The Death of American Competence
Washington’s reputation for expertise has been one of the greatest sources of its power. The coronavirus pandemic may end it for good.
No matter how the federal government responded, the United States was never going to escape COVID-19 entirely. Even Singapore, whose response to the virus seems to be the gold standard thus far, has several hundred confirmed cases. Nonetheless, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration’s belated, self-centered, haphazard, and tone-deaf response will end up costing Americans trillions of dollars and thousands of otherwise preventable deaths. Even if the view that the dangers may have been exaggerated due to a lack of accurate data turns out to be correct, Trump’s entire approach to governing and the administration’s erratic response squandered public confidence and made a more measured reaction untenable. Despite his denials, he is still responsible for where the country is today.
But that’s not the only damage the United States will suffer. Far from making “America great again,” this epic policy failure will further tarnish the United States’ reputation as a country that knows how to do things effectively.
For over a century, the United States’ outsized influence around the world rested on three pillars. The first was the its awesome combination of economic and military strength. The United States had the world’s largest and most sophisticated economy, the world’s best universities and research centers, and a territory blessed with bountiful natural resources. These features eventually enabled the United States to create and maintain military forces that none of its rivals could match. Taken together, these combined assets gave the United States the loudest voice on the planet.
The second pillar was support from an array of allies. No country every agreed with everything Washington wanted to do, and some states opposed almost everything the United States sought or stood for, but many countries understood that they benefited from U.S. leadership and were usually willing to go along with it. Although the United States was almost always acting in its own self-interest, the fact that others had similar interests made it easier to persuade them to go along.
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A third pillar, however, is broad confidence in U.S. competence. When other countries recognize the United States’ strength, support its aims and believe U.S. officials know what they are doing, they are more likely to follow the United States’ lead. If they doubt its power, its wisdom, or its ability to act effectively, U.S. global influence inevitably erodes. This reaction is entirely understandable: If the United States’ leaders reveal themselves to be incompetent bunglers, why should foreign powers listen to their advice? Having a reputation for competence, in short, can be a critical force multiplier.
The glowing reputation that Americans used to enjoy was built up over many decades. It was partly a reflection of the United States’ industrial might and world-class infrastructure: the network of highways, roads, railways, bridges, skyscrapers, dams, harbors, and airports that used to dazzle foreign visitors upon their arrival. Victory in World War II, the creation of the Bretton Woods economic institutions, innovative acts such as the Marshall Plan, and the successful moon landing all reinforced an image of the United States as a place where people knew how to set ambitious goals and bring them successfully to fruition.
Even blunders such as the Vietnam War did not fully tarnish the aura of competence that surrounded the United States. Indeed, the peaceful and victorious end of the Cold War and the smashing U.S. victory in the 1990-1991 Gulf War exorcized the ghosts of Vietnam and made the United States’ model of liberal democratic capitalism seem like the obvious model for others to emulate. Add to that a continued stream of technological innovations—the personal computer, the smartphone, and all those fancy weapons—and one can understand why people around the world still looked upon the United States as a meritocratic, accomplished, and above all, competent country. Small wonder pundits such as Tom Friedman began to portray the United States as the only viable model for an increasingly globalized world, telling aspiring countries that if they wanted to succeed, they had to don the “Golden Straitjacket” and become more like the United States.
Over the past 25 years, however, the United States has done a remarkable job of squandering that invaluable reputation for responsible leadership and basic competence. The list of transgressions is long: there is former President Bill Clinton’s irresponsible dalliance with a White House intern, former President George W. Bush’s administration’s failure to heed warnings of a terrorist attack before 9/11, the Enron and Madoff scandals, the bungled responses to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Maria in 2017, the inability to either win or end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ill-advised interventions in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere, the Wall Street meltdown of 2008, the Boeing 737 Max debacle, the Republican-led gridlock in Washington, and so on. Nor should we forget the long-concealed criminal misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein (and many others) and the sordid tale of the very well-connected Jeffrey Epstein, whose conveniently timed demise in a New York jail may prevent us from ever knowing the full extent of his—and others’—misconduct.
And all the while the United States told itself it was the greatest country in the world, with the ablest officials, the best-run businesses, the most sophisticated financial firms, and the most virtuous leaders. Instead, former Soviet Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov’s description of life in the Soviet Union may be a more accurate description of American life than Americans would like to admit: “[We] stole from ourselves, took and gave bribes, lied in the reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another. And all of this—from top to bottom and from bottom to top.”
Then came COVID-19. Trump’s handling of the crisis has been an embarrassing debacle from the start—despite repeated warnings—but it was also utterly predictable. His long business career has shown that he was more of a showman than a leader, better at conning people out of money and evading responsibility than at managing complex business operations. His tawdry personal life offered equally clear warnings. Since taking office, Trump has perfected the art of the lie, while gradually purging his administration of people with genuine expertise and relying instead on B-list hacks, sycophants, and his unqualified son-in-law. When suddenly faced with a complicated problem requiring grown-up leadership, it was inevitable that Trump would mishandle it and then deny responsibility. It is a failure of character unparalleled in U.S. history, and it could not have come at a worse time. The amazing thing is that anyone is even remotely surprised.
How did the United States get here? How did it squander its reputation for knowing what it is doing, and for being able to get the right things done as well or better than anyone else? I’m not sure, but let me venture a few guesses.
Part of the problem is the hubris that comes from the United States’ remarkably favorable history. It has been by far the luckiest country in the modern world, and Americans started to assume that success was their birthright instead of something that needed to be earned, nurtured, and protected. And with that complacency came a willingness to gamble on utterly untried leadership, despite all of the warning signs described above.
A related problem, I’m inclined to think, has been a broader relaxing of standards and a refusal to hold people accountable. One can see this at many universities, where grade inflation is well entrenched, faculty have few incentives to judge poor work harshly, and more attention is paid to sports teams than to genuine academic achievement. The recent college recruiting scandal exposed the lengths to which well-heeled parents would go to get their kids into colleges for which they weren’t qualified, but universities have acted similarly when they reserved slots of alumni children (“legacies”) or for the offspring of major donors.
I’ve focused on higher education because that’s the business I know best, but this problem is hardly confined there. In the contemporary United States, CEOs mismanage a company such as Boeing and then depart with multimillion-dollar golden parachutes. Top officials in the George W. Bush administration and a chorus of outside cheerleaders deceive themselves and the country into a foolish war in the Middle East, yet hardly any of them suffer adverse professional or personal consequences. Wall Street firms can crater the economy through a combination of greed, indifference, and fraud, and no one gets investigated, let alone prosecuted. Highly decorated generals favor “staying the course” in distant battles, fail to achieve victory, and then retire to corporate boards and influential positions as respected pundits. Meanwhile, whistleblowers and dedicated public servants strive to fulfill their oaths of office, only to be vilified, fired, or worse. When integrity and dedication go unrewarded and failure carries no penalty, competence is bound to suffer.
To speculate further, I suspect a broader cultural current of selfishness is at work here as well. Former President John Kennedy was no saint, but he did devote his adult life to public service and told Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” By the time Ronald Reagan became president, however, Americans were being told that government was the enemy and (to quote the film Wall Street) that “greed is good.” The market was everything, public service was devalued, and taxes were for suckers. Having spent decades hollowing out many of their public institutions, Americans suddenly find themselves unprepared for a real public crisis. The apotheosis of this trend is Trump himself: How could a serious country possibly choose as its leader a narcissistic, manifestly unqualified self-promoter with a long track record of failure and deceit?
Am I overstating the case? Perhaps. There are plenty of American firms that still do terrific and innovative work; there are tens of thousands of scientists and scholars who remain more committed to searching for truth than to making a fast buck, and there are politicians and public servants at the local, state, and federal levels who are more interested in doing good than in getting reelected or feathering their own nests. There are dedicated teachers and hard-working students at every level of the U.S. educational system. But the rot is still widespread.
Absent a reversal of this trend, the United States’ global influence will continue to recede. Not because the country has embraced “America First” and deliberately chosen to disengage, but because people around the world will not take its ideas or advice as seriously as they once did. They’ll listen, perhaps, and they may agree with it from time to time, but the deference U.S. leaders used to be able to count on will fade. Once COVID-19 is over, Americans are likely to discover to their chagrin that other voices (Beijing, anyone?) are receiving more respectful attention. That’s not an omen of imminent disaster, but it will be a different world than the one Americans have been accustomed to inhabiting. At the margin, the broad contours of world politics and some important aspects of the world economy will no longer slant so heavily in the United States’ favor.
Can this situation be fixed? I don’t know. Cultural rot cannot be fixed by legislation, executive orders, or even jeremiads like this one. One may hope that the present crisis will remind enough Americans that having competent and reliable people in key leadership positions really matters, and that holding people more accountable for corruption, cronyism, or sheer incompetence is essential to effective public policies. Whether you favor a big welfare state or a small libertarian one, you should above all want it to be competently led and staffed with knowledgeable and dedicated experts. Whoever the next president is, he needs to staff his administration with people who have demonstrated qualifications for the jobs they are assigned, instead of being chosen for their personal loyalty or their talents as sycophants.
Americans will need to rethink a political system that recruits and rewards those who are most adept at selling themselves to the highest bidder. And there has to be something seriously wrong with a political system that has devoted many months and spent billions of dollars preparing for the 2020 election and ends up giving the country a choice between three old white guys. For that matter, Americans ought to rethink whether spending a full year electing someone to a four year term makes any sense at all. No other advanced democracy does it this way. And while we’re at it, let’s scrap the absurd Electoral College, an indefensible relic that systematically disempowers voters in most of the country.
Looking forward, the possibility of fundamental political change is the only silver lining I can see right now. America hasn’t faced a crisis like this since the 1930s and 1940s, and it was in a better position to meet those challenges then than it is today. But a previous generation of Americans eventually rose to the occasion, and showed themselves and the world what their country could do. It is upon Americans now to remember that experience, put the past few decades of hubris, division, and indulgence aside, and prove that their country is still competent enough to figure out what it needs to do. And then they need to do it.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.