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Stumbling US diplomacy flattens Washington’s influence curve

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American diplomacy has faced a challenge from the start of President Trump’s administration — how to make his “America First” pledge an operational reality in a world that was oriented for 70 years around U.S. alliances and American-made multilateral institutions. 

Clever minds on President Trump’s first national security team — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — sought to square the circle by defining America First as a calling to prevailing in a world characterized by great power competition. This mainly meant China and Russia, though President Trump has never hesitated to throw Europe and other traditional U.S. allies into the basket of foes. “Great power competition” now suffuses American strategic documents and has become the touchstone of statements by officialsgreat and minor — trying to explain U.S. actions to the American public and the world.  

It worked for a time, as officials like Mattis drew from their deep reservoirs of personal credibility and experience to assure friends and allies that international leadership would be central to Washington’s approach to great power competition. The coronavirus pandemic, however, exposes this framework as a rhetorical fig leaf rather than a plan for U.S. global action.

The absence of American initiative to lead the international response to a global crisis is striking, as veterans of past administrations will recognize. The United States government is failing to address the systemic political disruptions of the COVID-19 outbreak and shape the world that will emerge from this crisis.

Great power competition is by definition a 24/7 affair. If the security and prosperity of the United States is threatened by the efforts of rivals to shift the global balance of power and to undermine existing institutions, then Washington’s response to crucial international issues must account for whether they will increase or decrease America’s ability to influence the world of today and the future.  

The principal U.S. international responses have been inadequate: a bare-knuckle rhetorical offensive that consisted — for weeks — of the State Department putting “China” or “Wuhan” next to the word “virus” in as many sentences as possible. The result was a breakdown of U.S. leadership showcased in the inability of the U.S. to agree with the leading industrialized democracies in the G-7, normally our closest partners on almost any issue, on a Foreign Ministers’ statement last week.

Instead of a U.S.-orchestrated demonstration of resolve and concrete coordinated measures to protect public health and preserve the advanced economies, the message was one of policy disarray. The Federal Reserve has stood out for its bold actions in addressing the financial impact of the pandemic, but that owes to the central bank’s independence and comes despite, not because of, the Trump Administration.

In recent days Washington has pivoted to casting doubt on the Chinese government’s transparency on the coronavirus pandemic and criticizing Beijing’s attempts to exploit international opinion through questionable assistance. Those charges have merit, as the reports of possible data suppression and faulty Chinese equipment and test kits delivered to Europe show. But when the U.S. is unable to bring coronavirus under control and provide crucial material support to its friends and allies, such criticisms have little weight. The crisis will not generate affection for China, but it will bolster China’s leverage in ways that will affect world developments for years to come. Those in the U.S. who purport to see great power competition as the principal national security challenge have been remarkably unable to impact the U.S. government’s response.  

The greatest source of U.S. influence for decades has been the belief in Washington’s competence, backed up by American resources and confidence that the U.S. government would seek mutually beneficial outcomes even as it pursued its own national interest.

In the biggest crisis yet confronted by the Trump presidency, American credibility is suffering an enormous blow, even on the terms of great power competition that the administration has set for itself. It will flatten the United States’ influence curve for many years to come.   

Jeff Rathke is the president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at John Hopkins University and served as a U.S. diplomat from 1991 to 2015.

Tags China Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 Diplomacy Donald Trump foreign relations International relations Jim Mattis Rex Tillerson United States White House

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