When a new coronavirus emerged in China and began spreading around the world, including in the United States, President Donald Trump’s many critics in the American foreign-policy establishment were quick to identify him as part of the problem. Trump had campaigned on an “America first” foreign policy, which after his victory was enshrined in the official National Security Strategy that his administration published in 2017. At the time, I served in the administration and orchestrated the writing of that document. In the years since, Trump has been criticized for supposedly overturning the post–World War II order and rejecting the role the United States has long played in the world. Amid a global pandemic, he’s being accused—on this site and elsewhere—of alienating allies, undercutting multinational cooperation, and causing America to fight the coronavirus alone.
And yet even as the current emergency has proved him right in fundamental ways—about China specifically and foreign policy more generally—many respectable people in the United States are letting their disdain for the president blind them to what is really going on in the world. Far from discrediting Trump’s point of view, the COVID-19 crisis reveals what his strategy asserted: that the world is a competitive arena in which great power rivals like China seek advantage, that the state remains the irreplaceable agent of international power and effective action, that international institutions have limited capacity to transform the behavior and preferences of states.
China, America’s most powerful rival, has played a particularly harmful role in the current crisis, which began on its soil. Initially, that country’s lack of transparency prevented prompt action that might have contained the virus. In Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, Chinese officials initially punished citizens for “spreading rumors” about the disease. The lab in Shanghai that first published the genome of the virus on open platforms was shut down the next day for “rectification,” as the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported in February. Apparently at the behest of officials at the Wuhan health commission, news reports indicate, visiting teams of experts from elsewhere in China were prevented from speaking freely to doctors in the infectious-disease wards. Some experts had suspected human-to-human transmission, but their inquiries were rebuffed. “They didn’t tell us the truth,” one team member said of the local authorities, “and from what we now know of the real situation then, they were lying” to us.
Now China’s propagandists are competing to create a narrative that obscures the origins of the crisis and that blames the United States for the virus. This irresponsible behavior and lack of transparency revealed what Trump’s National Security Strategy had identified early on: that “contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of others.” Instead of becoming a “responsible stakeholder”—a term George W. Bush’s administration used to describe the role it hoped Beijing would play following China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001—the Chinese Communist Party used the advantages of WTO membership to advance a political and economic system at odds with America’s free and open society. Previous National Security Strategy documents had tiptoed around China’s adversarial conduct, as if calling out that country as a competitor—as the 2017 document unequivocally did—was somehow impolite.
But at some point, an American administration needed to shift the conversation away from hopes for an imagined future China to the realities of the Communist Party’s conduct—which is hardly a secret. For the decade and a half prior to 2017, Republican and Democratic leaders publicly worried about China’s unwillingness to play by the rules, but were reluctant to deal head on with China’s authoritarian government and statist economy. The bipartisan U.S.-China Economic Security Commission has consistently called out China’s unfair practices. In 2010, President Barack Obama lambasted China before the G-20 for its currency manipulation. The need to compete effectively with the policies of the Chinese Communist Party is one of the few points of agreement between Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Even as he seeks to find ways to conclude reciprocal trade agreements, his administration has not lost sight of China’s aggressive rise.
At least as controversial as Trump’s critique of China is his emphasis on the importance of sovereignty and his insistence that strong sovereign states are the main agents of change. But states are the foundation of democratic governance and, fundamentally, of security. It is the citizens of states who vote and hold leaders accountable. And it is states that are the foundation of military, political, and economic power in alliances such as NATO, or organizations like the United Nations.
Trump’s emphasis on protecting U.S. sovereignty brought to a boil a simmering national debate about the overlooked costs of globalization. A blind adherence to what the economist Dani Rodrik has called “hyper-globalization”—the idea that the interests of big corporations and the principle of market integration took precedence over widely shared prosperity and economic security—had come at the expense of domestic industries. For years, people who complained about these consequences were dismissed as isolationists or as being on “the wrong side of history.”
The coronavirus experience demonstrates that economic interaction does not occur in a vacuum of geopolitical competition. Dependence on China for crucial medical equipment throughout the pandemic has illuminated the dangers of a hyper-globalized economy. Experts had warned of American dependence on key drug ingredients from China. The Wall Street Journal has reported that China is the only maker of key ingredients for certain classes of drugs, including established antibiotics that treat a range of bacterial infections such as pneumonia. American reliance on Chinese suppliers for other pharmaceuticals and medical supplies is also worrisome. Americans should not depend on an authoritarian rival state for its citizens’ health—any more than the United States and other free and open societies should give Chinese companies, and by extension the Chinese Communist Party, control over communications infrastructure and sensitive personal data.
Many of President Trump’s critics in the foreign-policy community put great stock in the ability of multilateral and international organizations to constrain the misbehavior of China and other states. These organizations, at their best, promote concerted action against commonly recognized problems. But Trump’s critics tend to view them mainly in their idealized form and as the central instruments to solve global problems and advance values shared by all. In practice, though, how international organizations perform is profoundly influenced by power relationships among member states.
China’s leaders have become quite skillful at using these bodies to pursue their own interests. President Xi Jinping has made it a priority—as he put it in a 2018 speech—to “reform” and lead in the “global governance system,” viewing such efforts as integral to “building a modern, strong socialist country.” Despite its record of stealing patented technologies, China tried to lead the World Intellectual Property Organization, an effort thwarted by Washington. Chinese tech companies have also sought to induce the United Nations to adopt their facial-recognition and surveillance standards, to clear the way for the deployment of their technologies around the world.
The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy challenged the assumption that international organizations are always driven by a common global good. China’s undue influence in key international organizations was evident most recently, when the World Health Organization hesitated to declare COVID-19 a public-health emergency of international concern. WHO officials amplified Chinese officials’ early claims that the virus posed no danger of human-to-human transmission. The head of the organization even congratulated China’s top leadership for its “openness to sharing information.” Apparently seeking to avoid Beijing’s wrath, the WHO refused to respond to Taiwan’s early concerns about human-to-human transmission of the virus outbreak in Wuhan.
The COVID-19 experience, although far from over, has generated strong evidence that, while the WHO and other international organizations are of course important for information sharing and coordination, nations continue to do the heavy lifting. The United States remains the largest contributor to the WHO, paying about 15 percent of the organization’s budget—compared with China’s 0.21 percent. In early March, Trump signed a supplemental appropriations act that included $1.3 billion in additional U.S. foreign assistance for pandemic response. Most recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an additional $274 million in emergency funding for at-risk countries. This aid does not come with the strings that China attaches to its aid.
Contrary to what critics argue, “America first” does not mean “America alone.” That Trump might be introducing needed correctives to the hyper-globalization pursued by earlier administrations is generating serious cognitive dissonance in some quarters. And the reality is that only one organization in the entire world has as its sole responsibility the American people’s safety. That institution is the U.S. government. Whether led by Republicans or Democrats—or by Donald Trump or anyone else—it should always put the American people first.