Last year when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, millions across the world found themselves in lockdown as world leaders attempted to quell the spread of COVID-19. Draconian measures were taken by some, including China, locking down entire cities and enforcing the measures with a combination of public announcements and police patrols. Furthermore, China diverted massive amounts of resources to the production of masks and testing kits. However, it was hardly the only one to do so. Former United States (US) President, Donald Trump, also invoked the Defence Production Act, a relic of the Korean War, and ordered the company 3M to produce the masks and respirators desperately needed in American hospitals.
Foreign policy, however, has not simply been put on the backburner. In fact, events in the international arena have begun posing challenges to governments and questioning governmental power in an increasingly globalised world.
And the Trump Administration had unceremoniously shown exactly where the US stood on the issue. While China exported masks in an attempt to help other governments contain the spread and perhaps salvage its reputation, the US began to reveal its ugly intentions. American companies have supply chains throughout the world, and 3M produces much needed N95 masks for consumption worldwide, including Europe and Southeast Asia. Masks bound for Germany’s healthcare workers were diverted as they stopped in Thailand, and Trump had further demanded that 3M and other companies stop exporting masks from the US to Latin America and even its longtime ally Canada. German officials have since called the US’ actions an act of modern piracy. Even Canada warned the US that trade flows both ways across the border, and that they came to the US’ aid during 9/11.
It’s a sight rarely seen in the world. The leaders of the free world are often seen proudly and tirelessly trotting the globe, selling a prospectus of liberalism and the need for all to work together towards the common good of the world. They are now desperately grasping at straws and fighting for scarce resources to contain the damage despite the clear warnings and ample preparation time. However, during the Trump Administration, instead of leading the charge towards cooperation and mutual aid in this time of crisis, it has time and time again resorted to divisive tactics, racist rhetoric, and unilateral action in order to secure its own interests. While foreign policy is not missionary work, the blatant disregard for the needs of others flies in the face of US (and Western) liberalism, which advocates working for the common good and avoiding the tragedy of the commons.
Contrast this to the evolution of the Chinese positions and foreign policy measures that they have taken since the onset of the crisis. Despite being caught off-guard by the virus and facing criticisms for their treatment of whistleblower Li Wenliang, China took the measures it needed to contain the virus and then continued their efforts to do the same overseas. China also sent aid to the EU nations when they failed to act, and approved sales of masks to the US despite tensions. It is true that China is likely to be underreporting its cases and looking to repair its reputation. Reports are also coming in of faulty Chinese equipment. Again, foreign policy is not missionary work. But China has not taken deliberate action knowing that they would harm the international community in such a time of crisis. Far from it, it has redoubled efforts to help the world despite the scorn heaped upon it.
Granted, however, that the Trump Administration, since taking power, has steadily eroded the power of the bureaucracy for directing foreign policy in unprecedented ways that are unlikely to be repeated in the future. With Biden’s election in 2020, it is uncertain if such policies will continue. Biden, for his part, has not fared particularly well on this front. On several fronts, the Biden Administration has actually continued many of the Trump Administration’s policies in foreign relations, while selectively scaling back the more extreme measures that Trump undertook. Of course, Biden has none of the rhetoric, but actions speak louder than words. Biden has continued Trump’s behaviour of lambasting China over its economic growth and practices, and continues to use sanctions and threats of economic retaliation as a routine part of his political arsenal. Even if we were to wholeheartedly accept Biden as a return to moderation, that moderation will still be one characterised by policies of subversion and unchecked power.
But if the history of American foreign policy is anything to go by, the future looks none too bright either. Coups, regime changes, invasions, and a ‘my way or the highway’ approach to other states suggest that Trump has not exactly broken away from his predecessors in terms of approaching foreign policy. He may represent the first time that ‘America First’ has so brazenly appeared as the foreign policy of choice, but it would be a mistake to regard it as a new policy.
Whether through tacit subversion or overt strong-arming of other nations, the US has always demanded that other nations bend to its will, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican resided in the Oval Office. Even a President regarded as toothless such as Jimmy Carter attempted to pursue such a policy, albeit much more tacitly and with less success, overseeing the ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw in Iran amongst other attempts to undermine the Islamic Republic. Indeed, what is striking about the behaviour of Trump and his administration is not that they are pursuing their interests first and foremost, but because that is expected of any leader: to serve their country first and foremost. Rather, it is the means and extent to which he is doing it – strong-arming nations, ignoring the protests of his supposed allies and demanding that the world stands by it despite its actions. Trump’s actions, therefore, may not actually be as much of an outlier in foreign policy as is commonly believed.
Perhaps it is time, therefore, to revisit our assumptions about the current world order, and the place that the US and China have in it. The US has unceremoniously abandoned the moral high ground. It is doing what it can for itself and disregarding relationships that have taken a century to form. It is paying the price for masks not just in dollars, but in votes, reputation, and eventually, power.
When the crisis blows over, will the world still look towards the US with the same respect and reverence that it had since the end of World War Two, and the Cold War?
The scene of a global hegemon, going mad with its own power and turning into the villain is not unlike the end of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. One can almost see China as Macduff, imperfect as he is, rising to the occasion and doing what he must to rid the world of a once-great hero who is now a ruthless tyrant. We must once again remain conscious of the reality that not all heroes remain heroes, not all villains remain villains, and understand that no state will permanently act altruistically. The outbreak of the pandemic and the war of all against all to obtain masks has revealed as much.