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As Pandemic Sweeps Globe, U.S. Foreign Policy Remains Unchanged


The coronavirus pandemic may have changed the world. But when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, the Trump administration is continuing with its usual playbook. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the administration is doubling down on its hardline policies towards China and Iran.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been a leading proponent of the theory that the coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan. Today he accused China of misleading the world.


MIKE POMPEO: China could have prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. China could have spared the world a descent into global economic malaise.

KELEMEN: Pompeo says the U.S. is helping the world respond to this crisis. His office has put out numerous fact sheets about that. But those talking points are falling on deaf ears, says Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

KORI SCHAKE: The Trump administration has propagated so many lies that they're no longer trustworthy interlocutors for much of the world. And the second reason is that it's hard to get traction for that positive message when the president is fulminating such a negative message.

KELEMEN: Trump has suspended aid to the World Health Organization and often criticizes multilateral institutions like that. He continues to press allies, like South Korea, to pay more for the presence of U.S. troops - a dispute that recently forced thousands of South Korean workers to go on furlough. And the U.S. is still pressing countries to get tough on Iran while, Schake says, most see the pandemic as today's priority.

SCHAKE: I especially like a passage in the 1958 novel "The Ugly American", where the authors emphasize that to the extent that American policy is practical and helps solve people's problems, it will be successful. And to the extent that it is grandiose and ideological, it will fail.

KELEMEN: The U.S. also skipped a European-led meeting to drum up funding for a COVID-19 vaccine. Pompeo points out that China was there.


POMPEO: So the party that perpetrated this - right? This began in Wuhan, China - was there. And we regret it. There wasn't a call for transparency from them.

KELEMEN: Pompeo says this is not about bullying China or playing politics, but that's how Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment sees it in this election year for Trump.

AARON DAVID MILLER: His key talking point - the economic miracle - now lies in shreds. There could only be a doubling down because I don't think he has a Plan B.

KELEMEN: Speaking via Skype, Miller says Trump's foreign policy is meant to further his own domestic political agenda.

MILLER: Working with allies, many of whom are doing much better than we are, is much less satisfying than finding a variety of parties to blame, shame and tame.

KELEMEN: Topping that list now is the World Health Organization and the Chinese Communist Party.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAUTI SOL SONG, "SURA YAKO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.