will be no transatlantic response to the coronavirus. It will drive us apart rather than bring us together – as pandemics always do.

Of course, the virus will pass and eventually we will come out of our homes. As after previous pandemics, we will be ashamed of how we responded, and we will wish to forget what we did. The 1918 flu pandemic, which killed tens of millions of people, virtually disappeared from the history of the time. So, perhaps we will not speak of the coronavirus much. But both Europeans and Americans will remember that, when push came to shove, we were not in it together. We were the other.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme

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