Learning the Wrong Lessons

A member of traffic police wearing a protective suit gestures during the coronavirus outbreak at the Mexico and United States border, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico March 29, 2020. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/ Reuters)

At crisis’s end — whenever it ends — there will be plenty of lessons for American leaders to learn from the pandemic, and the international response to the COVID-19. For one, the crisis calls into question the prudence of relying on a Communist dictatorship for the production of essential medical supplies and antibiotics. International health crises such as COVID-19 cast some doubt on the wisdom of allowing foreign nationals to enter the country unvetted. That some people in charge would prefer not to address these matters or even consider them is irrelevant.

Two essays ran at The Atlantic this month that seemed to learn the wrong lessons from this experience. First is Ed Yong’s otherwise useful piece “How the Pandemic Will End,” which concluded with this paean to international cooperation:

One could also envisage a future in which America learns a different lesson. A communal spirit, ironically born through social distancing, causes people to turn outward, to neighbors both foreign and domestic. The election of November 2020 becomes a repudiation of “America first” politics. The nation pivots, as it did after World War II, from isolationism to international cooperation. Buoyed by steady investments and an influx of the brightest minds, the health-care workforce surges. Gen C kids write school essays about growing up to be epidemiologists. Public health becomes the centerpiece of foreign policy. The U.S. leads a new global partnership focused on solving challenges like pandemics and climate change.

What a foreign policy with “public health” as its “centerpiece” looks like in practice is unclear. Simply as a political matter, it’s hard to imagine that a global crisis spawned in a Chinese wet market is likely to increase popular support for “international cooperation,” unless “international cooperation” involves convincing parts of China to relinquish their medieval dietary customs.

(I have been wrong before.)

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The other piece, by Kori Schake at The Atlantic, “The Damage That ‘America First’ Has Done,” had this to say about border security:

Even the countries of Europe’s Schengen Area, which permits passport-free travel, are shutting their national borders in response to the pandemic. Rather than a coordinated international response that forestalls panic by sharing information and assistance, the United States has led a stampede to narrow national responses. And everyone in the world will be less safe for it.

People around the world are being implored to stay in their homes and refrain from unnecessary intranational travel. How the closure of European borders — and the restriction of international travel it implies — made “the world . . . less safe” during an infectious pandemic was never made clear by the author.

Perhaps we can insist on some clarity when this is all over.

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