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Acknowledging our common fate while keeping our distance 

“America First” may be an effective political slogan, but it’s a delusionary policy if it means our fate can be separated from that of others.

A woman wearing a mask while walking in Times Square.
A woman wearing a mask while walking in Times Square.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

We now know, to our sorrow, that what starts in Wuhan doesn’t stay in Wuhan. This is a sobering truth about COVID-19 and a telling rebuttal to those who believe the United States can prosper in splendid isolation behind its ocean moats and southern wall. 

President Trump says he perceived the potential threat early on and acted decisively to curb it by limiting travel from China. Yet the disease did reach our shores, and our country quickly surpassed all others in the number of confirmed cases.

One reason the virus got through is that the president’s travel ban had holes in it. The New York Times reported that even after the restrictions were announced on Jan. 31, flights continued to arrive daily from China, including for a time from Wuhan. In February and March, 279 flights carrying 40,000 passengers from China landed in American cities.

A virus knows no borders

Eventually, travelers from Europe became an even bigger source of contagion than those from China. The larger truth is that a new, powerful virus such as COVID-19 knows no borders; like air, it WILL get through. Only by working together — by sharing information, expertise, equipment and best practices — can scourges like this be contained. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately.” 

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Franklin was talking about our Founding Fathers and our War of Independence, but his we’re-in-this-together principle applies beyond war and epidemics. Climate change, for example, is another shared threat. People and industries everywhere add to global warming; only by accepting our common responsibility and interest will we preserve clean air and water — or life as we know it. 

Dick Virden
Dick Virden
Terrorism is another example of our interconnectedness. Most of the terrorists who cravenly blindsided us on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia. The mastermind of the assault hid out in the no-man’s border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some of the logistics planning was done at a safe house in Hamburg, Germany. We cannot hope to discover and stop such plots without the help of friends and allies.

“America First” may be an effective political slogan, but it’s a delusionary policy if it means our fate can be separated from that of others. The original America firsters tried mightily to keep us out of the coming war in the 1930s, but we had no choice when Japan attacked our fleet at Pearl Harbor and Hitler quickly followed by declaring war on us. To our credit, we went all in to win that fateful battle against fascism. Later, perceiving our common fate, we allied with European powers, Japan, Canada, Australia and others to embrace collective security, a concept that has succeeded in preventing more such conflagrations.

We also launched the Marshall Plan to help revive post-war Europe, and we’ve been a leading provider of development aid ever since (in absolute terms, though not on a per capita basis). Foreign aid is not charity but self-interest; it’s recognition that we do better when other countries also prosper. With apologies to the poet John Donne, we are not an island, entire onto ourselves.  

Engaging constructively

We must engage constructively with the world beyond our borders, though not as the world’s policeman. Too often we’ve resorted to the unilateral use of armed force to try to impose our will. The failed wars in Iraq and Vietnam demonstrated the folly of thinking our military power is the answer to deep-running political disputes. 

We have much more to offer than mere military might, vital as that tool is. Our ideals of democracy and human rights have long inspired people everywhere (though less so at the moment). Our economy is the world’s biggest. American inventors created much of the modern world, and U.S.-based companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple continue to enrich lives around the globe. We can lead the green revolution, too, but only if we get back in the game; rejoining the Paris climate agreement would be a good first step.  

We should also be championing the fight to reduce poverty, empower women and improve public health. This battle honors our ideals; it is also enlightened self-interest. If Honduras becomes a safer, more prosperous country, fewer Hondurans will make the treacherous 1,000-mile trek to our border in desperate search of a better life. 

There is much we might eventually learn when the fog lifts and we no longer need to shelter in place. Among the lessons could be the one John Donne offered long ago: “… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” 

Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer. He lives in Plymouth.

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