How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Fifteen years ago, after the SARS and H5N1 outbreaks, this magazine ran an article called “Preparing for the Next Pandemic.” Two years later came “Unprepared for a Pandemic,” then others. Cut to 2017, after MERS and Ebola and Zika: “Ready for a Global Pandemic? The Trump Administration May Be Woefully Underprepared.” None of this was prescience. It was conventional wisdom among public health experts. Anybody who didn’t understand the danger just wasn’t paying attention.
Still, even the Cassandras who saw such a crisis coming have been shocked by how poorly it has been handled, as our lead package explains. Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker trace how the failure to prepare was followed by a failure to contain. More than a century on from 1918, we have proved little better at combating a global pandemic than our great-grandparents were. So much for the march of progress.
Francis Fukuyama writes that the initial phases of the emergency were a brutal political stress test that only a handful of countries passed—those with capable states, social trust, and effective leadership. Since those same narrowly distributed qualities will be needed to manage the long, hard slog ahead, he forecasts more failure and political turbulence around the globe in years to come.
Danielle Allen notes how the United States’ early response was hampered not just by poor leadership and federalism but also by a lack of common social purpose. And Stewart Patrick traces a similar trend at the international level—a global rush to closure, self-help, and scapegoating rather than multilateralism.
In country after country, politicians unable to defend their own records have tried to deflect attention onto scary, evil foreigners, helping drive an emerging conviction that the real culprit in the crisis is globalization. The only way to reduce vulnerability, they say, is to cut ties to the rest of the world—as if North Korean “self-reliance” offered a promising ideological model for the twenty-first century.
In truth, what is killing us is not connection; it is connection without cooperation. And the cure is not isolation but deeper connection, the kind that can support collective action. The doctors and scientists around the world have acted differently: reaching out to one another, pooling their talents and resources, and showing what a true global community could look like. Perhaps that’s why so many politicians have tried to muzzle them.
—Gideon Rose, Editor