The Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 has been marked by speculation, unfounded forecasts, and foot-dragging. President Trump’s personal performance has too often been dismissive, defensive, and deceptive.
The result, a rising narrative contends, is a global leadership vacuum that China is rushing to fill. (This take has been a steady feature of recent years, but COVID-19 has given it fresh legs.) “The regime in Beijing was quick to recognize the opportunity the pandemic presented,” argues a piece at Der Spiegel. Bloomberg envisions a possible “shifting [of] the global balance of power,” while The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum describes how Chinese propaganda is finding success in an atmosphere “profoundly changed” by “the American president’s simultaneously catastrophic and ridiculous failure to cope.”
There’s no denying Trump is the subject of international ridicule; the Atlantic story marshals an array of foreign press clippings to glimpse international lack of confidence in the president, which Pew Research data also demonstrated before the pandemic began. But it doesn’t follow that the United States moving away from a foreign policy of managing world affairs is to our detriment. On the contrary, a more restrained and humble foreign policy would serve us well.
In this pandemic and after, U.S. foreign affairs should become less dependent on personal presidential gravity and military intervention and more reliant on diplomacy, trade, and leadership through example rather than coercion.
Pew’s findings point towards the viability of such a shift: While the world has a low opinion of Trump and many of his policies, the United States itself remains popular, and that popularity is on a generational upswing. Other nations dislike the administration’s trade war, withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and immigration agenda, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to dislike for the United States itself. (America remains the most aspirational destination worldwide for would-be emigrants.) With a less activist foreign policy and Washington refocused on core U.S. interests here at home, our international reputation could be further distinguished from the identity of our president.
Greater restraint abroad would also entail ending the half-dozen wars the last three administrations have fought across the Middle East and North Africa. Withdrawing from these conflicts does not mean relinquishing leadership, because there is no leadership in prolonging aimless, costly, inhumane wars which do nothing for security or peace. Leaving, even belatedly, would save us face, resources, and lives.
In place of this failed strategy of executive interventionism, Washington should make realistic diplomacy central to its foreign relations and refrain from interfering in the economic and cultural exchange that has made our country a superpower. Rather than pushing other nations to do our bidding via sanctions, propaganda, invasion, nation building, or covert coups, the United States should model the values we claim to embody.
Insofar as Trump’s behavior is already shifting the balance of global power, some change to U.S. international relations is inevitable. The Atlantic’s Applebaum warns that U.S. allies in Europe and Asia may decide not to follow Washington into new antagonism, perhaps attempted retribution, against China. She adds that other nations—the “third world,” if we’re to revive the old parlance for a new Cold War—may decide to “seek good relations with both sides.” Well, what of it? None of this is actually bad news. Perhaps an absence of global support for escalating U.S.-China tensions could prevent an incredibly reckless and unnecessary conflict. And developing nations maintaining trade with both the U.S. and China may benefit all parties in a season of severe economic downturn.
The likely question, then, is not whether the United States should anticipate a new role internationally, especially vis-à-vis China. Change is almost certainly coming. The question is whether Washington can lean into the turn and use this moment as an opportunity to strategically reform U.S. foreign policy to our advantage.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One, and The American Conservative. The views expressed are the author's own.