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Former State Department Official Comments On U.S. Role In Global Response To Pandemic


In what is becoming a daily ritual in this coronavirus era, President Trump and top aides stepped in front of cameras today and fielded questions from reporters. Among them, the president was asked about his repeated references to quote, "the Chinese virus."


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from China.

KELLY: China, though, has objected to such language, so why pick this fight right now? And how do this and other U.S. actions affect efforts to mount a coordinated global response to an unprecedented global crisis? Questions to put to Richard Haass, former State Department policy planning director under President Bush, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Richard Haass, welcome.


KELLY: What signal does it send - the President's choice of language and talking about the Chinese virus?

HAASS: Well, it's obviously perceived in China, understandably, as hostile to them. Some would call it racist as well. It seems odd or off. It's a global virus, even though it, obviously, began in China. It also goes against the reality that China is seen, by many in the world, as having handled it quite well after a slow start. And China now is in a position of offering help to others. We, by contrast, are not seen as doing very well within and are not in a position to offer it - to offer help to others. So all in all, I don't see it helps us. I'll say one other thing, Mary Louise. This is the central bilateral relationship of the 21st century. How the United States and China get along or don't will shape history more than anything else. And this is - this just seems to me not a smart way to go about it.

KELLY: Let me turn you from China to Europe and the recent decision to give no warning to EU leaders about the travel ban, which, I guess, is water under the bridge now. But does that impact the ability going forward to work together with Europe on this crisis and its aftermath?

HAASS: Well, it's emblematic. It wasn't the first shot against the European allies or any number of sanctions and tariffs, non-coordination...

KELLY: I should note, they have returned the favor. Europe has now banned...

HAASS: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...All non-EU nationals, so here we are.

HAASS: So here we are - it's hard to imagine that for the last seven years, this has been our closest collaborators in promoting prosperity and stability around the world, and yet here we are. It makes - it's going to make it more difficult to cooperate in a combined economic coordination strategy, which, at one point, we're going to need. It doesn't seem to me to ease the way to such things as sharing equipment or best practices or anything else. But I worry that you'll have Europeans waking up one day, saying, during our greatest crisis of this moment, where were the Americans?

KELLY: If President Trump were on the line with us now, he might argue that if there ever were a moment for America first, this is it, that this is a country - we are now in a declared state of national emergency, that there is not only a priority but a responsibility to put America and Americans first.

HAASS: Well, in some ways, I wish there had been American first from the get-go. Instead of being first, we were last in tests. We were very slow to socially mobilize to get messages through. But I think the larger argument is America first makes no sense. This is an iconic, emblematic example of why the United States cannot shield itself from the world. Our oceans are not moats. We can't - we can pull up the drawbridge. It won't matter. We are vulnerable, whether it's to this or climate change or terrorism. That is the lesson, and we need global cooperation if we're going to get out of this both medically and then economically.

KELLY: A big-picture question in the moments we have left, which is, as someone who's made a career of studying relations between nations, what goes through your mind as you contemplate this moment of borders closing, of travel shutting down, of international ties being suspended rather than strengthened?

HAASS: It's a stunning contradiction to me. On one hand, you have globalization - things like viruses crossing borders with impunity. At the same time, you have nations turning inward, trying to deal individually with what has to be dealt with collectively. It's a contradiction that will not serve anybody well.

KELLY: Richard Haass, thank you.

HAASS: Thank you.

KELLY: He is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book "A World In Disarray: American Foreign Policy And The Crisis Of The Old Order." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.