In a Crisis, A Fumbling America Confirms Europe's Worst Fears
Europeans have been watching America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic with alarm. Last week’s news that the United States plans to freeze funding for the World Health Organization was seen as yet another piece of evidence that the United States is shedding its traditional, global leadership role. In over one hundred interviews, emails, and texts with policymakers, analysts, and colleagues across the European continent, we have found universal shock and disappointment over both America’s failure to lead in this crisis and its systemic failures at home. The COVID-19 crisis is raising questions about American power, reliability, and trustworthiness that stand to shape the future of the transatlantic relationship for years to come.
In some ways, the Trump administration’s response to the novel coronavirus epidemic and later pandemic was predictable. As one German analyst we interviewed remarked, Trump’s handling of the crisis “has only confirmed what we in Europe already knew.” Europeans have come to learn that President Donald Trump means it when he says “America First,” that he doesn’t always land on the side of science, and that he is prone to erratic decision-making. Europeans were not surprised when the Trump White House initially downplayed the crisis, calling it “just the flu,” or when Trump politicized the crisis by claiming it was a “Democratic hoax.” Moreover, Trump’s decision to impose a unilateral ban on commercial flights from Europe without any consultation with European allies was just another page from the Trump playbook, which — at least in their minds — has always heavily relied on building walls. Europeans have become accustomed to reading about Trump decisions in the newspaper instead of hearing about them through traditional diplomatic channels.