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How The U.S. Response To The Pandemic May Affect Its Standing In The World


The United States is the world's undisputed leader in the sad statistics of the coronavirus. The U.S. has registered more than a quarter of all COVID-19 deaths, more than any other country, even though Americans represent little more than 4% of the world's population - a pretty stunning state of affairs for the world's most powerful and richest nation. And it is raising questions about American exceptionalism and America's ability to lead now, during the pandemic, and beyond. Well, to take on those questions, I am joined now by NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, NPR's Seoul bureau chief Anthony Kuhn and NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin.

All three of you, welcome.




KELLY: Michele, I'm going to let you go first because you have covered for years now how America projects its power and influence in the world - a leadership role that, of course, the U.S. assumed after World War II - and that with exceptions, but I think fair to say, generally speaking, the role of the U.S. as global leader has been acknowledged, has been wanted by the rest of the world.

KELEMEN: Right. So you think about the Marshall Plan that helped Europe rebuild after World War II or U.S. military presence in South Korea for all these decades. Germany and South Korea may not have become the powers that they are today if not for U.S. help. And on health, for instance, the Bush administration really stepped up in the AIDS crisis. The program that it created, PEPFAR, saved millions of lives in Africa and around the globe. The U.S. also took the lead responding to the 2004 tsunami, H1N1 and, most recently, Ebola.

KELLY: So fast-forward to the current moment where we have the Trump administration blaming China for much of what has unfolded here in the U.S., calling the virus the China virus, the Trump administration withdrawing funding from the WHO, the World Health Organization. What are we seeing unfold here? Is this President Trump's America First ethos? Is this something broader? What?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, the State Department keeps making this case that the U.S. remains a top donor of humanitarian aid, especially if you include private donations, as they do in their fact sheets. A fact sheet today talked about the U.S. bringing together the brightest minds to work on a vaccine. It said, this is a priority for the U.S., as it is the president of the G7 major powers right now. But U.S. officials skipped a Group of 20 meeting on COVID-19 recently because it was organized by the WHO. The Trump administration, as you mentioned, suspended aid to the World Health Organization, accusing that U.N. agency of being too China-centric.

And that dispute, you know, has pretty much paralyzed even the U.N. Security Council, which hasn't been able to produce a resolution on this topic. The secretary-general wants the U.N. to call for cease-fires around the world to get everyone focused on battling COVID-19. But you know, as they're working on this draft, the U.S. doesn't want references to the WHO in there. And China, I'm told, has been pushing for more.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's turn overseas and bring in Anthony and Rob here. You're both in countries - South Korea and Germany - that, as Michele noted, might not exist in their current forms without U.S. leadership after World War II - also two countries that have done a lot better than the U.S. has in stopping the spread of this virus. Rob, take us to Germany and what Germans make of what is happening in the U.S. right now.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, Mary Louise. I had a chance to chat with the head of the hospital in Bavaria that handled Germany's first coronavirus case. And he had been trained in the U.S., and he's familiar with the American health care system. He had two words to describe how America's handling the coronavirus - amazed and depressed. He thinks the U.S. has one of the best health care systems in the world, but he said the U.S. in this case has failed because it did not prepare for what was about to hit it, despite having two months' lead time on this.

Most people I'm speaking to here in Berlin are not impressed with America's response. As we've seen, the coronavirus has been a litmus test for good governance, and Germans are feeling pretty good about how their government responded to the pandemic. And Chancellor Angela Merkel's approval ratings are at historic highs as a result.

KELLY: Anthony, what about in South Korea where you are, which we should note has done arguably even better than Germany in combating the virus and which has such a deep relationship with the U.S.? As a reminder, there are thousands of U.S. troops there today. How has the pandemic affected U.S.-Korean relations?

KUHN: Well, I think it's fair to say that the country wouldn't be here if not for U.S. intervention in the Korean War. But after decades of building up its health system, now South Korea is in the position to help the U.S. and the rest of the world, both as an example of how you use testing and contact tracing, how you don't lock down the country and shipping hundreds and thousands of test kits to the U.S. and other countries.

The U.S. has helped South Korea in the sense that South Koreans were initially dissatisfied with the way President Moon Jae-in was handling the epidemic. But once they saw how bad the U.S. was doing by comparison, they changed their minds. And Moon and his party won a landslide election. At the same time, the Trump administration has been pushing South Korea to increase by an initial 500% its contribution to the cost of stationing U.S. troops here.

KELLY: Five hundred percent - wow.

KUHN: About 4,000 Korean employees of the U.S. military have now been furloughed without pay, and that affects the military readiness of both countries. And although Beijing and Pyongyang have not said anything about it, anything that weakens the U.S.-South Korea alliance is certainly a welcome development to them.

KELLY: A quick question again for you, Rob, and then you, Anthony, which is the country that would like to assume some of the mantle of global leadership, China, which did try to hide the extent of how bad the virus was at the beginning of the outbreak but has also managed to keep COVID-19 deaths far below what we are seeing here in the U.S. How is China perceived in Germany, Rob?

SCHMITZ: Well, here we're starting to see a backlash against Beijing for not warning the rest of the world faster. And the other issue of the day is Chinese influence. Two weeks ago, when the European Union was about to publish a report about how world governments have waged disinformation campaigns about this pandemic, Beijing persuaded the EU to remove parts of the report that outline China's disinformation campaign.

Part of the issue here is that Germany and many other EU countries depend heavily on China's market for revenue. Beijing knows this, and so it often gets what it wants. But the U.S. is not countering Beijing's influence very much here either. You know, today, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is hosting a meeting with global leaders to agree on equitable access to vaccines for COVID-19. Political leaders from dozens of countries, including China and Japan and Canada - they're all on the list to attend, but the U.S. is not.

KELLY: Anthony, what about South Korea? How has the pandemic affected regional balance of power with China?

KUHN: Well, it's possible in a good scenario that this could be something that Seoul and Beijing could cooperate on. So far, it's been an item of controversy because President Moon was criticized for not blocking all travelers coming from China, but President Moon resisted pressure on this front. South Korea is moving in a more independent direction, both diplomatically and militarily. They're building up their own independent military capabilities, and the growing perception over here that the U.S. is not reliable is just accelerating that trend.

KELLY: Michele Kelemen, bring us full circle. Is there a U.S. strategy now for projecting influence abroad when our own problems are so painfully on display for the world to see?

KELEMEN: Well, President Trump seems to be using this time to do things that he wants to do, like slow migration to the country. And he's blaming China for the pandemic. I think if the U.S. is to become a leader in this again, a lot will depend on the private sector. If Americans do come up with effective treatments or a vaccine, you can be sure that the world will be calling on America to lead on this.

KELLY: That is NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, our Seoul bureau chief Anthony Kuhn and NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin.

Thanks to you all.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

KUHN: Thank you, Mary Louise.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.