By Jonathan C. Rothermel
The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak should be a wake-up call. With new cases reported daily in all parts of the world, the yet to be declared pandemic is undermining global markets and prompting growing uncertainty.
In the face of this global health crisis, there is a great need to coordinate and support collective strategies across borders. In short, the world needs a leader.
In recent years, China has been positioning itself to assume this role. China has quietly expanded its bid for global leadership by increasing funding and support to the United Nations and its peacekeeping missions. Its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is helping to provide massive infrastructure projects involving more than 120 countries. It has stood up to the Trump administration in an ongoing trade war with the United States.
Yet, the coronavirus outbreak reveals the lack of faith and trust in China as a world leader. Some countries have accused China of suppressing and censoring information about the outbreak that originated in Wuhan province. Even its own citizens have taken to social media to boldly criticize the communist government. The Chinese government is fighting back against criticism of its handling of the outbreak, but the damage is done.
Now is the time for the United States to reassert its role as a global leader that the world so desperately needs. But to do so, the Trump administration will have to work hard to earn back this title. Since coming to power, President Trump has been openly hostile to “globalism” while boasting an America First agenda.
In several speeches before the UN General Assembly, he has advised other countries to focus first on themselves. He has bemoaned “free riders” in NATO and other international organizations offending steadfast allies, such as Germany.
He has scoffed at the collective problem of climate change. Despite being one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, his intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement signals an unwillingness to take collective problems very seriously.
However, it does not have to be this way. It is said that during times of crisis come opportunities and today is an opportunity for President Donald Trump to lead the charge against a human security threat that is unlike geopolitical threats of the past.
Of course, the test will be how Trump and his administration respond to the crisis here in the United States.
First, President Trump needs to be an effective communicator. He should refrain from ad lib commentary on the crisis so that he and his deputies offer clear and consistent messaging to the American people that is proportional to the seriousness of the threat. He must also resist being baited into turning the virus into a political football.
Second, President Trump needs to be an effective delegator. The Trump administration should formulate a measured response that includes consultations with stakeholders from all levels of government and the private sector. Due deference should be given to the experts at the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) and in the medical field to do their jobs properly.
Finally, Trump needs to be an effective team player. While the United States has the economic resources, expertise, and the institutional capacity to make a significant difference, no single country alone can contain this type of threat. Engaging in multilateral efforts to combat the coronavirus is a key component in addressing this virus and laying the groundwork for future crises in an ever-globalizing world.
Historically, a defining characteristic of great presidents is their ability to lead in response to crises. In the past, the world turned to great American presidents, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, in times of need.
Today, Trump faces a critical juncture and how he acts in the coming days and weeks could redefine his presidency.
Jonathan C. Rothermel is a political science professor at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pa. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.