Trump’s Coronavirus Response Shows How Much Leaders Matter

24 March 2020, 1836 EDT

This is a guest post by Richard W. Maass, an Associate Professor at the University of Evansville. His research focuses on international security, US foreign policy, terrorism, and diplomatic history. He has a forthcoming book on how democracy and xenophobia limited US territorial expansion (Cornell UP, May 2020).

The international experience of COVID-19 will have many implications for international relations. Scholars have already begun discussing its implications for IR theories, hegemonic stability theory, and measures of state capacity. When all is said and done, I think the central lesson will be how much individual leaders matter.

Individuals in international relations

Leaders’ impact on international relations is often downplayed because their decisions are constrained by domestic and international circumstances. Yet causation runs both ways as leaders continually shape those circumstances—sometimes in minor ways but sometimes with earth-shaking implications. Indeed, research on leaders is enjoying a renaissance, showing that they affect foreign policy through their military experience, leadership style, age, propensity for risk-taking, reputation for resolve, private costs and benefits, and other characteristics. Leaders are especially influential during times of sudden change, which disrupt business-as-usual for entrenched bureaucracies and interest groups, opening the door to a wide range of possible futures.

This is one of those times. The exponential growth rate of infection meant that individual decisions taken days or weeks apart had dramatic consequences, not only for public suffering but also for the distribution of international power.

The United States had time to prepare for the coronavirus. After originating in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was confirmed on January 21 (the same date as South Korea’s). U.S. intelligence agencies warned the president in January and February that Chinese leaders were underselling the severity of the outbreak, and the threat was apparent to anyone following experts’ warnings (not to mention past alerts of the potential threat posed by pandemics). President Trump refused to take the actions urgently needed to protect the United States from the coronavirus, and the economic consequences have already been staggering: between February 21 and March 16 the Dow Jones dropped by more than thirty percent, job losses skyrocketed, and travel-related spending dropped by six times more than after the 9/11 attacks. Even now, endgame projections range from 4,000 to 10 million U.S. deaths, a margin with tremendous international implications.

What can one person really do?

Nobody could have prevented the coronavirus from reaching the United States, but as February progressed, three crucial steps would have enabled localized containment strategies to substantially mitigate its spread, preventing the need for nationwide shutdowns as well as countless deaths and job losses: (1) educating the public, (2) maximizing testing capabilities, and (3) promoting international cooperation. President Trump did none, and his decisions were likely influenced by personal characteristics that may not have been shared by a realistic alternative president.

First, Trump utterly failed to educate the public. Quite the opposite: he downplayed the threat for weeks, declaring the coronavirus “very much under control in the USA” on February 24, calling it a Democratic “hoax” on February 29, and on March 7 saying that he was not concerned at all.” His statements contributed to lagging concern among the American public and an enduring partisan divide, especially consequential given the importance of social distancing by citizens to suppress the virus’ spread. Leaders failing to educate the public about scientific research is nothing new (see terrorism or climate change), but Trump’s relationship with intelligence reports, experts, and science has long been particularly problematic. Another leader may have given the public a sober outlook from the start or engaged in fearmongering, which carries its own set of problems but ironically would have erred on the side of effectiveness in this instance.

Second, Trump failed to ensure sufficient testing capacity. Any effective response crucially depends on detecting every case (as South Korea’s experience with Patient 31 showed). The extreme shortage of tests left frustrated state and local leaders knowing the virus had spread widely but not knowing where. For example, on March 13 Indiana officials estimated 60,000 cases in the state despite having 12 confirmed cases out of only 70 tests. This mass uncertainty when it was already too late for containment forced schools and workplaces to close nationwide, causing much of the recent human suffering and economic damage. Among other measures, Trump could have allowed private hospitals and labs to develop tests weeks earlier and joined 60 other countries receiving tests from the World Health Organization by the end of February. Instead, Trump’s short-term transactional perspective—illustrated by his repeated focus on previous death numbers in interviews instead of exponential growth curves—likely drove him to underappreciate the urgency of such preventive action.

Third, Trump approached the coronavirus as a “foreign” threat. Instead of accepting WHO aid or learning from early successes in Singapore or Taiwan—both of which managed to contain the virus without extended school closures—he focused on travel bans (important but not a solution) even after infections began sweeping the United States. Throughout the crisis he has appeared more concerned with blaming China than using presidential power to minimize suffering. These actions are consistent with Trump’s established worldview emphasizing insidious external threats as well as his long history of xenophobia (e.g., in counterterrorism and immigration). As I show in my book, The Picky Eagle, xenophobia has a long history affecting U.S. foreign policy. Yet Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama explicitly tried to suppress it when confronting Al Qaeda and ISIS, and no president in modern U.S. history has embraced it as Trump has.

A self-inflicted wound

The range of possible outcomes from this crisis remains wide. Yet even if current suppression efforts succeed in limiting U.S. deaths to the thousands rather than the millions, Trump’s inaction in the face of imminent danger has already taken a tremendous human toll and caused the U.S. GDP to shrink “at rates far worse than the 2008 global recession.”

The United States is no stranger to self-inflicted wounds, but anything resembling a worst-case scenario will shift the international distribution of power far more than any misguided war of choice. For reference, approximately 4,500 U.S. service members were killed in Iraq between March 2003 and April 2015, roughly equivalent to a best-case scenario for COVID-19 now. The Iraq War is estimated to have cost the United States roughly $2 trillion, while U.S. unpreparedness for the coronavirus erased $3.18 trillion from the stock market in one week alone.

The rise of China has sparked much recent research on power transitions. The full impact of this experience has yet to be determined and is continuing to be shaped by decisions being made now—especially whether Trump follows through on his inclination to defy health experts for a temporary economic boost. After failing to contain the virus in Wuhan, China’s propaganda campaign and efforts to provide medical supplies are par for the course when it comes to great-power competition rather than indicators of a hegemonic transition. But latent power is a prerequisite for global leadership, and America’s advantages are finite.

Scholars often treat the distribution of international power as a relatively static characteristic that constrains leaders’ decision-making. Doing so is often a useful abstraction for theory-building purposes, but we should never lose sight of how consequential one leader’s action or inaction can be. Trump’s response to the coronavirus should remind us just how much leaders matter for international relations.