The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
America’s leadership on the global stage has always been grounded not only in the power of our ideals but also in the power of our example. That power of example includes competence in harnessing resources and delivering solutions for citizens, and it is one reason why this moment is so consequential for the United States and for its friends and allies abroad. The struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic is an enormous test of a government’s ability to deliver solutions—and by extension, of a country’s ability to lead. It is a test that the United States is currently failing.
Our country has faced national and international crises before, but never with a president as oblivious to the danger at hand. We are typically expected to lead close allies, like-minded states, and other democracies in critical global efforts, but our present national leadership has instead fumbled the defense at home, embracing half-truths and rejecting expertise, and adopted a dangerous go-it-alone approach abroad. Others have stepped into the breach, from American governors and mayors to the leaders of other democracies around the world, many of whom have made great strides in protecting their citizens despite having fewer resources and weaker infrastructures. But the United States finds itself in a dire predicament: it has the world’s highest death toll and greatest number of infections, its doctors are reusing medical gowns and nurses are wearing garbage bags, it has a shortage of ventilators, masks, swabs, and vials. The country that rescued Europe, defeated communism, and built the liberal international order daily fails the test of leadership, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives and of the United States’ place in the world.
American foreign policy succeeds best when it is grounded in a commitment to lead in the protection of the common good. But that commitment must begin with our own citizens and communities. The pandemic offers a startling reminder that effective governance and a flourishing democracy at home are the foundation of American leadership in the world.
COVID-19 arrived at a moment when authoritarianism had already been tightening its grip on the international political landscape for more than a decade. In 2019, political freedom declined around the world for the 14th consecutive year, according to Freedom House. Xenophobia and populism have been on the rise, and faith in democratic ideals has declined.
Yet the greatest challenge to liberal democracy today comes not from overseas threats but from domestic dysfunction. If democracies fail to provide the competent and sure-footed governance that their citizens demand, support for their institutions will decline, and support for the false promises of populist demagogues will grow.
As it has crippled economies and shuttered countries around the globe, the pandemic has become a seductive opportunity for those who seek to bolster autocracy. China has aggressively pushed the message that it responded decisively and responsibly to the mounting death toll while the United States dithered. American governors have been forced to take to social media and press conferences to beg for assistance for their citizens as China’s president has made a show of providing support to countries that would typically have looked to the United States for help. The 40-year fracturing of the United States’ public health infrastructure and a concomitant attack on the legitimacy of science has meant that the nation that once led the world must now bid on the open market to serve its people. The resource constraints, the infighting, the racism directed at Asian Americans: all of it feeds the fear that democracy is enfeebled and autocracy is on the march.
The greatest challenge to liberal democracy today comes not from overseas threats but from domestic dysfunction.
Authoritarians, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, have already seized on the moment to strengthen their positions and marginalize civil society, opposition movements, and activists. (U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats to defund rather than renovate the World Health Organization—apparently a feint to cover up failures to heed warnings from Americans working there—plays into the authoritarian playbook, which aims to discredit the international institutions that might check dictatorial power.) In already struggling democracies, the crisis has given populists an excuse to restrict freedoms, accelerating democratic backsliding. Leaders in Brazil, the Philippines, Poland, and beyond seek to use economic collapse and public fear to justify concentrations of power; Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, for example, attempted to override the constitutional authority of governors.
The false allure of authoritarianism lies in the demonstration of decisive action in the midst of turmoil. That allure deepens when democracies fail to show that they can do better. The risk today is that the Trump administration’s failures will be misread or miscast as the failure of democracy itself.
Authoritarian leaders, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, are already making that point, citing American missteps as proof of their own political system’s superiority. But authoritarians have not actually proved to be better equipped to confront the virus. Iran has experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the world, and the infection rate in Russia continues to climb. And of course, the world would not be facing this global tragedy if Beijing had responded with courage and clarity from the beginning, instead of trying to cover up the virus’s spread.
In fact, the nature of a country’s political system has not been the determining factor in how it has responded to the global pandemic. The variable that has mattered is competence—bringing the right mix of skills, capacity, and execution to the problem at hand. Nations that have contained the outbreak moved fast, shut down public venues, rapidly scaled up testing, and made informed decisions based on the advice of experts and the best data. Many of those nations, such as Germany, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan, are democracies. But the fact that the world’s leading democracy has failed to demonstrate such competence reinforces the narrative authoritarian leaders are trying to peddle: that democracy is not suited to effective governance.
Around the country, we see clear examples that the United States can do better. Mayors are coordinating across state lines to share resources. County public health officials are lobbying congressional leaders to fund hospitals and clinics overwhelmed by need. Governors are creating regional alliances and shipping supplies to reinforce waning inventories in hard-hit states. And as national press briefings have devolved into confrontation, partisanship, and falsehoods, leadership at other levels of government has often been driven by cooperation, bipartisanship, and science.
But such local efforts can only go so far in delivering for our people without a federal commitment to the brutal quotidian work of getting government right. Economists predicting a quick rebound are engaged in financial phrenology, and politicians expecting a quick return to the prepandemic norm are willfully underestimating the enormity of this crisis. To recover from it, our leaders will have to embrace unprecedented cooperation at the local, state, and federal levels. The federal government will have to buttress decimated state and local budgets and set broad rules for how to repair a frayed social and public health infrastructure and a struggling economy. State leaders will have to adapt these national efforts to their specific needs—whether urban, suburban, rural, or outcast—even as counties and cities, which have the least flexible budgets, will be charged with carrying out responses closest to the people.
As national press briefings have devolved into confrontation, partisanship, and falsehoods, leadership at other levels of government has often been driven by cooperation, bipartisanship, and science.
But although our obligation must start with the recovery of the United States, it cannot end there. As a nation, we will continue to grapple with the question of where we sit in an international system of our own making—a global order that has served the United States and its allies better than any other. What cannot be in question is our obligation and commitment to defend the primacy of democracy in the world today. The next president can renew American leadership and restore global faith in the democratic order. But that will require standing both as a global leader in a time of crisis and as an exemplar of competent, democratic government.
With renewed leadership, the United States could spearhead an international effort to provide vital humanitarian assistance to nations overrun by COVID-19. It could build a global coalition to blunt the economic effects on the most vulnerable—at home and abroad. It could help lead the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and international bodies, such as the World Health Organization, in a coordinated effort to distribute vaccines, medical equipment, and know-how.
Most important, a renewed America could rebuild its capacity to confront the next pandemic. A strengthened, U.S.-led, global health-security network, armed with the best that science and international communication can offer and an eagerness to share solutions with all who require them, could not only stave off the next health crisis but also demonstrate that democracy remains the most just, humane, and competent form of government in an ailing world. As the world labors to both overcome the current crisis and prevent another from taking shape, now is the time to reclaim the United States’ standing in the world by restoring our democracy to its full operating force and reentering the global arena as a true leader of nations. We, and the world, cannot afford to wait.