By Chris J. Dolan
COVID-19 has the potential to reshape America’s role in the world and alter the structure of the international system. With the U.S. having exited from its hard-won position of global leadership, China has willingly stepped into the role America once dominated.
Well before the outbreak of the coronavirus, President Donald Trump asserted an America First foreign policy. In a doctrine that harkened back to America’s pre-World War II neo-isolationist orientation, Trump argued the United States did not need the world as much as the world needs the U.S.
He warned U.S. allies they needed to pay tribute to the U.S. if they wanted to continue benefiting from the American security umbrella. Trump stated, “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring American down.”
Further undermining the American case: Trump’s own claims that using vaccines “can be very dangerous” and cautioned parents about vaccinating their children because “really nobody right now knows if it works with respect to what they’re looking at.” He has also made unsubstantiated claims that vaccines cause autism in children.
In previous global health crises, the U.S. stepped up to aid and lead the international community. The Bush administration created the PEPFAR program to combat the HIV/AIDS global epidemic, which allocated $80 billion for treatment, prevention, and research with the exclusive focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Bush also initiated the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, requiring that the federal government develop and manage a stockpile of medical supplies to prepare the U.S. for the next major pandemic.
The Obama administration made rapid investments in scientific research that led to vaccines for H1N1, dispatched health workers and other emergency officials to West Africa in response to the Ebola outbreak, and combatted the Zika virus by providing emergency funds in the homeland and creating the Global Health Security and Biodefense Unit (GHSBU) in the White House National Security Council to prepare another global pandemic.
The GHSBU was disbanded by Trump in 2018 who then fired the entire staff.
With the Americans and Europeans embroiled in national efforts to flatten the curve and with the Chinese emerging from the worst effects of COVID-19, China is coordinating efforts with other governments. As President Xi Jinping stated, “We will strengthen cooperation with other countries in response to the COVID-19 challenge and together build a community with a shared future for mankind.”
China has already used the fall in infections inside the country to compete with the European Union and NATO and deliver aid to America’s European allies. It has donated face masks to France and Japan and surgical masks to the EU. China has also organized video conferences providing advice to the hardest-hit countries that are now competing with the U.S. for medical supplies because their domestic stockpiles are depleted. Disappointed with the response of the EU, Italy turned to China for medical aid and China quickly posted images and clips of grateful Italians.
China’s moves could be interpreted by some as an attempt to deflect responsibility for the initial outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, some are claiming the actions are an attempted coverup. However, China’s intentions are much more ambitious.
With the U.S. wedded to an America First doctrine and EU members pulling in different directions in the immediate wake of Brexit, China now has the opportunity to demonstrate that it can act in a globally responsible fashion. At a time when China is seen as expanding its surveillance state and with its economy reeling under American tariffs, it can now prepare the groundwork for countering the authoritarian narrative and reshape its image.
It can also step in to fill the global vacuum left by the U.S.
While world orders come and go, if the U.S. does not lead the world, China’s global maneuvering as well as the timing of the COVID-19 outbreaks in the West could result in China replacing the U.S. as a world leader. Disunity and fissures within the Western alliance could even quicken the rise of China as a peer competitor.
Chris Dolan is a professor of politics and global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.