Covid-19 has shocked the world by the speed of its spread, but it is also accelerating another global change in the balance of power — and not in America’s favor.
The extent of the divide became clear on Tuesday during a vote at the World Health Organization annual assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, backing Europe’s conciliatory approach to China relating to an investigation into the outbreak. Power had visibly ebbed away from the United States as its demand for a tougher approach was dismissed, a move that should sound alarm bells in Washington.
Five months into 2020 and it already feels like a new era: now there is only BC and AC — before and after coronavirus. Suddenly the dynamics of almost every single geopolitical dispute are being exacerbated by the pandemic, sharpened by the complexity and urgency of the situation.
Chief among these is the perennial, three-way battle for dominance between the US, Europe and China. Despite Trump’s early hailing of Xi Jinping’s handling of the pandemic, he has since blamed the Chinese President for covering up the early stages of China’s outbreak. Beijing has consistently denied such accusations, and criticized the US approach to the pandemic.
Trump has also sought to blame the WHO for siding with China, and cut almost $500 million in funding to the United Nations body. He doubled down Monday telling the agency he will permanently pull US funding if it does not “commit to major substantive improvements in the next 30 days.”
Despite deep concerns about China’s handling of the pandemic, European leaders backed the WHO resolution calling for “a stepwise process of impartial independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, as appropriate to review experience gained and lessons learned” from the global response to Covid-19.
The language is convoluted and hardly inspires confidence China will atone appropriately for its early failures, but it is a measure of the gulf opening up between Trump and his European allies that such a compromise could even be countenanced.
Unease in Europe
Europe’s decision to reject Trump’s confrontation with China and the WHO will affect both parties vying to win this year’s US election. Regardless of who wins that race, Trump and his handling of Covid-19 are weakening America’s global leverage.
It also shows how much the rest of the democratic world has riding on the US election this year. Europe is best served by a world leader and trading partner that shares its democratic values. The WHO vote was a salutary reminder of where power goes when that’s not the case.
As far as most of Europe is concerned, Trump’s chaotic and vindictive response to Covid-19 has crystallized their deepest concerns that his administration is going where no right-minded democracy can follow. Three years of “make do and mend” in the buckling transatlantic relationship is being pushed towards a permanent fissure, one that maybe won’t sever the relationship but allows others like China to take advantage.
Trump’s comments about the value of ingesting bleach to combat coronavirus, that he later claimed were sarcastic, could perhaps at another time have been brushed off as yet another Trumpian moment. These include his bullying of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2018 at NATO, or his tiff with Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau at the G8 in the same year in Vancouver. But now they just sound bizarre from this side of the Atlantic.
What cannot be overlooked when assessing the White House, however, is his administration’s unambiguous ouster of critics, including four inspector generals this past month. It is not a play most democratic European leaders would countenance, or could get away with.
At this distance from the US, Trump’s handling of Covid-19 suggests a deteriorating grasp of the responsibilities of leadership, and certainly does not show an ally who can be counted on at a time of an emergency.
In their speeches in Geneva on Monday the EU’s big two, German Chancellor Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, along with the meeting’s host, Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga, took aim at Trump’s Covid-19 actions to cut funding for the world body.
The Swiss said we “can’t expect a lot” from the WHO if “their funding is hit or miss,” while Merkel echoed the support for the WHO’s unity of purpose saying that “combating Covid-19” cannot be done alone. Macron appeared to warn off Trump and Xi from withholding possible future vaccines: “human health cannot be appropriated, brought or sold,” he said.
Notably Macron has been fighting a rearguard action with French pharma giant Sanofi after its CEO indicated the US might get access to any of his company’s potential vaccines before France, comments that Sanofi later said were “misinterpreted.”
International trust, never mind cooperation, is in short supply at the moment, and in the eyes of many Europeans, Trump is coming up short on both.
His inconsistent announcements, irascible nature and ill-advised comments, the latest claiming he was taking an unproven and possibly dangerous malaria medication as a Covid-19 prophylactic appear to leave European leaders little choice. They may not trust Xi, but they certainly don’t want Trump to dictate a strategy on the pandemic they believe will infuriate the Chinese Premier.
China is working on three of the world’s eight most hopeful vaccines as well as supplying personal protective equipment to many nations. Although Xi has promised not to limit access, he increasingly believes Trump’s China strategy is to deny their hi-tech products access to world markets, an existential threat. The potential conflict of interests is obvious.
European leaders believe it’s better to coax Xi into cooperation than to confront him.
Their act of independence is of course a slap in the face for Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts to divide the world into two binary camps, and follows in the wake of the bruising conflict over the provision of 5G technology. In that battle, the US sought to bully Western nations into shunning the Chinese state-backed telecoms option, with threats to withhold intelligence briefings from those that disobeyed the order.
Yet with the US presidential election just over five months away, Europe’s decision (and that of more than 120 other nations) at this week’s WHO assembly is also a stark warning for America’s Democrats: lose in November and see Washington’s future influence in the world slip further over the horizon. Four more years of Trump, on his current path, would seem unlikely to reset his post Covid-19 image.
But if Trump wins the argument, and Xi is dealt with by confrontation, then America loses twice.
First, it loses because Xi escapes investigation, won’t admit any wrongdoing, and is unlikely to pay for his mistakes as Trump wants. Secondly Trump loses on the power stakes: Xi in essence, has dragged much of the world into his corner. That’s the Covid-19 effect shift in the power balance.
The UK, for instance, was initially hawkish about China’s alleged Covid-19 opacity: just last month, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, deputizing for the hospitalized PM Boris Johnson, was robust about China being held to account, telling a press briefing: “We cannot have business as usual after this crisis.”
Fast forward a month and his Cabinet colleague, Health Secretary Matt Hancock appeared less bullish, telling the WHO assembly on Monday there was no need to investigate China specifically: “We support the need for a review of the global response at the appropriate point.”
In the circumstances, it might seem brave then to tempt Trump’s ire just as the UK is already in choppy waters with the US in its post-Brexit trade talks and its decision to allow Huawei limited access to its 5G mobile phone network.
Trump’s handling of Covid-19 is accelerating, not ameliorating, existing differences, but even so Europe has every reason to fear China’s creeping expansionism.
Canary in the coal mine
A case in point is Australia, which on Tuesday learned the high price of its support for Trump’s policy. The country’s hawkish right-wing government was in lockstep with the US President in demanding China face an independent WHO investigation over its failure to warn the world of the Covid-19 threat, but was delivered a heavy blow for its truculence. China slapped massive tariffs on imports of Australian barley.
Australia’s proximity to Xi’s anti-democratic tendencies and heavy dependence on trade with China now makes the country an unenviable democratic canary in the proverbial coal mine.
President Xi’s cynically timed intervention at the WHO Assembly Monday offering $2 billion to aid the WHO, as well as support for African nations, sends an unequivocal message: as the US President turns inwards, lashing out at critics, China takes up the slack.
Trump’s handling of the pandemic on the international stage hands Xi an opportunity he might not have dared wish for. The leader the Chinese President believes is doing most to hold his country back is falling out with his allies, so this is his moment to cement every gain before the situation is reversed.
Xi’s so-called “wolf diplomats” are doubling down on their leader’s message, criticizing all those who complain about China, by claiming it did nothing wrong, and was open and forthcoming about Covid-19.
The US’s slow disengagement from the world under former president Barack Obama is accelerating under his successor. And unless Democrats regain the White House in November they’ll find some of the levers of power no longer connect with their allies the way they used to.