The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pandemic and the waning of American prestige

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“Nations palpably on the way down tend to earn the contempt of other nations in spades.” So wrote Michael Anton, a veteran right-wing operative in Washington and a member of President Trump’s National Security Council, in a much-discussed essay published in the first months of Trump’s term. Anton is no longer at the White House, but through his thinking and writing, he tried to provide some intellectual scaffolding to Trump’s chest-thumping politics.

In the essay, Anton called into question the viability and value of the existing “liberal order,” and focused on the goal of restoring American “prestige” after years of apparent timidity and fecklessness on the world stage. “Pointless apologies, gratuitous insults to allies and friends, failure to honor commitments, transparent groveling to enemies — these rub salt in the open wound of contempt,” he wrote, citing, among other perceived humiliations, an incident in January 2016 when Iranian forces detained a number of U.S. sailors for a day. “Perhaps the largest contributor to contempt, however, is a general sense of decline.”

Anton’s words carry unintended irony three years later. The president he served has been pilloried precisely for his gratuitous insults to allies and friends, his failure to honor commitments, and, indeed, his sometimes transparent groveling before America’s putative adversaries.

But that hunger for primacy and “prestige” — which motivated Anton and still underpins Trump’s “America First” doctrine — is all the more conspicuous now in the midst of a pandemic. Over the weekend, the official coronavirus death toll in the United States surpassed 50,000, less than two months after Trump waved away the threat, likening the virus to little more than the flu. The president’s divisive management of the crisis includes relentless squabbling with state governors and daily briefings that, as my colleagues detailed, are replete with boasts and vitriol but bereft of the empathetic and consensus-building rhetoric one would expect of a head of state at a time of national emergency.

Abroad, the Trump administration and its allies nurse grievances over China’s handling of the outbreak and are working to defund and undercut the World Health Organization, the U.N. health agency, for its supposed connivance with Beijing. On Friday, the WHO led a virtual meeting with world leaders to better coordinate efforts to produce a coronavirus vaccine. The United States opted not to attend, an absence that underscored yet again the contrast between this White House and its distaste for multilateral diplomacy and its predecessor, which a decade ago was at the heart of a global response to the financial crisis.

Now, few governments elsewhere are even looking to Washington for leadership. That’s not just a consequence of Trump’s unique brand of politics, but also of that perceived decline recognized by Anton and other skeptics of the post-Cold War liberal status quo. It extends well beyond Trump, threading its way back to the aftershocks of 9/11 and the costly U.S. war efforts that followed.

“We need to change the way we think about national security and foreign policy,” wrote Ben Rhodes, a former adviser in President Barack Obama’s White House National Security Council. “In the Obama administration, efforts to ramp up climate-change and global-health security didn’t mesh well with America’s sprawling counterterrorism infrastructure, or with the interests of Congress.”

The rest of the world can see the results of that posture. At loggerheads with the federal government, individual U.S. states have at times looked abroad for medical supplies and assistance. Countries such as Germany and South Korea — two nations that emerged as regional economic powers thanks to American protection and aid — are the exemplars in the coronavirus response, particularly when it comes to testing. Meanwhile, the tens of millions who joined the ranks of the unemployed in the past month have showcased the precariousness of life inside the world’s sole superpower.

“America has not done badly, it has done exceptionally badly,” Dominique Moïsi, a French political scientist and senior adviser at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne, told the New York Times in an interview in which he also decried the “brutal” nature of the United States’ capitalist system compared with Europe’s more humane social democracies. “America prepared for the wrong kind of war,” Moïsi added. “It prepared for a new 9/11, but instead a virus came.”

“The numbers turning to food banks are just enormous and beyond the capacity of them to supply. It is like a third world country,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said in an interview with the Guardian last week. “The public social safety net is not working.”

Stiglitz, a frequent critic of Trump, also lamented the president’s disinterest in building global alliances and forging meaningful cooperation at a time of crisis. “I hope we emerge from this with the perspective that multilateralism is even more important than we thought,” he said.

There’s little indication that that’s a lesson getting internalized by the White House, which seems more interested in weaponizing the pandemic to pursue a far-right, anti-immigration agenda than in holding out a hand to the rest of the world.

“We are not leading in the pandemic response, we are trailing other countries by a long shot,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told Politico. “This is a crippling blow to America’s prestige.”

Read more:

The pandemic could be a call to action on climate change

Trump uses the pandemic to push far-right agenda

Trump wants to lift lockdowns. Other countries’ attempts show why the U.S. isn’t ready.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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