And the United States?
This moment is to the United States what the 1957 Suez Canal crisis was for the British Empire. The coronavirus pandemic is the event that has stripped away any lingering pretensions of global U.S. leadership. It has uncovered an emptiness.
Every empire has its bluff called eventually. In 1957, when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, Israel invaded Sinai alongside French and British forces. But President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who needed Arab support against the Soviets, insisted on a retreat and threatened to sell American reserves of the British pound if they didn’t concede the territory back to Egypt. Everybody learned who was really in charge. The loss of the canal mattered infinitely less than the demonstration that the British and French no longer possessed the ability to control foreign territories at will. Invincible no more, the Empire crumbled almost overnight. Fourteen French colonies were their own countries by 1960. Within a decade, 24 British colonies gained independence.
Covid-19 demarcates a similar moment of transition, a revelation of a new global structure of power. It has shown that the United States, under the Trump administration, is radically unprepared to face the realities of the interconnected world and that it lacks the basic characteristics that every other country considers essential to the functioning of a state: a government that can respond to existential threats with authority and a civil service that can deal effectively with matters of public health. From the outside, the United States appears uncoordinated, unsystematic, chaotic. Leadership is isolated, state by state. Political squabbling has continued in the middle of a plague, overtaking even the economic response. From the point of view of other nations, a disorderly country cannot be relied upon. The scenes at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago earlier this month of U.S. citizens returning from overseas, packed together with no signs of protection, were open demonstrations of dysfunction. Now, the world’s largest economy with the world’s greatest military has abandoned its citizens overseas.
A Norwegian university declared all its citizens should return from the United States as soon as possible because the American health-care system was unprepared to meet the incipient crisis; many countries have been sending the same message in more guarded language. Trump’s unpredictability has strained foreign relations from the beginning of his term; covid-19 has only revealed how dangerous that unpredictability is.
Almost alone in the world, the United States does not consider access to medical care a fundamental human right. In response to the pandemic, the Trump administration made its priorities clear: It suggested a suspension of the payroll tax while covid-19 screening remained widely unavailable. A private system such as the American one simply cannot respond to public health crises. Private companies are being asked to provide the services that states normally provide, often much better, everywhere else: Google was tasked to create a national coronavirus website; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has busied itself preparing at-home testing kits; Amazon must regulate price-gouging (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). Meanwhile the Department of Homeland Security, essential to maintaining order in the current situation, is operating with 65 percent of the top jobs vacant or filled only by acting appointees.
This American chaos did not begin in 2020, nor with the Trump administration. Americans have been actively dismantling their government for a generation, and the current crisis is the fruit. Ronald Reagan, in the 1980s, made massive cuts to the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services. Reagan famously said the nine scariest words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” I have nine that are scarier: “Contact your HMO if you experience symptoms of covid-19.” In most wealthy countries, and the more fortunate developing ones, the people expect governments to protect them; governments expect it of themselves. But even disease will not affect the hyperpartisanship of the country: Republicans are much less worried than Democrats about the effects of the coronavirus, though the difference is narrowing. As recently as last week, 29 percent of Americans believed coronavirus was made in a lab.
The consequences of covid-19 on American foreign relations are already apparent if not yet manifest. For the foreseeable future, every American product, every American person, every American idea, will be suspect. This is not about historical memory or anybody’s feelings about the United States or even Donald Trump. Because the American networks — informational, political, medical — are so weak, the health of any given American citizen is now an unknown.
The coronavirus has not revealed any weakness in democracy generally. South Korea and India and Japan have been at least as effective at containment as China. But the American political order under Trump — a half-democracy, half-oligarchy in which corporations possess power but no responsibility — has had its fundamental instability and contempt for people demonstrated in a way that is obvious, at the very least, to those of us outside the borders of the United States.
The effects of the Suez crisis were not immediate, but they were profound. Nationalists throughout Africa realized the British and French capacity to withstand international pressure was nil. The stampede for the exits of European empires didn’t begin until the 1960s, but after Suez, country after country proceeded toward independence with deeper determination and confidence. Britain was no longer a broker in world affairs. It gave up the power of empire for the vague branding exercise of the Commonwealth, a toothless organization that amounts to little more than a goodwill circle. Britain’s influence on world affairs has declined every year since 1957 until the present, when it is just a small country on the edge of Europe. America’s prestige, its impression of dominance, its assumption of the superiority of its political system, its claim to be the most advanced country in the world, has been shattered in the same way.
The fallout of that shattered prestige will be far-reaching and unknowable. It will play out in the decades to come, long after covid-19 is a piece of history. But America’s place in the world is already transitioning: Nobody seems to know whether the Americans are well enough to meet with others.