Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

How to Lead in a Time of Pandemic

| Mar. 25, 2020

What U.S. Foreign Policy Should Be Doing—But Isn’t—to Rally the World to Action

The world has never before confronted a crisis quite like COVID-19, one that has simultaneously tested both the limits of public health systems everywhere and the ability of countries to work together on a shared challenge. But it is in just such moments of crisis that, under all prior U.S. presidents since World War II, the institutions of U.S. foreign policy mobilize for leadership. They call nations to action. They set the agenda for what needs to be done. They chart a path beyond the point of crisis.

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump has spent the last three years demeaning and degrading these very institutions and denigrating the kind of U.S. leadership and global collective action they promote—which is one reason for the world’s inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic thus far. To date, world leaders have done alarmingly little together to blunt the crisis. The United Nations Security Council is silent. The World Health Organization (WHO) offers a useful global clearinghouse but lacks a global megaphone to lead. European Union nations have defaulted to national solutions and closed borders to their neighbors for the first time in generations. China hid the crisis from the world in its critical early days. And Trump has been especially disengaged. Beyond individual phone calls with world leaders, he has made just one attempt to organize countries to band together—a single conference call with European, Canadian, and Japanese leaders in the G-7 forum he currently chairs.  

Depending on how long it lasts, COVID-19’s impact could match that of a world war, in terms of the number of people it affects, the changes to daily life it brings on every continent, and its human toll. And the impact on business, trade, and markets could result in the most devastating global economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Such worst-case scenarios will be hard to avoid without American leadership. National leaders, including Trump, have understandably focused first on addressing the threat to their own citizens. But the pandemic must be fought simultaneously at the global level, with the full support of powerful countries—those that have a capacity to organize, set priorities, and unite disparate and often conflicting national efforts. For all the changes to the geopolitical landscape in recent years, one basic reality has not changed: such global action is impossible if the world’s strongest country, the United States, is either absent or acting alone.

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For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, Nicholas.“How to Lead in a Time of Pandemic.” Foreign Affairs, March 25, 2020.