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Traditionally a leader in times of crisis, the U.S. is practicing self-isolation

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room, Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon / AP)
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room, Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon / AP)
By Liz Sly, Michael Birnbaum and Karen Deyoung Washington Post

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BEIRUT - As America’s rivals make gestures of support for other nations stricken by the coronavirus, the United States is losing its traditional leadership role abroad at the same moment that it’s struggling to contain the virus at home, analysts say.

At a time of crisis when the world would typically look to the richest and most powerful nation, the United States has instead retreated into its own form of self-isolation, with its president downplaying the severity of the threat and top American officials squabbling among themselves.

Instead, the United States’ rivals, notably China and to a lesser extent Russia, have been stepping up to offer aid to other stricken nations, a role long fulfilled by the United States in crises stretching back to World War II.

Planeloads of Chinese medical equipment, masks and protective gear have been landing in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Iran and Iraq, among others. Jack Ma, China’s wealthiest man, donated test kits, masks and protective suits to each of Africa’s 54 countries.

African heads of state took to social media to profusely thank him, and headlines of major newspapers gushed with gratitude. “The perception across much of the continent today is that the Chinese are stepping up to deliver the kind of public goods that the U.S. used to provide,” said Eric Olander, the director of the China-Africa Project.

To the extent that the United States has engaged with the rest of the world on the coronavirus issue, it has mostly been to trade barbs with rivals over what name should be used to describe the virus - Trump insists on calling it the “Chinese virus” - and who is to blame for its spread.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence on calling it the “Wuhan virus” torpedoed a virtual meeting of G-7 foreign ministers convened to discuss the crisis. Trump participated Thursday in a virtual summit of the larger G-20, which agreed to inject up to $5 trillion into the international economy and establish funding for a global effort to find a vaccine. The U.S. government has not yet said how much it will contribute.

“In international crises, America has always been the country to which other countries have turned for leadership and to steer the ship. And now, which country is looking to the United States? No one,” said Elisabeth Braw of the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

Rajiv Shah, who coordinated the U.S. response to the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak centered in Africa as head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has stressed the need for international cooperation with America in the lead. “It has to be all of the United States, and has to be all of the world,” Shah, now president of the Rockefeller Foundation, told Bloomberg TV on Monday.

During the Ebola outbreak, he said: “America always leads those kinds of coalitions. It is our resources, our expertise, our technical capacity and our standing in the world that allows us to do that. I fear that’s not happening today.”

America’s disengagement on the coronavirus fight is part of a broader retreat from the world. From the Paris climate change accord to multiple trade agreements, the Trump administration has unwound decades of U.S. leadership on a range of issues.

But such is the severity of this crisis that America’s absence could permanently impact its standing, ceding ground to an ascendant China in the great game of global influence, analysts said.

“I do wonder whether this really is an inflection point in the international system,” said Nathalie Tocci, the head of the Italian Institute of International Affairs and a former foreign policy adviser to senior European Union leaders.

“Here in Italy it is going to change for good the perception of who is leading in the world, and it’s not the United States,” she said. “It’s so strong what is happening. It’s so powerful and it’s so traumatic. The emotions that it ignites today are going to be engraved in the national narrative.”

There’s an element of opportunism in some of the gestures by the United States’ rivals. Huawei, the Chinese technology giant accused by the United States of acting as a branch of China’s intelligence agencies, has seized the opportunity to promote its brand to stricken Europeans at a time when their governments are weighing whether to adopt its high-speed 5G cellular network, despite U.S. requests not to do so.

The company has delivered thousands of masks and other equipment bearing the Huawei logo to hard-hit countries, which may help win support for its 5G network once the crisis subsides.

“China is sending medical supplies, but it is it a good Samaritan or is it simply doing it to exploit tensions in the Western alliance?” Braw asked. “It’s very opportunistic and it’s clear China senses a vacuum.

“But unless the Trump administration ups its game, this could be the moment in world history where the trend pivots in favor of China,” she added.

Russia has likewise sensed opportunity in the vacuum of American leadership, sending a cargo plane of medical aid to Italy earlier this week. But Italian officials told Italian media that the offer was unsolicited and the equipment and medicine sent didn’t match Italy’s needs.

U.S. officials say they have offered assistance. U.S. troops based in Italy helped send and deliver hospital beds, mattresses, stretchers and other equipment to the Italian province of Lombardy, the ground zero of Italy’s coronavirus crisis.

In late January, when China’s outbreak was at its peak, the U.S. government said it was sending more than 17 tons of medical equipment there. In early February, Pompeo announced an additional $100 million in assistance “to China.”

The State Department modified that in later statements, saying the aid would go to high-risk and developing countries, with no mention of China. A Chinese official last week said that China had received “not $1” from the United States.

Some of the $100 million has been committed to the World Health Organization and other multilateral institutions, said Pooja Jhunjhunwala, acting spokeswoman for USAID.

The agency has designated 25 countries to receive direct assistance, most of them in Central and Southeast Asia. Delivery of the pledged donations, to the extent it has taken place, has remained largely invisible on the world stage, however.

Both Russia and China have also been promoting disinformation about the coronavirus, countering the language of top American officials such as Trump and Pompeo that the coronavirus is a Chinese virus by advancing conspiracy theories, such as that the pathogen may have been developed in American laboratories, said Braw. A European task force set up to combat Kremlin disinformation has reported counting 110 such cases from Russian sources between Jan. 22 and March 19.

Meanwhile, the chaotic American response to the spread of the virus in the United States is undermining its reputation as a global leader in science and technology. TV footage of New Yorkers lining up in the cold for scarce virus tests has been broadcast worldwide, accentuating the sense that America can’t manage its own coronavirus epidemic, let alone lead other countries out of theirs.

American enemies have seized the opportunity to take digs. “Spend it on yourself,” said Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as he rejected an offer of U.S. assistance to help Iran fight the coronavirus. “You have shortages yourself.”

The United States has now expanded the availability of testing, said Taufiq Rahim, a Dubai-based global health expert with the New America organization. But masks, protective gear and other medical equipment remain in critically short supply in some parts of the country, and with coronavirus infections increasing at the rate of more than 10,000 a day, the United States looks set to become the world epicenter of the covid-19 disease.

“Overall it looks like the United States is on the path for becoming the most endemic country for the coronavirus, more than China, more than Italy, more than any other country,” he said.

As other countries impose drastic lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, the Trump administration is seen by many overseas as an outlier.

“Even India, with a population of 1.3 billion, is going into lockdown. Yet at the leadership level, the United States is talking about opening up the country when it hasn’t even fully locked down,” Rahim said.

“Very few countries today see the U.S. as part of the solution, whereas in the past it was the natural point of comparison, or a country to imitate,” Luis Rubio, head of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations.

Moreover, he said, Trump’s sometimes dismissive approach to the coronavirus may be encouraging other populist leaders who remain resistant to taking harsh and economically difficult measures to confront the epidemic. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called lockdowns ordered by his country’s mayors a “crime” and invoked Trump in comments minimizing the seriousness of the coronavirus.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is another leader who has been encouraged by Trump’s cavalier approach, Rubio said.

“The U.S. administration also prolonged, rather than taking the bull by the horns. It wasted several days or weeks and showed the way to many people, like President López Obrador, that it was possible to pretend it wasn’t going to hurt,” he said.

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