War Stories

Trump’s Medical Nationalism Will Make It Harder to Defeat COVID-19

The president wants to portray the fight against the coronavirus as a “war,” but we’re fighting it without allies.

A masked engineer holds a syringe
An engineer holds an experimental COVID-19 vaccine at a Sinovac Biotech lab in Beijing on April 29. Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images

An online gathering of world leaders announced a joint project this week to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, with several governments and some private foundations donating $8.2 billion to the effort.

President Donald Trump declined to take part in the conference call, which included the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Israel, Turkey, and the European Commission. He didn’t put up any money either.

The brushoff reflected his “America First” hostility toward international alliances generally—and could pose similarly self-destructive consequences.

One administration official said Trump prefers a “whole-of-America” approach to the coronavirus crisis—hoping that the United States will win the race to devise a vaccine on our own and for our benefit. Many Americans might applaud this unilateralist approach. But there are two risks.

First, some other country—maybe a lab benefiting from the consortium’s $8.2 billion—might win the race for an effective vaccine, in which case Americans will have to get in line along with everyone else and maybe, since we didn’t pay the dues upfront, closer to the back of the line than to the front.

Second, even if an American scientist or pharmaceutical firm wins the race, it will have to rely on foreign countries to help out with production—perhaps of the vaccine itself, certainly of ancillary hardware such as syringes or pills. China, the country that Trump is trying to blame for the virus and its death toll, is the country whose good graces we will need the most.

In this sense, fighting a pandemic is similar to fighting other common threats: The best way to defeat it is for the threatened countries with the most resources to fight it together.

Scientists from the United States, China, and other countries worked together to stave off the SARS and Ebola epidemics. Back in the 1960s, U.S. and Soviet scientists collaborated on a vaccine to eradicate smallpox—and this was at a time when Cold War tensions were far graver than tensions between Washington and Beijing today. Another fact worth noting: The World Health Organization—another of the administration’s favorite current punching bags—was instrumental in bringing the American and Soviet scientists together.

Even now, despite the widening schism between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, American and Chinese scientists are collaborating intensively on trying to stem the pandemic. So far this year, researchers from the two countries have co-authored more than 400 scientific papers on COVID-19. In January, before Trump acknowledged the pandemic, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, a company in Pennsylvania, announced it was working with Beijing Advaccine Biotechnology Co. to find a treatment.

Not all Americans are avoiding the international consortium in pursuit of a vaccine. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $125 million to the effort. “This virus doesn’t care what nationality you are,” Melinda Gates, who participated in the viral summit, told the gathering. As long as the virus is somewhere, it’s everywhere.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan told the U.N. General Assembly, “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside the world.” His aides, rolling their eyes, excised that line from the draft of the speech. Reagan added it back in. They took it out again. He put it back in.

Reagan had an obsession with alien attacks from outer space, possibly stemming from one of his favorite Hollywood movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still, made in 1951, about an enlightened scientist from outer space who visits Earth to warn its leaders that they needed to stop playing games with nuclear weapons, which were endangering the entire universe. When Reagan first met Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, at the Geneva summit in 1985, the two at first exchanged tense words about a number of disputes. Then they took a walk by a nearby lake and ducked into a cabin, where a fireplace was roaring. Sitting side by side, with only their translators present, Reagan asked Gorbachev what he would do if the United States were attacked by aliens from outer space. “Would you help us?” he inquired. Gorbachev replied, “No doubt about it.” Reagan said he felt the same way; he would help the Soviets if aliens attacked them. When the two men came back to the chateau to resume the more formal talks, Secretary of State George Shultz, who had not heard their discussion about outer space attacks, observed that they were suddenly laughing and talking like old friends.

Thus, in one of the more bizarre pivots of history, did the Cold War begin its unwinding.

I’m not saying that America’s tensions with China and other countries can be eased with banter and bonhomie. Reagan and Gorbachev were transformative figures, in their own oddball ways; and they each had a common interest in ending the 40-year superpower standoff.

But every country, whatever its conflicts on other matters, has a common, vital interest in ending a pandemic. And in a world where supply chains are so intertwined, the pursuit of “vaccine nationalism” is not only morally questionable but practically doomed.

Trump has likened the fight against COVID-19 to a war—“our big war,” he’s called it. To the extent the analogy is valid, it’s more like Reagan’s vision of an attack from aliens “outside the world.” The threat knows nothing of national borders, national interests, or human emotions. It requires a response that transcends those limits as well.

By waving away a coalition of governments and saying he can do this on his own, Trump has not only revealed a deep misunderstanding of what the war is about, but also reduced the chance that the world can win it quickly.