US President Donald Trump's 30-day suspension of all entry into the United States for most Europeans, his most significant step yet in the halting effort to combat the coronavirus, accelerates his long-brewing divorce from many of America's traditional allies.
His White House address on Wednesday night was cast in distinctly "America First" terms, seeming to suggest that the United States — acting alone — could halt a scourge that started in China, is ravaging Italy and knows no borders. But perhaps most tellingly, it was announced with no consultation with America's closest allies, following the same pattern of unilateral action he favoured when he announced in 2017 that the United States would pull out of the Paris climate accord and then the Iran nuclear deal the following year.
And it opened yet another wound — one likely to impair co-operation as the virus surges — as the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, made clear in a chilly statement.
"The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent, and it requires co-operation rather than unilateral action," she said in a joint statement with Charles Michel, who heads the European Council. "The European Union disapproves of the fact that the US decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation."
To Trump, of course, this was all about containment, a natural follow-on to his early decision to ban flights from China — a move that many experts agree won the United States crucial time to prepare, even if much of that time was wasted. Back then, the virus was not visibly on American shores.
Now, it is. It is spreading indigenously. And because Trump's rule allows entry to Americans, legal residents and their families who have been in Europe, it seems to the Europeans to be less about containment than about punishment.
"The announcement last night about Europe was part of the pattern that there always has to be someone, an outsider, to blame," said Heather Conley, the director of the Europe programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy research center. And the exemption for Britain seemed equally perplexing because early this week, there were still direct flights landing there from Milan, the centre of the Italian crisis.
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Trump, of course, had other options.
He could have used the speech on Wednesday night to talk about joining ranks with the country's closest allies — Germany, France, other European partners, South Korea and Japan — to counter both the virus and the economic impact. He could have talked about sharing public health data and lessons learned from China's experience — or South Korea's.
He could have used the memory of the September 11, 2001, attacks, when the Nato alliance invoked — for the first time since its creation — Article V of its charter, that an attack on one was an attack on all. He could have roused the alliance to deal together with a common enemy, even an invisible one that could not be bombed.
Instead, his instinct was to follow the course he set when he pulled out of the Paris accord, threatened to leave Nato and renounced the Iran nuclear accord. His go-to position is that even the most international of problems can be walled off — and in this case his actions seemed to say that the European alliances are shattered anyway, so they are not worth saving.
Trump defended that approach when he met on Thursday with the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar. "We get along very well with the European leaders, but we had to make a decision, and I didn't want to take time," Trump told reporters.
He then compared it to the politics of trade retaliation. "I mean, when they raise taxes on us, they don't consult us," he said. "And I think that's probably one in the same."
It was a striking admission of how much communication has shut down over the past three years.
"I appreciate the fact that this has caught so many governments around the world off-guard," said Conley, who served as deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
"In the past, there would have been extraordinary outreach, an effort to issue a joint statement and have mechanisms in place to enforce whatever you announce," she said. "When you do it this way, you shed doubt on our government's ability to manage what is happening, and you foster so much ill will that you make it harder to get future co-operation."
The President's address appeared to have been a hastily devised move, and Trump got many of the basic details of his own ban wrong, forcing his aides to backtrack and correct him soon after he got off the air.
In fact, everything about the President's announcement bespoke chaos, according to White House insiders and the allies. In the Situation Room, as the speech was coming together, there were arguments over the wording that banned goods as well as people.
Despite the objections of some top officials, Trump said the United States "will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days", beginning at midnight Friday, with the exception of travel from Britain.
"These prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval," he said. "Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing."
Within hours, it turned out that there was no ban on trade, which would have had a huge global economic impact — and would have done little to contain the virus, experts say. A little after 10 pm, Trump tweeted: "Trade will in no way be affected by the 30-day restriction on travel from Europe. The restriction stops people not goods."
That still left confusion over what the President meant when he said the Small Business Administration would "provide capital and liquidity" to businesses, which seemed to go beyond its statutory powers.
Such details can be worked out, of course, even if the President's statements need correction. What allies remember, though, is the sense that a nation that once led great coalitions — against Nazi Germany, against the Soviet threat, against al-Qaeda and other terrorists — seems uninterested in a global response in a different kind of crisis.
That seemed clear when Trump's National Security Council decided, more than a year ago, to merge the office that was preparing for pandemics into one working to limit weapons of mass destruction — two very different problems, requiring vastly different kinds of responses.
And it seemed clear on Wednesday, when Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, both defended the administration's response to the coronavirus and made clear it was China, not the United States, that deserved any blame for a slow international response.
"Unfortunately, rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up," O'Brien said. "It probably cost the world community two months to respond."
He said China's initial secrecy and its reluctance to admit officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation slowed the response and the chance to collect more information about the virus.
"I think we could have dramatically curtailed both what happened in China and what's happening across the world," O'Brien said.
"The way that this started out in China, the way it was handled from the outset, was not right, it should have been handled differently."
Written by: David E. Sanger
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