WASHINGTON — As the coronavirus raced across the globe earlier this year, the Trump administration offered assistance to a pair of longtime U.S. enemies, Iran and North Korea. The responses hardly amounted to a diplomatic breakthrough.
The Iranians angrily dismissed the offer, calling it insincere and demanding broader relief from crippling U.S. sanctions. The North Koreans, angry with the United States over stalled nuclear negotiations, said they appreciated the offer but did not publicly accept, warning of “big difficulties” in their relationship with the United States.
But the two cases illustrate the way President Donald Trump continues to pursue his foreign policy goals amid the pandemic, and the way the virus is shaping his approach. Administration officials see the crisis as creating new opportunities, but it also brings new risks as China and Russia seek to take advantage of a moment of perceived weakness and disarray for their U.S. adversaries.
Experts call it disaster diplomacy — the way nations use disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and diseases to advance their agendas overseas. Historically, that has involved local catastrophes; now Trump and other world leaders are calibrating their political responses to a crisis afflicting all of humanity.
“It’s clear that coronavirus is going to affect almost every aspect of American foreign policy for quite a while,” said Richard Fontaine, a former National Security Council official during the administration of President George W. Bush who is now chief executive of the Center for a New American Security.
Already, Fontaine said, the virus has accelerated competition between the United States and China, and could hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to keep them safe from the pandemic.
China’s government has promoted disinformation blaming the United States for creating the virus, and is positioning itself as a global leader against the pandemic, which the United States is struggling to contain. One of the country’s most prominent businessmen, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, who is close to the country’s leaders, recently offered to donate masks and test kits to help Americans fight the outbreak, a gesture underscoring the Trump administration’s belated response.
In a Facebook post Tuesday, the Russian Embassy in Washington quoted its ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, making a similar gesture — offering test kits, which have been in short supply. And the Kremlin-funded English language media outlet RT published an op-ed on Wednesday which praised President Vladimir Putin for bravely donning a hazmat suit during a visit to a Moscow hospital, contrasting his leadership with that of Trump, who it said was sidelining experts and popping off for a “slack-jawed press corps.”
In an implicit challenge to U.S. policy against other adversaries, two top United Nations officials, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Michelle Bachelet, the high commissioner for human rights, this week called for the easing of financial sanctions against economically strapped countries so that they could confront the spreading virus. Bachelet said the economic penalties could impede medical treatment in Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea and Zimbabwe — all of which are sanctioned by the United States.
Speaking to reporters on March 22, Trump cast himself as a providing relief to at least two of those nations. “On North Korea, Iran, and others, we are open for helping other countries. It is a very serious time,” Trump said, adding that he had offered “a glad hand” to “many other countries,” although he did not specify which ones.
With Iran’s health care system swamped by one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the coronavirus, the State Department said last month that it was “prepared to assist the Iranian people in their response efforts,” a message conveyed through the Swiss government, which acts as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran.
The State Department could not clarify precisely what sort of assistance the Trump administration offered. But the gesture was a shift for an administration that has worked to undermine Iran’s government in every way it can, and which imposed new economic sanctions on Tehran as recently as last week.
Despite a swiftly mounting death toll, which has surpassed 2,000, Iran quickly rejected the U.S. offer, making clear that what it really wants is broader relief from the sanctions Trump has imposed since he withdrew two years ago from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Even before the virus struck, Iran appealed to international opinion by arguing that the U.S. sanctions were causing innocent people to suffer.
In an open letter to the American people last week, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said the United States was “aiding the spread of this virus with its sanctions,” which he said “have drastically undermined the ability of the Iranian people to fight the coronavirus and some among them are losing their lives as a result.”
U.S. officials said that Iran’s government had only itself to blame, and could quickly end the sanction by abandoning its nuclear program and foreign interventions in places like Syria and Yemen.
But European leaders, as well as the governments of China and Russia, have called for broader sanctions relief from Washington, as have some Democrats.
“Rather than continue to pile on sanctions in the Iranian people’s hour of need, we urge you to substantially suspend sanctions on Iran in a humanitarian gesture to the Iranian people to better enable them to fight the virus,” a group of Democratic and liberal lawmakers reportedly wrote in a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
State Department officials maintain that humanitarian aid to Iran is exempt from the sanctions, and say Iranian government mismanagement and corruption is responsible for the suffering of people there.
But Jarrett Blanc, a former Obama administration State Department official who oversaw the 2015 nuclear deal’s implementation, said that U.S. financial restrictions have effectively choked off even permissible humanitarian aid. And they dismiss the U.S. offer of aid “as a few crumbs on the table” without any change in policy, said Vali R. Nasr, a former Obama administration State Department official and dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“The Iranian government does not want a situation where the United States gets maximum PR for minimal steps,” Nasr added.
Trump’s offer to North Korea was received more warmly, although its practical impact remains unclear. In statement carried by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency, Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister and policy aide, extended “sincere gratitude” for what she called his intent to render cooperation in the anti-epidemic work. But Kim did not say whether her country would accept any U.S. assistance.
North Korea says it has no confirmed cases of coronavirus — a claim experts call implausible.
Trump wants to resurrect a dialogue that stalled a year ago, after he rejected North Korea’s demand for sweeping sanctions relief in return for rolling back a small part of its sprawling nuclear program.
Kim suggested that Trump’s letter was heavy on personal flattery, and that Trump said “he was impressed by the efforts made by the chairman to defend his people from the serious threat of the epidemic.”
North Korea has often accepted foreign aid during past crises, including national famine, only to quickly return to its previous state of hostile isolation, noted Ilan Kelman, a professor of disasters and health at University College London.
Kelman, author of the book “Disaster Diplomacy: How Disasters Affect Peace and Conflict,” said that reflected the recent history of hostile nations, which might be a lesson for the Trump administration.
“There are no clear-cut historical examples of disease diplomacy, medical diplomacy, disaster diplomacy where we saw new lasting diplomatic change because of the disaster or the disease.”
But in hard times like now, even collaboration with allies does not always achieve the results U.S. officials seek.
After a meeting Wednesday with other foreign ministers of the industrialized nations that make up the Group of 7, Pompeo said that medical assistance the United States had sent worldwide demonstrated “the American people’s famous generosity at its finest.”
He said that included recent aid to northern Italy, the hardest-hit country in Europe, where the Air Force has flown a jet filled with medical supplies and a private charity, Samaritan’s Purse, has helped open a 68-bed hospital.
But Pompeo did not deny a report in Der Spiegel that the United States wanted the Group of 7 ministers to adopt the term “Wuhan virus” in a joint statement about the meeting, part of a coordinated Trump administration effort to blame China’s government for what U.S. officials call its efforts to cover up the virus’s initial outbreak.
A statement about the G-7 meeting from France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, however, made no mention of China. Instead it emphasized ”the need to combat any attempt to exploit the crisis for political purposes.”