Despite the polarized political and social dynamics dividing the U.S., most Americans rightfully rallied around President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump as it was announced that they had tested positive for COVID-19.
And the outpouring of support didn’t stop at the water’s edge. Across continents, consequential leaders like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed their strong wishes for a quick and complete recovery.
“Wishing my friend @POTUS @realDonaldTrump and @FLOTUS a quick recovery and good health,” Modi tweeted.
The sentiment delivered by the leader of the world’s largest democracy to the leader of the world’s most influential one was amplified by ample follow-ups from fellow presidents and prime ministers, including Britain’s Boris Johnson, whose own fight with the infection was so severe he said “it could have gone either way.”
The worldwide well-wishes reflect respect for the first family, to be sure, but also for the nation Trump leads. America, despite its deep domestic divisions so apparent in Tuesday’s debate, is still the world’s “indispensable nation,” as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright dubbed the country.
“When something like this happens, it makes [the world] more aware of the importance of the U.S.,” said Tom Hanson, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Hanson, a former State Department diplomat with multiple overseas assignments, who has closely kept his ear to the ground on geopolitics, added that the news of the president’s diagnosis comes amid enduring worry about the direction of the U.S. during the Trump administration — and possibly beyond.
Diplomats are wondering, Hanson said, “ ‘Is it symptomatic of a rough patch, or indicating something deeper that is likely to persist?’ And that gets to what extent we’ll be seen as a fixed pole.”
That constancy would have normally seen the U.S. play a more prominent role in roiling crises like the one developing between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are fighting an intensifying conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. While there’s no American appetite for any military involvement in a faraway Eurasian nation, the U.S. would normally be seen as that proverbial fixed pole as it asserted Western interests in the outcome. Instead, it’s adrift, a condition that may intensify as the president fights the virus.
“It’s one of those small conflicts that has always drawn attention from Russia, with now Turkey potentially being involved,” said Mary Curtin, diplomat-in-residence at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Curtin, who like Hanson had a long diplomatic career, added, “It’s not a direct threat to the U.S., but just one example of a situation in the past in which the U.S. would have stepped up to try to find a solution; it would be one of those conflict zones where interests that are not favorable to the U.S. make plays that have ripple effects outward.”
That ripple could become a torrent of torment for U.S. foreign policy at a time when it’s consumed by domestic concerns that are now topped by the president’s recovery. And it’s not just Azerbaijan where a foreign-policy crisis is building, but in the eastern Mediterranean, site of tensions between Turkey and Greece, or potentially in Taiwan or any other area where an adversary may test Western, and specifically American, resolve amid domestic preoccupations.
There should be concern, Curtin added, that “while this country is sort of so absorbed in this chaos, adversaries in big and small ways [may] take advantage of this, and it could lead our friends and allies to say we need to take care of this without the U.S. It just changes the equation.”
The chaos Curtin refers to, which the world watched in Tuesday’s debased debate, may make the country vulnerable to even more meddling, or an outright attack, on the U.S. election, a threat that’s already been identified by U.S. intelligence agencies. The most malign actors are the usual suspects in Russia, China and Iran, but others lurk too.
And yet, Hanson said, the turbulence in turn might make it more difficult for foreign actors.
“If you are engaged in disinformation it’s almost hard to know where to plug in now,” Hanson said, adding that for U.S. adversaries “there is so much disruption here right now that it is a less focused situation even for them.”
Adversaries and allies alike should focus on the goodwill so many worldwide still have for the United States even as this country convulses over the near-term election and the longer-term divisions.
And Americans themselves should note that even amid a nation riven with divisions, most quickly coalesced around the ailing president — including his opponent, Joe Biden, who tweeted his and his wife Jill’s wishes for a speedy recovery and prayers for “the health and safety of the president and his family.” Those thoughts reflect a nation that is still capable of unity and continuity — something that would benefit the world as it faces concurrent transnational challenges.
“The United States is still at a center of a global order that was established after 1945,” Hanson said. “And in the ’80s and ’90s many other countries buy in, including China as it rises, and even Russia to a certain extent. It’s like a magnet; the United States still is the polar star in the firmament even if the world has changed a lot and there are a lot of stresses on these institutions.
“But the United States still is the main factor — whether you call that indispensable or not — and the top is the president as the fixed point. So if that comes into flux or even temporary disruption that’s very unnerving.”
Hanson concluded with words that should be a fixed point for every American in these fraught times.
“We just have to hope,” Hanson said, that “the president recovers quickly, and the election goes forward, and there will be a steady transition, and we begin to rebuild our influence, whoever wins.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.