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What the U.S. coronavirus response says about American exceptionalism

Coronavirus cases in Florida, Arizona and South Carolina are increasing faster than in any other country in the world, reigniting the debate over American exceptionalism. Nick Schifrin talks to former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda, former Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. Réka Szemerkényi and Maina Kiai, a human rights and anti-corruption lawyer previously with the United Nations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since the first coronavirus cases were detected in China in December, the United States has become the world's worst-affected country.

    Case numbers in Florida, Arizona, and South Carolina, seen here in red, are growing faster than in any other entire nation. And of the 25 top locations in the world for new cases, 15 are U.S. states.

    The U.S. coronavirus response has reignited the debate over American exceptionalism and its role as a leader on the global stage.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Seoul's nightclub district, robots serve drinks in reopened bars. This was once a COVID hot spot. The government snuffed out an outbreak.

    In Paris, the Louvre reopened with mandatory reservations and face masks, a sign of France's relative success. And, in Thailand, thousands of students returned to school, separated by partitions.

    Around the world many countries are reopening and keeping case numbers low. But in the U.S., cases are accelerating and eclipsing even countries with large outbreaks, such as Brazil, Russia, and India, as the U.S.' top epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, acknowledged this week.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    We went up, never came down to baseline, and now we're surging back up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Across Europe, there are fragile success stories. Greece has one of the continent's lowest infection rates. The public face of its response has been not a politician, but an epidemiologist, Sotiris Tsiodras, who's so popular, he got his own cartoon.

    Denmark was the second country to issue a lockdown before its first case. Last month, it reopened its borders to most European countries. But those and almost all European borders are still closed to American visitors.

    Meanwhile in Asia, Vietnamese soccer fans pack stadiums after the country stamped out the virus with contact tracing and strict quarantine measures. And in Taiwan, sports bars and baseball are back.

  • President Donald Trump:

    When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we have done.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But in the U.S., experts fault President Trump's early denial, some states' failure to impose strict lockdown measures and quick reopenings, and a lack of testing and tracing, even though President Trump wants less testing.

  • President Donald Trump:

    If we did half the testing, we would have far fewer cases. But people don't view it that way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the U.S. was still a global leader.

  • Secretary Mike Pompeo:

    Whether that is the technical, scientific solutions, both to how to stop the spread, whether that's therapeutics or vaccines, the world turns its eyes to the best scientists and researchers. It's the United States that the world looks to.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But China and Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian have tried to get the world to turn its eyes to Beijing to argue, its communist system is superior.

  • Zhao Lijan (through translator):

    China has achieved major strategic progress and brought the virus under control within a short period of time. Then we look at the U.S. We couldn't help but ask what and how the U.S. has done, and when it will stop shifting the blame to others?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, how is the U.S. viewed around the world during the pandemic?

    For that, we get three views from three different regions.

    Jorge Castaneda was Mexico's foreign minister from 2000 to 2003. He's the author of several books, including, most recently "America Through Foreign Eyes." Reka Szemerkenyi was Hungary's ambassador to the U.S. from 2015 to 2017. She's now a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank in Washington, D.C. And Maina Kiai was U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association from 2011 to 2017. He's a human rights and anti-corruption lawyer from Kenya.

    Welcome, all, to the "NewsHour."

    And, Maina Kiai, let me start with you.

    You go back and forth between D.C. and Nairobi. You happen to be in D.C. now. How do you and your colleagues talk about the U.S. and its response to the pandemic, given that you're here now?

  • Maina Kiai:

    Well, a lot of people in Kenya, in Africa have been quite shocked, really, about how the United States has been dealing with this pandemic, the fact that it's elevated politics before lives, before science, and that this is a response that you would expect really from almost a Third World country, the lack of leadership at the national level and the fact that things are going from bad to worse, rather than improving.

    And so the luster, the sparkle that the United States has been for so many people has faded in a very dramatic way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jorge Castaneda, I'm wondering, from your perspective, is this just about the question of the administration's response to COVID, or is this about bigger trends about the United States that perhaps began before COVID?

  • Jorge Castaneda:

    I think it's deeper trends, things I describe in my book, "America Through Foreign Eyes," for example, the end of American exceptionalism, or the increased sensitivity of the United States to what happens abroad, sensitivity or vulnerability or dependency, whichever you prefer.

    The United States in the pandemic is being seen, is — should be seen, I think, as one more country that is affected by it. Some years ago, we would have thought the United States is never sensitive, is never dependent on what happens abroad, except every now and then, Pearl Harbor, 9/11.

    But the pandemic has shown that, on the one hand the United States is as sensitive to these things as every other country in the world, and, secondly, the United States is not exceptional in that matter.

    It is dealing with the same pandemic, it is dealing with a threat from abroad, pretty much like other countries are.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Reka Szemerkenyi, let me come to you.

    We heard two arguments about how this is the end of American exceptionalism, but there are Europeans who still believe the U.S. is indispensable and who support the Trump administration's policies, even if perhaps not the rhetoric.

  • Reka Szemerkenyi:

    Yes, absolutely.

    For a long time, you know, the questions that raised concern on the side of the Europeans were more the (INAUDIBLE) more the tweets that were coming out of the blue and that were not helpful to strengthening the transatlantic relationship.

    But the policies absolutely outweighed these messages. And the policies that were implemented so far have been very positive and strengthening this cohesion. Support for Ukraine, the support for stronger cooperation inside NATO, the emphasis on the 2 percent as a fair and equitable contribution to the common defense were all seen as strengthening the alliance.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Maina Kiai, let me come to you.

    That notion that there are still U.S. policies, that Europeans support the notion that the U.S. is still indispensable from some perspective, do you believe the U.S. can hold that special status, despite the medical and financial crises it now faces?

  • Maina Kiai:

    Well, the U.S., for many people in Africa, was always seen as someplace that we could learn from.

    And I suppose there is a difference between landing from U.S. as the people in United States, as differentiated from the government of the United States.

    So, for example, within this whole elements now, Black Lives Matter has had a lot of resonance in Africa, and a lot of people are talking about it and are seeing American people, multiracial, young especially, though, out in the streets demanding a continuation of the dialogue to resolve the question of discrimination that's — and racism that has been systemic and has been structural for hundreds of years.

    So, it's one thing the way people look at the people of the United States, as opposed to the government.

    Now, how this government and this regime is responding, for example, to this whole issue of Black Lives Matter is one that, again, erodes the soft power, the attraction, you might say, of the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jorge Castaneda, you write about how these are longer trends that did not start with COVID.

    But to the point that was just made, do you see evidence that the U.S. is confronting some of those challenges and, as we Americans say, trying to craft a more perfect union?

  • Jorge Castaneda:

    Well, I think that the point here is that the United States really does look and acts increasingly like other rich countries.

    I would sort of place the Trump administration in brackets as an anomaly. If the United States looks like most other countries, it has to act like most other countries, and then it will become like most other countries.

    And perhaps what this pandemic is showing, as perhaps Warren Buffett would say, is that, when the tide moves out, every — in a financial crisis, everyone sees who's not wearing a bathing suit.

    Well, the United States is not wearing a bathing suit. It looks like just about everybody else.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Reka Szemerkenyi, the Trump administration points out this isn't about only how it has responded internally in the United States, but what happened at the beginning in this pandemic and the fact that China silenced some doctors, as well as scientists in the early days.

  • Reka Szemerkenyi:


    I think the actions of China have revealed the real nature of their regime to the generation that has never seen authoritarianism or dictatorship.

    There is a very strong need of leadership and cooperation on the two sides of the Atlantic. We actually have to see through the current immediate reactions and have to see that, strategically, it is far more important now than ever to think of the transatlantic relationship as a real priority for both sides of the Atlantic.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Maina Kiai, I wonder how you see the China challenge and whether you see the U.S. leading the challenge, or whether you even see it as a challenge at all.

  • Maina Kiai:

    Quite a few people do not see a difference anymore between how the United States works and China works.

    And they see that both of them are interested in their own self-interest. And that's the most important thing for both. So it is a false narrative, a false choice to talk about China vs. the U.S., as far as many people are concerned.

    The Chinese are giving quite a lot of loans that are quite painful in so many ways to Africa. The Americans are coming and wanting their own piece of the pie, so they can be able to do their investments in different ways.

    So, in a sense, I think trying to put the world in this Cold War-like approach, it's China vs. the United States, is a false narrative. And I think that both of them have been exposed within many parts of Africa as really not much difference. They just want a piece of Africa's resources. They want a piece of the pie to continue.

    In that case, then, that — for a very many people in Africa, the U.S. was always that beacon, that beacon of hope, that beacon of democracy, that beacon of opportunity that people could come out and get to somewhere. But that has eroded dramatically.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jorge Castaneda, the overall grade, perhaps, that you give the U.S. at this moment, compared to, as you pointed out earlier, other rich countries?

  • Jorge Castaneda:

    I would put it sort of in the middle range, somewhere between the best and the worst.

    The question here is that the U.S. welfare state or American society clearly comes out as failing, in the sense that it is not dealing with the pandemic, with the virus the way, let's say, Germany is.

    We can see it with the American health care system. We have seen it with the organization — the federal organization of the United States, where some towns and some states do one thing, other towns and other states do other things, the federal government is in the middle, doesn't have enough money.

    So, you look at all this, you see a United States and an American society that really needs to overhaul its social protection safety net.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Reka Szemerkenyi, last word to you.

    Do you believe that these challenges that the U.S. face, they can — the U.S. can overcome them, and continue to play the role that you believe the U.S. should play in the world?

  • Reka Szemerkenyi:

    If the United States is to be the leader of the free world, it has to be a completely new type of leadership that it has to exercise.

    It's a leadership that has to be based on cooperation. It's a leadership that has to be based on engaging partners and having delicate messages about the — kind of positive messaging about the cooperation, the values of international cooperation.

    It can be a leader, but it has to be a new type of global leader, a new type that is based on respect and cooperation and engagement along common values in the long term.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Reka Szemerkenyi, Jorge Castaneda, Maina Kiai, thank you very much to all of you.

  • Maina Kiai:

    Thank you very much.

  • Reka Szemerkenyi:

    Thank you.

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