Trump’s Coronavirus Response — A Fatal Blow to Transatlantic Cooperation and Multilateralism?
Updated: Jun 19
written by Jonas Heering for The Transatlanticist, April 4, 2020
Posted as part of the Pandemic Policy Series, dedicated to exploring European and transatlantic policies and experiences during this unprecedented time in global politics.
President Trump Delivers Remarks During a Coronavirus Update Briefing, March 20, 2020 (White House Flickr)
The COVID-19 epidemic has brought the world to a near-standstill. Confirmed global cases already exceed one million. With over 300,000 infections, the United States now tops the list of confirmed cases. Spain, Italy, Germany, and France round out the top five. Both in Europe and the United States, thousands are dying and economies are crumbling.
The global scale of the pandemic calls for more, not less international cooperation. And with the epicenter of the virus outbreak now in Europe and the United States, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should rally together to find common solutions to a shared problem. Instead, the White House is using the coronavirus crisis to double-down on nationalist rhetoricand attack its European partners. The damage to the already-strained transatlantic relationship could be irreversible.
In its initial response, the Trump administration implemented a 30-day travel ban on foreigners arriving from the EU’s Schengen Area. Trump justified the ban by blaming the EU for failing to contain the virus and claiming that new cases in the US were “seeded by travelers from Europe.”This argument is in line with Trump’s overall narrative of labeling COVID-19 a “foreign virus.” By playing the blame-game, Trump seeks to distract from his own administration’s mismanagement of the virus outbreak in the United States. European leaders, blindsided by the White House’s announcement, criticized the United States’ unilateral move and called for greater international cooperation. The initial exclusion of the United Kingdom from the travel ban, despite having a significant number of COVID-19 cases at the time, demonstrates that Trump’s decision was not based on science but on politics: he wanted to punish his foes and protect his friends.
The White House response to the coronavirus outbreak, especially in the initial weeks of the pandemic, reinforces the belief held by many Europeans that the United States is no longer a reliable ally. These concerns are not new. Following Trump’s first G7 Summit in May 2017, Merkel proclaimed that “the times when we could rely completely on others are over,” in a clear reference to the United States. Since then, transatlantic relations have taken repeated beatings, from escalating tariff fights to Trump’s continuous attacks on NATO.
Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the Trump administration’s nationalist retrenchment has not only further damaged transatlantic relations but also undermined multilateral cooperation at large. Last week, the State Department’s insistence on labeling COVID-19 as the ‘Wuhan virus’ torpedoed a joint declaration from the G7 leaders. Likewise, Trump’s insistence on blaming China for the virus outbreak prevented effective cooperation among G20 finance ministers and is contributing to paralysis at the UN Security Council.
To be sure, the United States is not the only one shunning multilateralism in favor of a nationalist response to the coronavirus crisis. Countries around the world have suspended travel, shut their borders, and resorted to protectionism. Within the EU Common Market, Germany and France restricted the export of respirators and medical masks. To preempt a cluster of national bans, the European Commission then implemented controls for the export of medical protective equipment to countries outside the bloc. Despite the Commission’s attempt to present a unified front, the initial national measures by several EU members challenge the idea of European solidarity.
The impulse by governments to prioritize protecting their own citizens is understandable, at least to an extent. But the implementation of uncoordinated national protectionist measures will only exacerbate the crisis. At its worst, nationalist retrenchment is manifested in the Trump administration’s attempt to buy a German medical company to develop a COVID-19 vaccine exclusively for the United States. Rather than competing with others to secure a vaccine, the U.S. government should encourage American and European scientists to collaborate on creating a vaccine available to everyone. Fighting a global pandemic is not a zero-sum game.
Times like this call for strong leadership and multilateral cooperation. In its response to the coronavirus crisis so far, the United States has abdicated whatever claims to global leadership it had left. And through its unilateral actions and accusatory language, the White House has further pushed its European allies away. If cooperation fails even when so many European and American lives are at stake, the damage to the transatlantic relationship will be irreversible.
Jonas Heering is an M.A. Candidate in German and European Studies at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, where he focuses on geopolitics, diplomacy, and EU-Russian relations. He is co-president of Georgetown’s European Horizons chapter and a producer with The Europe Desk team.