President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks during a coronavirus (COVID-19) update briefing Wednesday, April 15, 2020, in the Rose Garden of the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)
How American exceptionalism is making the coronavirus crisis worse

A threat like a global health pandemic doesn’t care about any American president’s sense of national supremacy.

Earlier this month, more than two dozen diplomats and national security leaders from the United States and Europe signed a statement in response to President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. “An outbreak anywhere impacts people everywhere,” they said.

A global pandemic like COVID-19 requires a truly global response. But, the U.S.’s aggressive global role stands in the way. By maintaining economic sanctions against Iran, increasing the U.S. military’s presence in the Western Hemisphere, and cutting aid to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Trump administration undermines global cooperation and our ability to curb the spread of the virus.

While President Trump exaggerates the success of his administration’s response to the coronavirus, the U.S. became home to the highest number of COVID-19 deaths. While the U.S. cuts funding to the WHO, it deploys the largest military operation to South America in over three decades. And while the Trump administration may think the United States can solve this crisis alone, it’s more likely to fail without the cooperation of all countries.

Policies like these are nothing new. For decades, the U.S. has attempted to lead the world often through a militarized foreign policy. This kind of leadership has largely been driven by the idea that the U.S. is exceptional, that its values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal emulation, even if that emulation had to be compelled. But a threat like a global health pandemic doesn’t care about any American president’s sense of national supremacy.

For decades, the idea of an exceptional America has justified policies of regime change, endless wars, militarized democracy promotion, and military aid, which often backfire on American allies and interests. The coronavirus is no exception. By invoking policies based on these principles, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, Trump does more to hurt the U.S.’s prospects for international cooperation — and thus an effective global response — than help it. From the Middle East to the Western Hemisphere, the U.S.’s aggressive policies aren’t doing us any favors.

Take Iran for instance. Iran remains a global epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, yet there are no indications that Trump will entertain sanctions relief. Beyond the devastating humanitarian implications, Trump’s economic sanctions do little to promote international cooperation. On April 3, a United Nations coalition of over 135 developing countries put out a statement saying “unilateral coercive measures will have a negative impact on the capacity of states to respond efficiently.” If one country is in danger, we all are.

As the number of cases increases in South America, the U.S. indicts Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and calls for his arrest. The U.S. also doubles down on its counter-narcotics operations and deploys military operations at a scale not seen since the 1980s. This is not the time for regime change or increased military deployments. The coronavirus exposes the urgent need for mutual understanding and cooperation to defeat a pandemic that knows no borders.

These policies are not only harmful to a cohesive response to the virus, but the U.S.’s expansive foreign policy also does more to hurt its image than help it. A report we at the Eurasia Group Foundation recently released — fielded in late February, before COVID-19 went global — found that one of the two most significant drivers of anti-Americanism is a dislike of the U.S.’s expansive foreign policy.

And, while not every foreign policy decision should be made with the international public’s attitudes at the forefront of one’s mind, it is particularly worrisome that the U.S.’s aggressive global role breeds animosity, especially at a time when increased global coordination and cooperation is needed.

To be sure, this is not a call for retrenchment. In fact, pulling funding to the WHO is one of the more counterproductive responses the U.S. has taken against the spread of the virus. Funding institutions set up to deal with global health crises will likely only increase a coordinated and effective pandemic response. Rather, this is a call for a renewed commitment to American leadership that focuses less on aggression and more on improving the U.S.’s own example.

Instead of deploying a version of American exceptionalism based on strength through force, and invoking that sentiment when addressing the nation about how the U.S. responds to COVID-19, the U.S. government should instead demonstrate to the world how American democracy can effectively and responsibly contain an outbreak.

Doing so will better equip America to fight pandemics, work together with other countries to curb this truly global crisis, and offer an example for other countries struggling with this virus to follow. By responding with the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, and continuing down a path of a militarized approach to foreign policy, the U.S. risks exacerbating this crisis and depriving the American people of the global response necessary to contain it.