In a Crisis, a Fumbling America Confirms Europe’s Worst Fears
Europeans have been watching America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic with alarm. Last week’s news that the United States plans to freeze funding for the World Health Organization was seen as yet another piece of evidence that the United States is shedding its traditional, global leadership role. In over one hundred interviews, emails, and texts with policymakers, analysts, and colleagues across the European continent, we have found universal shock and disappointment over both America’s failure to lead in this crisis and its systemic failures at home. The COVID-19 crisis is raising questions about American power, reliability, and trustworthiness that stand to shape the future of the transatlantic relationship for years to come.
In some ways, the Trump administration’s response to the novel coronavirus epidemic and later pandemic was predictable. As one German analyst we interviewed remarked, Trump’s handling of the crisis “has only confirmed what we in Europe already knew.” Europeans have come to learn that President Donald Trump means it when he says “America First,” that he doesn’t always land on the side of science, and that he is prone to erratic decision-making. Europeans were not surprised when the Trump White House initially downplayed the crisis, calling it “just the flu,” or when Trump politicized the crisis by claiming it was a “Democratic hoax.” Moreover, Trump’s decision to impose a unilateral ban on commercial flights from Europe without any consultation with European allies was just another page from the Trump playbook, which — at least in their minds — has always heavily relied on building walls. Europeans have become accustomed to reading about Trump decisions in the newspaper instead of hearing about them through traditional diplomatic channels.
However, as the center of the pandemic shifts from Europe to the United States, there have been aspects of America’s response that Europeans have found to be both deeply disheartening and alarming. Irrespective of who sits in the Oval Office, Europeans tend to look to the United States in a crisis because of its unique and longstanding ability to bring the world together. In 2014, it was the United States that pulled nations together to combat Ebola. In 2001, under President George W. Bush, it was the United States that led U.N. efforts to create a global fund to combat AIDS. In this crisis, however, the United States has been, as one Italian analyst told us, “MIA.”
The Trump administration failed to call for emergency meetings of the G7, the G20, or any other international grouping. When the foreign ministers of the G7 did finally convene, the United States prevented them from issuing a statement because of its insistence that the virus be labeled the “Wuhan virus.” The United States is consumed with a war of words when it could be harmonizing global travel restrictions, coordinating a global economic response, or working with partners and allies on a vaccine. Similarly, criticism of the World Health Organization for believing in and actively promoting Chinese disinformation is fair, but Trump’s solution — threatening to withdraw from the organization altogether — doesn’t help anyone. The real vacuum of global leadership — by both the United States and China — means the process of recovery will be harder and longer for everyone. At a moment when America should have created coalitions with Europe and other partners in the Indo-Pacific, it retreated.
Beyond the Trump administration’s abdication of global leadership, Europeans have been disturbed to discover that their supposed close relationship with the United States counts for little. As tens of thousands of Italians died from the disease and Rome pleaded for help in early March, Washington stayed silent. China, seeing an opportunity to burnish its tarnished reputation born out of its initial handling of the virus, immediately sent assistance. While European papers widely covered China’s “mask diplomacy,” the United States captured headlines for allegedly diverting masks meant for Europe. Although the US company in question later denied these reports, the damage was done, leading a German politician to accuse the United States of “modern piracy.” It is important to note that Europe isn’t looking at offers of Chinese help without a critical eye. Reports of faulty testing kits and masks sold to Italy,Spain, the Netherlands, and elsehwhere have damaged China’s credibility. The European Union’s top diplomat even called out China’s “politics of generosity” as a ploy to gain influence in Europe. But, while China is present on the scene with planeloads of equipment and teams of doctors , the United States is completely absent or, worse, seen as acting only in self-interest. Rumors that the White House tried to secure exclusive rights to a vaccine being developed by a German company has only further damaged America’s reputation. Adding insult to injury, the United States criticized Spain for buying faulty testing equipment from China without offering an alternative or even a little sympathy. Finally, the Trump administration’s callous decision to double down on steel and aluminum tariffs in the middle of a global pandemic has left Europeans to conclude that the distinction between ally and adversary is quite small. That lesson has rattled even the staunchest European supporters of the United States, including conservatives in Poland who worry what these failings say about U.S. security guarantees.
As Europeans have monitored their own disparate approaches to grappling with the virus within their borders, they have also looked across the Atlantic to see how American doctors, governors, scientists, and hospitals are tackling the virus. While many Europeans have complimented individual governors, they have been shocked to see the inadequacies of the American system laid bare. Needless to say, the images of nurses wearing garbage bags and of field hospitals being set up in Central Park have, as one E.U. official diplomatically said to us, “dimmed the appeal of the U.S.-model.” The stark inequalities across American society, the limited safety net for the millions of Americans out of work, and the disproportionate way in which the crisis has impacted African-Americans are altering European views of American power and strength. As Le Monde described in one of its headlines, “America has never seemed so fragile.”
Don’t get us wrong, though. The disappointment and shock that Europeans are experiencing over America’s response to COVID-19 — or lack thereof — isn’t necessarily leading anyone to conclude that Europe has all the right answers. Europeans have been equally disheartened over the European Union’s initial lackluster response to the crisis and its own failure to lead. Many European countries are engaged in heated domestic debates about ways in which they could have saved more lives. And, not everyone in Europe is falling for China’s narrative about how it has become the de facto global leader. Still, for over 70 years, Europeans have put the United States in a different weight class when it comes to handling crises. In fact, sometimes Europe expects more from the United States than it expects from itself. The question is, as America’s image as a global leader, innovator, problem solver, and loyal ally loses its shine, what impact might there be on the transatlantic relationship going forward?
In the short term, Europe has concluded that it will be left to its own devices, particularly as it prepares to work with African countries on dealing with the fallout of the pandemic. In the medium term, what remains unclear is the degree to which Europe and the United States might join forces on the mass distribution of a vaccine or tackle some of the thorny questions surrounding digital surveillance or democratic backsliding, which have become unfortunate by-products of the pandemic. If the past is prologue, though, or if Trump secures a second term, this crisis could ultimately shift the balance of power on the European continent — particularly as Central and Eastern Europeans start to doubt American loyalty and conclude that they can no longer rely on U.S. security guarantees. In that darker scenario, the United States may come to realize that, without a deeper set of ties that span the political, economic, and cultural aspects of the transatlantic relationship, its security commitments alone are not enough to carry the relationship forward and offset Chinese attempts to weaken it.
For some, it might seem superfluous for Americans to be worrying about how Europeans and other nations perceive its response to the pandemic when it is in the eye of the storm. But, the way in which the United States responds to this crisis now will have a direct impact on much bigger questions about American power and influence over the long term. As this situation is a test of American leadership, a failing grade will be of great cost for years to come.
Julianne Smith is a senior advisor to the president and the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund. She is the former deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.
Garima Mohan is a fellow with the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund where she leads the work on India and contributes to research on Europe-Asia relations.