In the spring, as COVID-19-related deaths mounted in Spain and Italy, the European Union (EU) was slow to respond. National governments imposed bans on the export of medical equipment, complicating assistance efforts. A poll in March showed that 88 percent of Italians said the EU had not done enough to support them in their hour of need. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen later apologized for the delayed reaction from Brussels.
At the same time, the United States was struggling with its own response to the pandemic. Despite a steady stream of press releases from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development about U.S. assistance, many European requests for help went unfulfilled. A U.S. shipment of ventilators to NATO was not delivered until September. The perception in Europe was that the world’s most powerful country was too preoccupied with its own problems to be of much help.
Meanwhile, China and Russia tried to rehabilitate their damaged reputations by airlifting medical supplies to European countries struggling with the pandemic. Chinese planes were met by heads of government in capitals from Prague to Budapest to Belgrade. Russia scrambled cargo planes filled with medical equipment and experts to Italy. “European solidarity does not exist,” complained Serbian President Vucic as he sought Chinese assistance.
Much of this, of course, turned out to be too good to be true. Some Chinese shipments were later revealed to be superficial at best. Governments often paid for the supplies, and in some cases, the equipment was not functioning. Russian ventilators provided to the United States were relegated to warehouses after similar models in Russia caused hospital fires. Yet, the initial images were a public relations bonanza for Beijing and Moscow.
Now, countries in Central Europe that avoided the worst effects of the pandemic earlier this year are being hit particularly hard. Hospitalization rates are up and deaths are rising. In Poland and the Czech Republic, governments are building field hospitals to ensure that there are enough beds for those needing treatment.
In previous moments of European despair, such as the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948, the United States assisted partners in need. Until recently, it was not uncommon to meet aging Berliners who remembered the candy bombers of the Berlin Airlift — memories that shaped their perceptions about America and American power for the rest of their lives.
In 1948 the Soviets used propaganda to try to win over West Berliners even as they starved them. In 2020, Beijing and Moscow spread disinformation and conspiracy theories to drive wedges between EU member states and highlight America’s supposed indifference. Russian disinformation campaigns accused the Czechs and the Poles of stealing medical equipment destined for Italy or preventing Russian planes from using Polish airspace en route.
Officials in Washington and Brussels would be wise to remember these lessons today. The European Union and NATO have already dispatched ventilators to the Czech Republic from their stockpiles, and American military medical experts are being sent to Prague. But to avoid a repeat of the scenarios Europe witnessed in the spring, much more needs to be done.
The European Union is already playing a significant role in discussing pandemic response across the Union. Yet due to fractures in the transatlantic relationship, the U.S. role has been less clear. NATO can serve as a useful institution to show citizens of member states and of partner countries that there is transatlantic interest in their wellbeing.
From Central Europe to Armenia to Ukraine, Russia and China are competing with Brussels and Washington for influence. NATO officials on both sides of the Atlantic need to do more to reach out to allies and partners to offer assistance, rather than waiting for countries to ask for help.
In the spring, amid the disjointed European Union response to the crisis, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas suggested that the EU invoke its solidarity clause in response to the pandemic. As the virus surges in Europe again, NATO should go on the record doing the same.
NATO leaders should meet virtually to discuss how the alliance can respond to the latest developments. The alliance can also coordinate national communications about assistance efforts and jointly counter disinformation from Moscow and Beijing before it takes root. NATO perennially struggles to make itself relevant to the public. This is one instance where it can prove its worth.
This global pandemic is now unfortunately giving transatlantic leaders a second chance to get this right. Just as past American generosity and resolve in moments of need were remembered for decades into the future, generations to come will remember who was truly there to help when the pandemic ravaged their societies.
Derek Chollet is executive vice president and Jamie Fly a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.