Trump's travel ban is indicative of a dangerous lack of ideas

Confused and mistimed, it is the act of an administration for which nationalism is the only policy.

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When all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is nationalism, everything looks like us versus them.

After weeks of dismissing the seriousness of the threat posed by coronavirus, President Donald Trump addressed the nation and announced a travel ban from the European Union.

Aside from the fact that Trump muddled the delivery of this message — he initially said that the ban would extend to cargo, when in fact it is just a ban on people, and left it to his Department of Homeland Security to later clarify that US citizens returning from Europe would not be kept out — the message itself was confusing. Trump delivered it on March 11; the virus had been spreading through the United States since mid-January. What good would a travel ban do now, with the virus already passing from person to person in the United States? And what good does a travel ban do if it still allows US citizens coming from the hotspot?

The answer is likely, or at least partly, that the European Union has the Schengen Area, through which people can travel without passport checks or border control. “The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hotspots. As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe,” Trump said in his national address. He later added bans on travel from the United Kingdom and Ireland, but the initial ban was on travellers from the EU, and so from the Schengen Area.

On the one hand, this, taken in isolation, could be considered a practical concern; the only way to confidently keep out travelers from, say, Italy, especially stricken by the coronavirus, is to ban travel from all over the EU.

But Trump’s act didn’t exist in isolation; nothing does. It comes in the context of an administration that has bashed the EU and fixated on migration. It comes in the context of a speech in which Trump described COVID-19 as a “foreign virus.” It comes in the context of Trump suggesting a border wall with Mexico was now more necessary than ever, a statement that ignores how both walls and viruses work and also ignored the reality that, when he said it, Mexico had just seven cases. And it comes in the context of the reality that the Trump administration didn’t bother to tell its European interlocutors.

“The reaction from Europeans — they weren’t happy he didn’t say anything to them,” Thomas Wright, Director for the Center of the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, told the New Statesman in a phone interview. The “potshots” at the EU in the address were “sort of inexcusable.” Still, Wright says, travel restrictions have been a fairly common response from countries to the global pandemic. The bigger problem, he said, was the Trump administration's offer to a German firm of $1 billion to give the US first and, worse still, exclusive access to a vaccine.

The vaccine story and the travel ban aren’t really two separate news items; they both exist in a broader context. It is the context of an administration that is seemingly unable to pivot from nationalism to global co-operation, even in the face of a worldwide health crisis.

“CI think they’ve no idea what they’re doing,” Wright said. “When forced, he defaults to the comfort zone of travel bans and walls... They are trying to make it us versus them, but it’s more of a default mechanism than a deliberate strategy. It’s the only place they know.”

But calling it a foreign virus won’t make the virus disappear from America or not infect Americans, and banning Europeans without telling European leaders won’t isolate the virus in Europe, and trying to buy a vaccine for one country and one country only evidently won’t work, either. The virus will take both us and them, and when it is over, they will remember that it was us who thought of this in terms of these kinds of selfish divisions.

On Monday, the G7 leaders put out a statement that read, “We express our conviction that current challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic need a strongly co-ordinated international approach, based on science and evidence, consistent with our democratic values, and utilizing the strengths of private enterprise.” One wonders if those words meant the same thing to the Americans and Europeans who wrote them, and whether they will be interpreted differently on either side of the Atlantic.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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