The Atlantic analyst to media, critics: Coronavirus pandemic has proven Trump right about China and multilateral orgs

The European Union’s member states have already begun to grasp the latter argument. It’s time for the US and especially its media class to understand it too, argues Nadia Schadlow in The Atlantic, as well as the malign intent of China on the world stage. Rather than focus on the true villain of the coronavirus pandemic, the media and Trump’s critics are obsessing over their dislike for the president — and are missing the real stories and lessons because of it:

Trump has been criticized for supposedly overturning the post–World War II order and rejecting the role the United States has long played in the world. Amid a global pandemic, he’s being accused—on this site and elsewhere—of alienating allies, undercutting multinational cooperation, and causing America to fight the coronavirus alone.

And yet even as the current emergency has proved him right in fundamental ways—about China specifically and foreign policy more generally—many respectable people in the United States are letting their disdain for the president blind them to what is really going on in the world. Far from discrediting Trump’s point of view, the COVID-19 crisis reveals what his strategy asserted: that the world is a competitive arena in which great power rivals like China seek advantage, that the state remains the irreplaceable agent of international power and effective action, that international institutions have limited capacity to transform the behavior and preferences of states.

These two issues are inextricably connected, Schadlow argues, because people did recognize the potential for communist China’s regime to act malevolently. They simply trusted the power of multilateral organizations like the UN, the World Trade Organization, and WHO to keep them in check and to force transparency. Instead, China has warped those functions through aggressive application of pressure and influence, and relentlessly pursued their national interests at the expense of everyone else.

This was clear enough for nearly two decades, Schadlow writes, only most people were too polite to discuss it — until the COVID-19 pandemic changed all the calculations:

Many of President Trump’s critics in the foreign-policy community put great stock in the ability of multilateral and international organizations to constrain the misbehavior of China and other states. These organizations, at their best, promote concerted action against commonly recognized problems. But Trump’s critics tend to view them mainly in their idealized form and as the central instruments to solve global problems and advance values shared by all. In practice, though, how international organizations perform is profoundly influenced by power relationships among member states.

China’s leaders have become quite skillful at using these bodies to pursue their own interests. President Xi Jinping has made it a priority—as he put it in a 2018 speech—to “reform” and lead in the “global governance system,” viewing such efforts as integral to “building a modern, strong socialist country.” Despite its record of stealing patented technologies, China tried to lead the World Intellectual Property Organization, an effort thwarted by Washington. Chinese tech companies have also sought to induce the United Nations to adopt their facial-recognition and surveillance standards, to clear the way for the deployment of their technologies around the world.

China had better luck with WHO, which spent valuable weeks parroting Beijing’s Wuhan flu propaganda rather than perform due diligence on their claims. They actively shunned data from Taiwan demonstrating that COVID-19 had a serious threat of community spread, simply because China insists that Taiwan be treated as if it doesn’t exist. China’s corruption of WHO made them worse than useless — they amplified bad data that delayed a reaction in other countries that might have limited the spread of the pandemic.

The Trump administration has always viewed China as an opponent on the global stage at best, in trade and other areas. The trade war was the first significant pushback on China’s ambitions since their admission to the WTO. Now Trump might go even further than that with legal action over their hoarding of medical supplies produced by American companies in China. The New York Post reports that Beijing has commandeered those products in an attempt to “corner the world market” on PPE:

Leading US manufacturers of medical safety gear told the White House that China prohibited them from exporting their products from the country as the coronavirus pandemic mounted — even as Beijing was trying to “corner the world market” in personal protective equipment, The Post has learned.

Now, the Trump administration is weighing legal action against China over its alleged actions, a lawyer for President Trump said Sunday.

“In criminal law, compare this to the levels that we have for murder,” said Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to Trump’s re-election campaign.

“People are dying. When you have intentional, cold-blooded, premeditated action like you have with China, this would be considered first-degree murder.”

Ellis said the options under consideration include filing a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights or working “through the United Nations.”

At the same time that China was blocking 3M and Honeywell from moving its own product to the US, Beijing was buying up inventory around the world for its own use. That might have gone into Trump’s decision to use the Defense Production Act to forbid any more exports of PPE, which itself might cause some repercussions with our other trading partners. Don’t forget that China was proclaiming that they had the outbreak under control at the same time it was hoarding PPE, and offered false data that no doubt kept prices for these goods relatively low for a few weeks.

The UN and WTO will be next to useless in dealing with these issues, although the administration probably feels it necessary to use them as a first step. The only effective way to deal with malevolent players is to deal with them directly. That means exclusion from American markets, and it also means incentivizing US producers to relocate their supply chains — preferably to the US for critical-need products, but at least to sources that have more interest in access to US markets than in their own delusions of grandeur.

Schadlow briefly worked for Trump, so some might dismiss her essay’s placement at The Atlantic as of little consequence. Don’t be so sure, National Review’s Kyle Smith writes:

Do we really want to place our critical medical needs in hands of the Chinese Communist Party? In the future, do we want our communications and personal data to be routed through Beijing? Do we want to allow China to lead the world into imitating its use of facial-recognition and surveillance technologies? China’s behavior throughout the coronavirus crisis has been, of course, an abomination. …

Okay, okay, this is Schadlow speaking, not the editorial voice of The Atlantic. But usually that center-left institution is strongly allergic to associating itself with Trumpism. Perhaps we are on the verge of a broadly shared consensus that it’s time to stop putting up with everything China does without demanding anything like greater transparency or more respect for human rights in return.

Indeed. That “broadly shared consensus” is long overdue, from both political parties.