COVID-19 represents the first major global crisis since the Cold War where the United States has not led the global response. For better or worse, in almost every international crisis, the world has looked to the United States for guidance, to initiate action, to coordinate, to rally countries, and for assistance. But that has not happened during the coronavirus crisis. Not only has the United States been virtually absent on the international stage, but due to President Donald Trump’s past belligerence, ongoing incompetence, and continuous lying, the world has not sought U.S. leadership.
COVID-19 is an unprecedented test for every country. This is a moment where it is critical that nations work together—sharing information and lessons learned, coordinating research, and, when possible, providing aid to each other. But thus far in reacting to this crisis, coordination between countries has been extremely poor, leading to a haphazard global response.
The absence of U.S. leadership has enabled others to fill the leadership gap. China has provided aid to Italy with great fanfare and has also provided medical supplies to countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Countries such as Serbia have appealed to China for help, rather than the United States or the European Union. The lack of clear, accurate, and timely information has created space for autocratic states to spread propaganda and fill the information vacuum.
In past crises of this nature, the United States has historically assumed the role of quarterback. As the most powerful country in the world, it has led on international crisis after crisis—from pandemics such as Ebola, H1N1, and Zika to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Given America’s diplomatic connections and the U.S. military’s global reach, the United States has a unique ability to respond to disasters, provide aid, and rally the international community.
However, the inept U.S. response to the coronavirus crisis domestically has hampered its ability to respond internationally. The United States has little aid to provide as it faces massive internal shortages of vital equipment at home. The State Department seems absent, stranding U.S. citizens abroad as more and more countries implement travel bans. And by denying and downplaying the crisis, the Trump administration’s continues to show the world that the United States has little understanding of COVID-19 or how to handle the outbreak. It will be impossible for the United States to show international leadership if its response continues to be inept.
Nevertheless, there are steps the United States can and should be taking at this moment on the international stage. These steps will not only save lives at home and abroad but will also bolster America’s image, advance U.S. diplomacy, and further U.S. national security.
Here’s how the United States should be leading globally.
Get its act together at home
To play the most effective role possible in helping others cope with the pandemic, the United States must rapidly improve its response at home, which has dangerously lagged behind. This should be a whole-of-government response, with all agencies playing an important role. The U.S. government should immediately take steps to increase the number of available test kits and other vitally important medical equipment and supplies, such as ventilators and personal protective equipment, in order to help hospitals prepare for the expected patient surges—including through the Defense Production Act. If the president is too slow to act, mayors and governors should continue to take the lead. High-risk and marginalized populations must be included in the response, including those in detention facilities and homeless individuals and families.
The economic response will be critical too and should be extraordinarily aggressive and well-targeted to prioritize those most likely to be affected, including low-income families and those with student loans. In addition, a national paid leave policy is urgently needed to address the outbreak and help protect the health and safety of the American population in the future. Finally, U.S. officials must think long term, making emergency contingency plans today to administer elections happening later this year in a way that provides access to the ballot while ensuring peoples’ health and safety.
Show solidarity with allies
COVID-19 will challenge the international community as outbreaks spread across the globe. But retreating to nationalist responses and abandoning allies will not help defeat the outbreak and will only provide an opportunity for U.S. opponents to curry favor instead. For example, while China rushed health care supplies and doctors to Italy, the United States issued a travel ban on European countries with no advance coordination. Meanwhile, German officials were angered by rumors that the Trump administration sought to buy exclusive rights to a coronavirus vaccine. The United States should not only avoid counterproductive actions but also support allies in finding help wherever they can, whether from China or elsewhere.
Moreover, the United States can learn lessons from its allies. In Italy, where researchers say the outbreak is a few weeks ahead of the United States, doctors have been forced to make critical rationing choices that should serve as a warning in the United States. And America should also look to countries such as South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, where the government response has been more effective than that of the United States in addressing the virus.
Rally the international community
A coordinated international response will be critical to defeating this outbreak. Competition for supplies can threaten global supply chains, which would impede health care responses and threaten economic recovery. Experts already fear nationalist responses could hamper efforts to develop and distribute a vaccine to stop the outbreak.
The Trump administration should push for multilateral action and global cooperation in the face of these challenges. The White House should call for virtual meetings of global bodies to coordinate an international response, including through the G-7 and G-20 as well as with the United Nations. These convenings should focus on creating international commitments to share resources and work collaboratively to combat outbreaks in countries most affected, especially those with fragile health care systems.
The United States should also use the opportunities to reinforce global norms and underscore the importance of nations protecting human rights when responding to outbreaks such as COVID-19, including by safeguarding freedom of expression and access to critical information and by protecting health workers, marginalized populations, and those in institutions or other vulnerable situations. The United States should condemn authoritarian responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, including in China, where overly harsh censure and surveillance contributed to more abuses and likely worsened the global outbreak.
Provide assistance wherever possible
First, the United States should ensure sanctions carve-outs for Iran on medical and humanitarian assistance, make visible offers of U.S. assistance, and pause any new unilateral sanctions. When Iran had an earthquake in 2003, the United States sent search and rescue teams. Iran’s health ministry reported more than 23,000 cases of COVID-19 as of March 23, but many have speculated that the true extent of the outbreak may be even greater. Easing sanctions would help aid Iran’s response and save lives by making it easier for the country to obtain resources to address the outbreak. However, with more sanctions imposed this week, the Iranian regime can use the United States as a distraction to deflect from its abysmal response. Conversely, the Iranian government must also be willing to accept U.S. assistance.
This should also be the case when it comes to the U.S. response to Venezuela. While there are existing humanitarian sanctions carve-outs, they should be broadened wherever possible. Venezuela’s health system collapsed years ago and is now facing this crisis with no real ability to respond. More than 5 million refugees have already left the country. A massive outbreak in Venezuela will further affect its neighbors, especially as more people flee.
Second, the United States should cooperate closely with foreign governments where it has military bases and personnel abroad and should offer assistance when appropriate—while still prioritizing the health of the force. The U.S. military has a global presence. It also has significant capacity to help those in need. America’s Ebola response is a good example of how the U.S. military can mobilize to provide critical resources in outbreak spots and contain further spread. Providing such help can do immense good and, at the same time, build goodwill with U.S. hosts—both the governments and citizens.
Third, the United States should ramp up its response to humanitarian crises that will worsen with the spread of COVID-19. Camps for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), where overcrowding and scarce resources are the norm, are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus. Health officials have warned that outbreaks of COVID-19 in Syria or Yemen would be “impossible to manage” and could lead to collapsing health care systems in developing countries. The United States should provide additional funds and resources to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international agencies to ensure that refugees and IDPs can access adequate care. The United States should also ensure that it issues sanctions waivers to ensure the flow of critical humanitarian relief to countries facing outbreaks, including Iran.
Lead the global economic response
COVID-19 is not just a public health emergency, it is also creating an economic calamity. In this case, the Federal Reserve’s independence from the Trump administration has been a boon. The Fed has taken bold steps in response to the crisis and has recently opened swap lines, which allow countries to exchange their currency for dollars to help prevent countries from defaulting. This will be particularly necessary for emerging markets that are seeing the value of their currencies plummet and will need access to dollars. As economic historian Adam Tooze argued in The New York Times: “The outflow from the emerging markets in recent weeks has been more rapid than ever before in history. To stop further losses, it may be necessary to adjust the swap line system.” The Fed must ensure that these swap lines are not overly restrictive, as failure to help emerging markets will likely “ripple back” to the United States.
Much must also be done to coordinate the global economic response on a multilateral level. During the 2008 financial crisis, the G-20 was convened several times to help coordinate the collective response. The United States helped lead these efforts to prevent a global economic collapse. A similar effort will be needed now to prevent the coronavirus crisis from instigating a global economic depression.
Seize the microphone and provide solid, trustworthy information
The United States was once a trusted source of information, analysis, and leadership during global crises. But President Trump has contradicted official health guidance and disregarded World Health Organization recommendations. The president has also dangerously downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and provided false information in public addresses to the American people. The steady flow of reliable information from a trusted source is one of the most critical resources in a crisis situation. The White House must abandon attempts to downplay the crisis and instead work to speak with one coordinated voice that provides trustworthy, science-based information to the American people and the international audience.
Plan for what comes next
For decades, the intelligence community, political scientists, futurists, philanthropists, and security analysts across the field have warned that a pandemic was one of the top threats to global security. However, America and the world have been too narrowly focused on traditional security threats, and the consequences of that constricted view are playing out now.
During the Cold War, there were massive efforts to plan for the low-probability, high-impact threat of nuclear war—everything from scenarios for continuity of government to strategic responses. Today, the world faces a number of possible high-impact threats, from global pandemics to climate change to food security. These can be addressed and mitigated to prevent them from spiraling into unmanageable crises, but that will require a robust global effort. The current crisis should serve as a wake-up call for the world to get a better handle on these issues. With the right leadership, the United States can play an indispensable role in developing the international infrastructure for addressing these emerging challenges, and it should.
Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Simon Clark is a senior fellow at the Center. Siena Cicarelli is a research assistant at the Center. Michael Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center. James Lamond is a senior policy adviser at the Center. Kelly Magsamen is the vice president of National Security and International Policy at the Center. Alexandra Schmitt is a policy analyst at the Center. Dan Restrepo is a senior fellow at the Center.
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