America, We're Looking at You with Our Jaws on the Floor | Opinion

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany recently said, "the world is looking at us as a leader in COVID-19." She is half right. The rest of the world is indeed looking, not with admiration for U.S. leadership, but with dropped jaws.

We are appalled and saddened to see rising infection rates in 48 U.S. states, Americans throwing tantrums when asked to wear a mask in a store, and American leaders acting with reckless disregard for American lives. We fear we may be witnessing a nation that so many of us admired and even venerated taking the final tumble off the pedestal of international leadership.

After World War II, the United States invested in rebuilding Europe and Japan, creating new markets for its goods, ushering in an economic boom and building brand America. Today, it's astonishing that America's corporations and wealthy citizens are silent while America's brand becomes a laughing stock. In exchange for tax breaks, wealthy Americans have kept quiet while the U.S. President ridiculed, denigrated and bullied America's traditional friends and allies, started a trade war with China that American farmers and consumers paid for, and undermined the United Nations at a time of great need around the world and halted funding to the World Health Organization.

Despite the pleas of hundreds of former and current heads of state, Nobel laureates and other international leaders to make the COVID-19 vaccines patent free and available to all (as was done with the Salk polio vaccine), the Republican leadership in the Senate has fought any bill that would rein in American drug companies' ability to set exorbitant prices for COVID-19 vaccine. Although these vaccines are being developed with billions in taxpayer money, pharmaceutical companies are already bragging about windfall profits they stand to make by setting prices that would put the vaccine out of reach for the rest of us.

The rest of the world sees this as the antithesis of leadership. We see an America willing to let us die to enrich already obscenely wealthy U.S. corporations. We see wealthy, entitled Americans abandoning America's ideals, and behaving like the corrupt aristocracy and royalty the American Revolution and many subsequent revolutions were fought to upend.

As the U.S. steps away from global leadership, China has stepped in. President Xi has pledged to share a COVID-19 vaccine with Africa and to write off interest-free loans to help jump-start Africa's devastated economies. China is building hospitals in Africa and a new Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters. It has forged new relationships with Europe and continues to provide medical equipment and other assistance worldwide, including to countries whose labor and minerals are vital to American companies and technology. China is building its brand the way the U.S. did after World War II, but at the expense of American prestige and influence.

It is still possible to reclaim brand America and strengthen global markets for its products. But it will require American businesses to step up and embrace a more humane, forward-thinking form of capitalism. They should:

  • Support, with their voices and funding, calls for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments to be made freely available around the world.
  • Urge the IMF, World Bank and other multilateral banks to forgive the official debt of developing nations—some of which pay up to 45 percent of their nation's production to service debt, on the condition that the monies recovered are used for health, education, and infrastructure in their countries.
  • Invite their international partners and colleagues to do likewise.
  • Invest their capital in the smaller developing nations.

Many American companies profit from the labor and natural resources of developing nations. Where people willing to work for a fraction of what Americans would demand for the same work have contributed to a company's growth, it would be only fair to reinvest a small percentage of its profits toward eradicating poverty and illiteracy and creating economic opportunity.

Local groups are already working effectively towards these goals, but American investment, and America's tremendous entrepreneurial spirit and organizational capacity could take it to a new level. That would send a message of much-needed hope that together we can emerge from COVID a better, more humane world.

The current U.S. administration, ruling party, and privileged class may have abandoned America's ideals and traditional leadership role, but that doesn't mean the American business community has. It has a powerful interest in reclaiming them, and may be the best hope for reviving brand America.

José Ramos-Horta is the former President of Timor-Leste and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​