One of the most newsworthy but least reported stories to come out of Covid-19 is the geopolitical irrelevance of the US on the international stage, signaling the demise of Pax Americana and the US’ role as the indispensable nation.
I have already written why I believe that China will emerge as the new global leader in the same way that the US did after World War II. Surely the Chinese government has its degree of responsibility for this outbreak (without getting into a debate about the virus’ origins). Nevertheless, China is now taking advantage of the vacuum in US leadership to wield soft power in ways that the US used to. China is sending supplies, experts, and aid throughout the world. The US is at home, making a fool of itself.
Think about every major geopolitical and humanitarian crisis since World War II and how the world has looked to the US to lead. But now for this first time since World War II, the US is playing absolutely no leadership role in alleviating the global crisis, and quite frankly, no one is asking.
Some of this makes perfect sense. First, right-wing populists have always played the anti-multinationalism and isolationist game. This has generally been lip-service. A huge part of US hegemony has been making sure the world is absolutely dependent on our disproportionate military, financial and commercial muscle. So while we may whine about the US having to play global police or subsidize more than our fair share, it has always been in our selfish, best interest to pay that price and maintain our dominance. But because Trump has mainstreamed populism – ignoring the leverage that we have had, pulling out of treaties and threatening to pull US financial and logistics support to NATO and international organizations – the rest of the world is simply moving forward without us.
Second, the US failure to take the lead globally with Covid-19 relates to the fact that this is the first time in our country’s collective memory that we have faced a sustained and significant threat on U.S. soil. Even Pearl Harbor and 911 were one-time attacks and we were able to mobilize against them by fighting abroad with the vast majority of fatalities occurring abroad. Ironically, a small group of Americans are protesting the lockdown, social distancing and confinement as unduly hindering their personal freedoms without considering that what they are living through is a mild peaceful version (without constant bombings) of what people in Iraq and Afghanistan have had to endure when the US took revenge on the wrong people after 911. The US has always been able to fight its battle without feeling the imminent threat at home, and Covid-19 has changed that.
In her recent article, “The Rest of the World is Laughing at Trump,” Anne Applebaum describes how Trump has left a “leadership vacuum” being filled by China and how we have becoming a laughing stock. Even in Spain which has been one of the hardest hit countries with dismal numbers, the Spanish vice president was able to defend her administration’s response by contrasting it with a “country who was recommending ingesting bleach.”
Most of the world still remembers the lies and fraud leading to the Iraq war, so imagine how those in the rest of the world perceive the absurdity of Trump’s press conferences, binge tweeting and more importantly the total absolute lack of an American plan even after months. This may likely be the nail in the coffin. Applebaum writes:
I wish I could say for certain that a President Joe Biden could turn this all around, but by next year it may be too late. The memories of the prime minister at the airport, welcoming Chinese doctors, will remain. The bleach jokes and memes will still cause the occasional chuckle. Whoever replaces Pompeo will have only four short years to repair the damage, and that might not be enough.
And if Trump wins a second term? Any nation can make a mistake once, elect a bad leader once. But if Americans choose Trump again, that will send a clear message: We are no longer a serious nation. We are as ignorant as our thoughtless, narcissistic, ignorant president. Don’t be surprised if the rest of the world takes note of that, too.
Most likely the geopolitical impact of Covid-19 will be that countries tighten borders – as the biggest threat to countries that have best controlled the virus will be from those entering the country from abroad – meaning more domestic travel and trade, less transborder transactions, and increased nationalism. This sounds very much like Trump and his supporters worldview.
But as I wrote previously, the world didn’t want American style democracy after World War II because of its ideals. They wanted to live prosperous American lives with big cars and big houses. They wanted to live in a country not destroyed by war. When a country — especially a developing country – looks at who is prospering and who they want to become, they will see two models. One will be where there is lots of political bickering, childish insults, partisanship, gridlock, nepotism, gerrymandering, inequality, and social unrest. The other will be a utilitarian and authoritarian regime that prioritizes the economic growth over individualism and was the first out of running. And most likely, they’ll remember the airplanes full of supplies, not the conspiracy theories from the one that sold them WMDs even before their Reality TV star was pushing miracle cures.
Not convinced? Yes, everyone is hoping the US quickly develops a vaccine or treatment, but dozens of other countries are also hard at work. But in the meantime, the read phone in the Oval Office isn’t ringing, and no one is knocking on the White House door to come to the rescue. That in the past 100 years is unprecedented.