Analysis: 'America First' in time of global crisis? Trump is making U.S. more isolated than ever
Updated 15:22, 24-Mar-2020
By Li Zhao

German newspaper Die Welt reported recently that U.S. President Donald Trump had sought to entice a German medical company with "a large sum of money" for a potential COVID-19 vaccine "only for the United States," with German officials later confirming the story.

Just imagine the reaction of Germans.

Since day one, President Trump has made his vision for U.S. foreign policy crystal clear. "From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first," the businessman-turned-president said at his inaugural in January 2017.

He has gradually shredded the global ties built by his predecessors over the past seven decades, dropped bombs on the Middle East, withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement, abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement … and the list goes on.

And at a time when the world is joining hands to fight against the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration is stepping back further. First, attempting to poach medicine behind the back of a close ally, and next, passing the buck to China for what he has dubbed a "foreign virus."

Commitment to allies? Zero.

Before the sun rose across the European continent on March 11, Trump announced a 30-day travel ban for 26 nations in the Schengen Area without prior consultation or a word of warning. Immediately, European authorities said in a strongly worded statement that they disapproved of Washington's unilateral decision.

To make matters worse, the U.S. president later blamed the European Union for "seeding" clusters of coronavirus infection in his country, although experts pointed out that many of the confirmed cases were linked to Americans who returned from abroad.

Medical personnel wearing protective face masks help patients inside the Spedali Civili hospital in Brescia, Italy. /Reuters

Medical personnel wearing protective face masks help patients inside the Spedali Civili hospital in Brescia, Italy. /Reuters

Despite pledging to offer up to 100 million U.S. dollars to assist virus-hit countries, the United States hasn't lived up to its promise. With Italy in desperate need of medical supplies, it is China that has opened up its arms, not the United States, and dispatched groups of experts along with ventilators and masks to the second hardest-hit nation in the world.

People say commitment to allies is tested in moments of crisis. Trump's speech a fortnight ago would surely resonate in the minds of many Europeans, for a long time, while echoing his previous unilateral decisions.

"Suffice it to say that the past week has marked a relative low point in trans-Atlantic relations," Daniel Baer, who served as a European diplomat during President Barack Obama's tenure, wrote in an op-ed for Foreign Policy last week.

'America First' or 'The rich and powerful first'? 

President Trump said in a Monday briefing that first lady Melania had tested negative for the deadly virus, after himself. 

Vice President Mike Pence and wife Karen have both been tested despite exhibiting no COVID-19 symptoms.

A slew of beloved celebrities including eight NBA teams and TV personality Kris Jenner have sourced their own tests through private clinics and preferential treatment. These high earners, of course, did not care about prices, yet millions of other Americans are left to face another reality.

Ordinary Americans have been forced to choose between losing paychecks and risking their health, such as 41-year-old insurance consultant Matt Friedrichs, who couldn't afford a test amid a worsening headache and dry cough. 

"I always knew that money gets you better treatment, that's how money works in this country," the California native told Bloomberg.

A woman is seen wearing a face mask at JFK International Airport in New York, U.S., March 5, 2020. /Reuters

A woman is seen wearing a face mask at JFK International Airport in New York, U.S., March 5, 2020. /Reuters

Asked to comment whether the well-off should be getting faster access to tests, Trump answered: "As usual, the rich have easy access to services working class people struggle to find."

"But perhaps that's been the story of life."

No national response to a global crisis

Democratic presidential race frontrunner Joe Biden rebuked Trump's isolationist response, calling for swift and coordinated action to stem the virus alongside other countries.

"We'll never fully solve this problem if we're unwilling to look beyond our own borders and engage fully with the rest of the world," Biden said. "We have to confront the coronavirus everywhere."

The former vice president during the Obama administration lashed out at Trump's labeling of coronavirus as a "foreign virus."

"Downplaying it, being overly dismissive or spreading disinformation is only going to hurt us and further advantage the spread of the disease," Biden told the public. "But neither should we panic or fall back on xenophobia."

At a time when cooperation, information exchange, expertise pooling and empathy between allies are demanded, the Trump administration has chosen to hunker down. The consequence, however, could be chilling in the long run. Time will tell.