Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 November 2020

Coronavirus: why Donald Trump should think like a global leader

The coronavirus has unleashed a global catastrophe and an unprecedented crisis for international relations as the pandemic interferes with everything, from geopolitics to oil prices.

Bilateral relations have not been spared, evidenced this week by the decision of US President Donald Trump to block travel from Europe, with the exception of the UK. It comes at a time when the European Union finds it challenging to contain the spread of the virus because of its open borders. After all, a complete shuttering of national borders would effectively nullify one of the EU's foundational principles.

However, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

A girl wearing a face mask jumps as she plays with her father in a park in Beijing. China seems to be recovering from the outbreak. AFP
A girl wearing a face mask jumps as she plays with her father in a park in Beijing. China seems to be recovering from the outbreak. AFP

China, the epicentre of the pandemic, is focusing once again on its economy as it feels assured that the outbreak has started to crest. On Monday, it will face a major test, at least according to experts, as it begins to allow about 280 million people to return to work following a two-month lockdown. Officials are watching with anxiety though, wary of a possible second outbreak that could be brought about by the reactivation of the labour market.

The most important task at the moment is to find a vaccine, which calls for international co-operation. The US is a pioneering powerhouse in biotechnology but it should not use this position of vantage for the sake of extracting geopolitical and economic gains. Even as Covid-19 is severely testing the very concept of globalisation – it has served to destabilise many industries, stock markets and airlines worldwide – the development of a vaccine should nonetheless be a global project.

According to experts, Europeans and North Americans are in mortal danger unless a vaccine is found. The developments of this month, which will be crucial in stemming the spread of the virus, so far suggest that the crisis could well extend into April and beyond as global panic fuels a global economic downturn.

Mr Trump has the ability to transform himself from a leader who is wedded to the idea of "America First" into a truly global one. But it will require him to show humility and compassion towards nations unable to cope with the outbreak on their own. Of course, it is not enough for him to make that shift in thinking; countries whose governments continue to hide the accurate numbers of infections and fatalities from the world should come clean or else be held to account.

In the Middle East, all eyes are on Iran. Plagued by the outbreak, the regime is preoccupied with this invisible enemy, forcing it to slow down the exportation of its so-called Islamic Revolution across the region and to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund for the first time in decades.

The number of cases there has exceeded 10,000, while deaths have crossed the 1,000-mark. The virus has not spared government officials, commanders within the influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, fighters and advisers, many of whom were deployed in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

The Arab Gulf countries in proximity to Iran have taken strict measures, shuttering borders and suspending religious events, including the Umrah in Saudi Arabia. But countries dominated by the regime in Tehran – such as Lebanon – have taken too long to suspend flights with Iran, for political reasons, thereby putting their people at risk.

Here, too, the silver lining could appear in the form of international co-operation and multilateralism. Tehran’s request for IMF assistance could prompt Hezbollah, the regime's ally in Lebanon, to reverse its veto on IMF assistance to that crisis-hit country as well. Beirut cannot avoid total economic collapse unless its political class allows the international organisation to lead the reform process on which foreign aid is contingent. This is because all the talk by the government of Hassan Diab about spearheading reforms is simply posturing.

US President Donald Trump needs to think like a global leader, not one who always puts America first. Reuters
US President Donald Trump needs to think like a global leader, not one who always puts America first. Reuters

Meanwhile in the oil markets, the dramatic events unfolding last week were not a direct result of the outbreak. The collapse of the Opec+ agreement culminated this week with Riyadh rejecting all of Moscow's attempts to challenge its position on the “oil throne”, as one veteran commentator put it, “through its leadership of Opec and restraint of rogue [oil producers] over many decades”.

Mr Trump suggested that the resulting drop in oil prices amounts to a tax cut for Americans. On the other hand, Russia is paying a heavy price not just as the Rouble lost 10 per cent of its value, but also for having underestimated the Saudi response. This also means that oil diplomacy may have become polarised.

At the moment though, the danger of the coronavirus looms over Russia and Europe, and Moscow is likely to move wisely.

The coronavirus has killed thousands of people around the world and forced many more to stay at home. It has damaged many a national prestige, done serious damage to many an economy and hit many a market hard. Its containment will not be achieved only through the creation of a vaccine, but also through the enforcement of transparency and a shift away from nationalism, which only serves to undermine effective leadership in the time of a pandemic.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute

Updated: March 14, 2020 07:18 PM

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