A crisis as sweeping in its economic and social effects as the COVID-19 pandemic will have lingering political effects on a global scale. Sometimes such an international trauma sears important, beneficial, and lasting lessons into the consciousness of publics and governments alike. This might not happen, however, with the current pandemic. Its principal political consequences are unlikely to reflect what ought to be one of its main lessons: that successfully confronting a threat like a virus, which respects no international boundaries, requires international cooperation and a recognition that the danger jointly affects all humankind.
COVID-19 began when the pathogen jumped from an animal to a human within the borders of a single country. The cross-border movements and exchanges that we know as globalization obviously have been involved in spreading the disease, but did not cause the disease. International cooperation and the mechanisms of globalization need to be used, not rejected, in fighting the pandemic.
If there is any one image that illustrates how this is not happening, it is the picture of Donald Trump’s briefing notes in which he had crossed out the “corona” in coronavirus and replaced it with “Chinese.” The same presidential Sharpie that once was used to redefine the path of a hurricane has now been used to redefine a transnational natural threat as one that instead should be pinned on a rival major power.
A nationalist, not a globalist, response
Corrosive and narrow-minded nationalism, the rise of which has been one the most negative trends in world politics in recent years, is becoming part of the political response to COVID-19. This is not just a problem with U.S. policy, although the United States still has disproportionate influence as a superpower and seems on course to pass Italy and China for the most COVID-19 cases. Within the United States, the problem is not just one of Trump, although Trump’s reflexive reliance on the nativist and faux-populist themes that got him elected is a glaring part of the problem.
Ironically, some prudent measures to help check the pandemic play into the hands of the purveyors of such nationalism. This is most obviously true of the closing of international borders to travelers. U.S. borders with both Canada and Mexico were closed with the mutual consent of the countries concerned. It made sense to do so to slow whatever spread of the virus involves cross-border travel. The same is true of border restrictions that have been erected along what had been invisible national boundaries in Europe.
Unfortunately, these moves at borders exemplify how an action taken for good reasons can energize policies adopted for bad reasons. Closing U.S. borders dovetails with Trump’s xenophobic and divisive immigration policies that have included the Muslim travel ban and the high priority given to building a wall next to Mexico. Corresponding situations in Europe involve the narrow English nationalism associated with Brexit and antagonism on the continent against refugees fleeing warfare in the Middle East, at a time when the Erdogan government in Turkey has again been using the refugee flow as a source of leverage against the Europeans.
The fact that COVID-19 originated in China — a principal foil especially of some of Trump’s trade and security policies — is another factor. By seeing the current crisis as another occasion for competition rather than cooperation with China, his administration is going against U.S. self-interest in stemming the pandemic. It is unlikely if the virus had emerged in, say, Norway, that Trump would be calling it the “Norwegian virus.”
That Iran has suffered another of the most severe outbreaks of the disease presents an opportunity to de-escalate the pointless and dangerous confrontation between the United States and Iran. Observers including members of Congress, many nongovernmental organizations, and even the prime minister of Pakistan have appealed to the U.S. administration to lift some of the sanctions that continue, despite administration assertions, to inhibit the sale to Iran of badly needed medical supplies and other humanitarian materials. Such a move, besides taking advantage of the de-escalation opportunity, would demonstrate that the United States really is the friend of the Iranian people that it claims to be, would save innocent Iranian lives, and ultimately would save American and other lives by helping to stem the global pandemic.
The Trump administration instead evidently sees Iran’s suffering from COVID-19 as an opportunity to turn the screws of “maximum pressure” even farther and make Iranians suffer even more. In a policy that has reverted to a sort of malevolent autopilot, the U.S. response to the pandemic’s hit on Iran has been to pile on still more sanctions punctuated with more verbal attacks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It is a policy that, as with the posture toward China, goes against the U.S.’s own interest in curbing the pandemic. And it is a policy that fails to recognize that Americans are far more likely to suffer and die from a virulent disease that has raced around the world than from a second-tier regional power with no transcontinental reach.
There may be a deeply rooted human tendency toward withdrawal, retrenchment, and huddling among one’s own kind in the face of threats that are large and, like a virus or economic panic, invisible or difficult for most people to understand. In the age of nation-states, this tendency can translate into narrowly nationalist policies, as it has at times throughout modern history.
During the early part of the Great Depression, one of the principal U.S. responses was the heavily protectionist Smoot-Hawley tariff, which only worsened the economic agony for the United States along with the rest of the world. Trump’s trade war has echoes of Smoot-Hawley and may exacerbate beggar-thy-neighbor responses both to the pandemic and to the global recession it has started. It already probably has impeded the U.S. response to its own COVID-19 problem by reducing the import of badly needed medical supplies that China makes, such as protective gowns and masks.
Political consequences in individual countries will depend on who is in power and who gets blamed for the suffering and disruption. This may work against mainstream governing parties that have had to make the difficult economic and public health decisions and in favor of right-wing populist groups such as the Alternative for Germany and, in France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. In Italy, the devastation the virus has caused could give an opening for the Northern League’s Matteo Salvini to recover from missteps that bumped his party out of the governing coalition last year.
In the United States, a deep recession ought to work against Trump’s re-election in the same way that economic troubles traditionally work against incumbents, even without considering his inconsistent and leadership-abandoning response to the pandemic. But three other offsetting factors can bolster his re-election chances. One is his exploitation of an incumbent’s advantage of monopolizing airtime during a crisis (and posing as a “war president” with a rally-round-the-flag effect) while his presumptive general election opponent, Joe Biden, struggles to get attention.
Another factor is that what most impacts voters’ sentiments is not just their current economic status but whether that status is getting better or worse at the moment they cast their ballots. If the recession bottoms out within the next seven months and upticks have begun by the November election, the incumbent could benefit. Trump evidently is thinking along these lines in talking about steps to speed up economic recovery even at the risk of boosting the number of COVID-19 infections.
Probably the most influential factor is that in the post-truth era of “alternative facts,” Fox News, and tribalistic belief systems, the old rules about economic conditions and voting may no longer apply. Polling shows that between mid-February and mid-March, Democrats’ concerns about the coronavirus increased but Republicans’ concerns decreased — obviously following the lead of Trump, who during this period was talking down the significance of the epidemic despite growing evidence of its seriousness.
More recently, of course, he has had to recognize that seriousness, and Fox’s commentators accordingly have done a 180-degree turn in their message, which is now one of how Trump is leading the nation in battling an awful scourge. One might think that even the faithful who have their MAGA hats pulled firmly down above their eyes would have their faith shaken by such abrupt shifts, but evidently that is not the way politics and public opinion in the United States work today.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”
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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.