The coronavirus pandemic is threatening international institutions, the European Union, and military readiness while shattering economic policy orthodoxies
Matt Kroenig: Hi, Emma! After a month in lockdown, I have become a Zoom master and I am finally finding a quarantine routine that works for me.
Emma Ashford: I can't do Zoom video calls any more, not since I did my own quarantine haircut on Saturday. It's OK, I'm sure it will grow out in a few weeks. For now, I just put up a "This is fine" background where the room is entirely on fire.
MK: Speaking of fires, a few weeks ago the Democratic Party seemed to be suffering from a giant self-inflicted dumpster fire, but now it appears to be getting its act together. The old joke is that Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line, but now it is the Democrats who have fallen in line behind Joe Biden.
EA: You're right about the Democratic Party. Every talking head said they'd be in chaos until June or August, but within the span of a few days, Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race, and his heartfelt endorsement of Joe Biden was followed up by Barack Obama's endorsement the next day. Seems like they've got their act together for sure. Were you surprised?
MK: A bit. But in hindsight, Sanders had no real path to the nomination, so this was the right move for him and the party, to line up behind the person with the best chance of defeating Donald Trump in November.
EA: I was pleased to see that the Biden campaign also invited staffers from the Sanders campaign to join and work with them on key issues, including foreign policy. I think that bodes well for the future of Democratic foreign policy, which is undergoing a generational shift.
MK: True, that is a healthy sign. The rift between Hillary Clinton and Obama lasted throughout the Obama administration, and the Never Trump movement continues to divide Republicans.
EA: Well, he did make her his secretary of state! One of his worst decisions, I think. I have no doubt that we'd be in a better place on foreign policy today if Clinton wasn't in the Obama administration advocating her brand of hawkish internationalism. No intervention in Libya, for a start.
MK: I meant more the rift between the staffs. Obama aides weren't happy to see their jobs go to Clinton's people at State. And I was reassured that Robert Gates at the Pentagon and Clinton were present to stiffen the spine of the Obama White House on Iran sanctions, the Osama bin Laden raid, and a host of other issues.
But Democratic unity might not be enough. The election will be a referendum on Trump's handling of the coronavirus, and I think Democrats are too confident that the public's judgement will go in their favor in November.
EA: Except he's handling the coronavirus about as well as he handles criticism. The president spends his time ranting at governors about what they can and can't do, while his administration steals supplies out from under hard-hit states to send them to places like Florida that he thinks will win him reelection.
And I doubt even that will work. An incumbent's reelection chances have so much to do with the economy, and we're staring down the barrel of a double-digit recession here. Unemployment claims continue to grow, with another 5 million this week. Actually, I think a lot of Democrats—particularly a lot of Sanders supporters—are going to see this as a vindication of their worldview.
MK: How so?
EA: Well, we've had Sanders and others advocating for Medicare for All, for example, in an era where millions of Americans are about to lose their jobs—and by extension, their health care. And universal basic income was a fringe idea when Andrew Yang raised it in the campaign a few months ago, but the same idea basically turned into the stimulus package that Congress passed recently with Republican support. I'm still not convinced that this is a vindication of Sanders's ideas as much as an acknowledgement that an unprecedented situation has required unprecedented solutions, but his supporters won't think that.
MK: Interesting point. But I think there is a difference in the need for an outsize government role in the middle of a crisis compared to normal political times. And despite the criticisms of the White House briefings, the US government has been the single most important global actor in this crisis.
Jerome Powell and the Federal Reserve have taken remarkable steps to try to keep the global economy afloat. And although it hasn't gotten much attention, USAID has provided half a billion dollars in aid to the developing world. Like much of the Trump administration's foreign policy and Wagner's music, the US response to COVID-19 has been better than it sounds.
EA: Ha! Last I checked, though, the Fed was meant to be independent of the White House. I still don't think it's going to matter all that much. There's been some positive movement from the federal government, but there's still a lot of dysfunction and no obvious plan for testing ramp-up.
And finally starting to make progress isn't going to help Trump come November, when a thousand attack ads will surely point out that intelligence reports were clear on the risks of the coronavirus spreading as early as January, when Trump was saying the virus was completely under control.
MK: We disagreed on this last week. This issue has moved fast, and there was not an obvious need, or political support, for drastic measures that early. Trump restricted air traffic from China in January and was criticized for it. After all, it is hard to believe now, but our March 7 column did not even mention coronavirus! And I'm sure it would have gone over really well if Trump had ordered a nationwide lockdown in the middle of January and February's impeachment hearings. Hindsight is 20/20.
Starting to make progress now isn't going to help Trump come November, when a thousand attack ads will surely point out that intelligence reports were clear on the risks of the coronavirus spreading as early as January
EA: True. And I can admit that I was probably too skeptical of Trump's travel ban, assuming at the time that it was just another attempt to shut the border from an administration that has cried wolf far too many times. If only the administration had done something with that time: stockpile equipment or ramp up testing, maybe.
MK: Well, the US response wasn't helped by China's dissembling, aided and abetted by the WHO. What do you make of Trump's decision to halt US funding to the organization?
EA: I'm honestly fascinated by the decision to cut WHO funding. On the one hand, it's pretty dumb to cut funding for global health and vaccinations during a pandemic. It's also very clearly another attempt by the Trump administration to shift blame. But equally, there are serious problems with the UN system and with the WHO. There may need to be a serious discussion about it after all this is over.
Emma Ashford is a research fellow at the Cato Institute. Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center. They debate foreign policy and the 2020 election.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.