As coronavirus cases surge in the U.S. South and West, health experts in countries with falling case numbers are watching with a growing sense of alarm and disbelief, with many wondering why virus-stricken U.S. states continue to reopen and why the advice of scientists is often ignored.“It really does feel like the U.S. has given up,” said Siouxsie Wiles, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand — a country that has confirmed only three new cases over the last three weeks and where citizens have now largely returned to their pre-coronavirus routines.
Trump likes to say that after he was elected, respect for the United States was restored, but the truth is precisely the opposite. Even before the pandemic, Trump couldn’t have done more to degrade America’s standing than if that was his explicit goal. Not even George W. Bush, whose disastrous invasion of Iraq drew condemnation across the globe, did as much to undermine our image abroad.
Just the fact that the United States would elect such a vulgar, ignorant, corrupt buffoon was bad enough. But now our government’s incompetence is helping cause the bodies to pile up — and, it would be reasonable for other countries to worry, potentially affecting their own efforts to contain the virus. While international travel has been drastically reduced, it won’t be shut down forever. If you were watching what’s happening in the U.S. — where we have 2.2 million cases of covid-19 and almost 120,000 deaths, more than twice as much as any other country on both counts — would you be eager to welcome U.S. visitors?
And they are watching, which highlights one of the key features of the relationship of the United States to the world. Not only is American culture global — our movies, our music, our sports — but in other countries people pay a great deal of attention to the news coming out of this country, in a way that is not at all reciprocal.
For many it was strange to see protesters in other countries carrying pictures of George Floyd and chanting “Black lives matter.” It’s not because so many other countries don’t have problems with racism and police brutality (of course they do), but the fact that those protests were sparked by what was happening here and specifically referenced the words and imagery of American protests reminded us that all over the world, people pay close attention to what’s happening in the United States — attention we here almost never give them.
We might give a brief thought to a cyclone hitting Bangladesh or a corruption scandal in Italy, but most Americans care about the rest of the world only as it relates to us. It’s the privilege of being the global hegemon.
While people in other countries still admire the United States, the core characteristic of this administration’s foreign policy has been retreat. Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accords, abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, walked away from the World Health Organization, and heaped contempt on NATO. He has seldom missed an opportunity to express his admiration for the world’s most brutal dictators. Even before the novel coronavirus, citizens in most countries, particularly our staunchest allies, had poor views of him.
And now what does the world see? A country that has produced more Nobel prize winners than any other, with the world’s best universities and most innovative companies, failing disastrously to control a pandemic because of rampant incompetence and cronyism in its government — and that then rushes to resume normal social activities because its dumbest politicians and most idiotically selfish citizens think they should have the “freedom” to infect everyone around them.
And when Trump holds his rally this Saturday in Tulsa, an event that might as well be named “Covidfest 2020” for the near certainty of spreading infections in an indoor event with 19,000 screaming fans who’ll refuse to wear masks, the world will see that too. There will be stories about it on TV news and in newspapers in country after country. People will shake their heads at how foolish and irresponsible Americans can be.
If there’s good news, it’s that should Trump lose in November, the world will celebrate with us, just as they did in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected. All the hope people everywhere invested in Obama (too much, it turned out) was magnified by the relief at being rid of Bush.
This time there will be celebrations too, not because the world sees greatness in Joe Biden, but because if Donald Trump is no longer the most powerful person on earth, things can’t help but get better. That’s a feeling everyone everywhere ought to be able to share.