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How to Ruin a Superpower

Washington’s status as a superpower has been declining for years. Trump’s handling of the pandemic is killing it off.

President Donald Trump pauses during a news conference at the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House Feb. 29. in Washington.
President Donald Trump pauses during a news conference at the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House Feb. 29. in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Over the past 35 years or so, warnings of imminent American decline have fared poorly. Paul Kennedy’s bestselling The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers suggested that “imperial overstretch” might cause the United States to follow Great Britain’s downward path, a gloomy forecast that proved to be at best premature. Other prominent scholars suggested that America was becoming an “ordinary country,” heading for a world “after hegemony,” only to be surprised when it was the Soviet Union that collapsed and the United States emerged as the sole remaining superpower. Ideal conditions, it turned out, for a dangerous combination of hubris and complacency.

By the mid-1990s, the United States found itself in a position of primacy unmatched in modern history. Its combination of economic, military, and soft power dwarfed all others, and scholars such as William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks offered sophisticated and well-reasoned arguments for why the unipolar era might last as long or longer than the bipolar era that preceded it. What these optimists did not anticipate, alas, was the series of self-inflicted wounds that the United States would suffer in the years that followed, a train wreck of recurring blunders that has accelerated and worsened under Donald Trump. In particular, Trump’s egregious mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic is producing debilitating long-term effects that will further accelerate America’s decline. Even if he is defeated in November and a Joe Biden administration does nearly everything right, the consequences of Trump’s reign of error will be with us for many years to come.

Before Trump, the mistakes of the unipolar era fell under three main headings. The first error was adopting a grand strategy of liberal hegemony, which sought to spread democracy, markets, and other liberal values far and wide and to bring the whole world into a liberal order that was designed and led by the United States. This vastly ambitious strategy provoked a strong backlash from a variety of quarters, led to unnecessary and costly wars that squandered trillions of dollars, and undermined key sectors of the U.S. economy.

The second mistake was to allow public institutions to deteriorate, by starving them of resources and then blaming them for all our problems. Republican leaders pushed tax cuts with scant regard for the fiscal consequences, while the IRS was defunded to the point that it could no longer deter or detect widespread evasion and fraud. Like the Prussian Junkers or the pre-revolutionary French aristocrats, wealthy Americans—including Trump—found countless new ways to avoid contributing enough to public coffers and with less and less fear that they might get caught. Instead of creating and funding robust, competent, and respected public institutions—the sort of administrative and managerial capacity that would be invaluable in a pandemic and that some other countries have—Americans decided they didn’t need them.

The third misstep was the weaponization of partisan politics that began with the Newt Gingrich revolution in the U.S. Congress. As Julian Zelizer documents in a fascinating but disturbing new book, Gingrich’s decision to take down House Leader Jim Wright began a process that turned American politics into a blood sport where gaining and retaining power mattered more than advancing the public interest. Aided by talk radio hate-mongers like Rush Limbaugh and the factually challenged propagandists at the Weekly Standard and Fox News, conspiracy theories, slander, and the steady erosion of the “soft guardrails” of democracy replaced respectful debate, discussion, and compromise.

Unfortunately, these three trends were also sharply at odds with each other. Remaking the world in America’s image is an enormous undertaking; if you were serious about it, you’d need a large, well-funded, and highly competent state to do it. Not only would running the world require a strong military, but it would also take a large, highly professional diplomatic corps to manage the political fallout abroad, a vast army of well-trained development experts, and lots of safety-net programs back home to deal with the destabilizing consequences of economic globalization. In this way, the grand strategy of liberal hegemony was fundamentally at odds with the endless demand for tax cuts and the concomitant desire to shrink the state. Liberal hegemony’s defenders got around this problem by assuming that the tides of history were running their way and that creating a global liberal order would be relatively easy. As Fareed Zakaria noted back in 1998, the result was a “hollow hegemony,” as the United States tried in vain to manage the world on the cheap.

Moreover, if a single country hopes to mold local politics in lots of very different places, it damn well better be politically united at home. Running the world entails substantial sacrifices, and doing it effectively requires a powerful bipartisan consensus and robust public support. Needless to say, a poisonous atmosphere of relentless partisanship, where politicians on the make repeatedly grandstand over made-up scandals (remember those endless congressional hearings about Benghazi?), is antithetical to the forging of national unity. Endless gridlock also made American democracy a less appealing model for other societies.

To be clear: I don’t think liberal hegemony would have worked even if the United States decided to pursue it in a more serious and sophisticated fashion. But doing it in the half-assed way America did made failure inevitable and at no small cost.

The consequences of these three errors provided the toxic brew that allowed an incompetent and narcissistic charlatan like Trump to reach the White House. Since then, he has managed to drive America’s image around the world to record lows, bungled the trade war with China, pushed Iran closer to a nuclear bomb, and lavished praise on a number of murderous dictators (some of whom are openly hostile to the United States). His only significant foreign-policy achievement to date is getting Britain to decide not to use Huawei technology for its new 5G digital network, but that’s not much to show for nearly four years in office. Apart from appointing a lot of conservative judges, Trump’s major achievement as 2020 dawned was not screwing up the economic recovery that Barack Obama had bequeathed to him.

Then came COVID-19.

The administration’s disastrous mishandling of the pandemic has been well documented elsewhere, and there’s no need to rehearse that depressing story once more. Instead, I want to highlight what the long-term consequences for America’s global position are likely to be. Spoiler alert: It’s not a pretty picture.

First, as I’ve argued before, Trump’s attempt to wish away the problem (along with the rest of his administration’s incompetent response) has tarnished America’s dwindling reputation as a society that knows how to get things done effectively. When countries all over the world are barring Americans from their territory due to legitimate fears that they will spread the disease, while looking on with a combination of shock and pity, you know something has gone badly wrong. Consider this: Rwandans, Uruguayans, and Algerians are all welcome to visit Europe this summer. Americans aren’t.

Second, the economic depression caused by the pandemic will leave deep scars on the U.S. economy, and the damage increases the longer the crisis occurs. Jobs won’t suddenly reemerge once a lot of businesses have gone under, and bankruptcies and layoffs will continue until we get the virus under control. The U.S. Federal Reserve and Congress have provided emergency funds to cushion the blow temporarily, but these measures have ballooned the federal deficit to historically high levels. The longer the crisis continues, the bigger the pile of debt will be.

Here’s the key takeaway: Although the pandemic has harmed every economy in the world, other countries have got it under control, can begin to reopen safely, and will suffer less long-term damage as a result. That’s why Trump’s failure is so disastrous: By prolonging the period where the United States has to maintain lockdowns and other restrictive measures, he has guaranteed that a subsequent recovery—whenever it finally occurs—will be slower and less vigorous.

Third, the lockdown has exacerbated both intimate partner abuse and child abuse while making it harder to detect both. Schoolteachers often spot and report signs of child abuse, for example, but that is less likely to happen when kids aren’t physically in class. Chronic abuse has serious emotional consequences for its victims, and the longer the pandemic continues, the worse such problems will be. The result: The United States will have a higher-than-expected incidence of mental health problems in the future, which is both a tragedy for the victims and a further drain on U.S. power.

Fourth, although keeping public schools closed is necessary to get the virus under control, it will inevitably have a negative effect on learning and put American kids even further behind their foreign counterparts in terms of educational achievement. Once again, education everywhere has suffered as a result of COVID-19, but the damage will be greatest in countries that didn’t deal with it successfully and are still facing an escalating spiral of new cases. Sad to say, the United States is one of those countries.

Fifth, higher education will take a big hit, too. America’s colleges and universities have been the world’s best for decades and a huge driver of innovation for the U.S. economy. They are suffering from the shutdown and especially from the loss of foreign students, who have been both a source of revenue and in the past a further engine of technological advancement. Although the Trump administration has reversed its ill-advised attempt to ban foreign students receiving only online education this fall, the poor U.S. response to the pandemic will lead some of the foreign students who used to come to the United States to pursue educational opportunities in countries where their health is not at risk and universities are open for normal operations. America has long benefited from so-called “brain gain” (i.e., talented foreigners who arrived in the country for college or graduate school and chose to remain, lending their talents to innovative U.S. companies); that benefit is likely to be smaller in the future. The longer America trails the world in dealing with COVID-19, the more damage it will suffer on this front as well.

Last but not least, the pandemic has not stopped women from bearing children, but many are now doing so in an atmosphere of enormous economic uncertainty and coronavirus-related stress. A growing body of research shows that maternal stress of all kinds has deleterious effects on fetal and early childhood development, with long-term consequences for a child’s physical well-being, cognitive abilities, emotional maturity, and overall life chances. Once again: These harmful effects are undoubtedly present in every country where the coronavirus has spread, but the damage will be greatest in countries where the virus has yet to be brought under control. That’s America.

The United States still has a number of important advantages compared with other major powers, including abundant natural resources, a still innovative economy, temperate climate (at least so far), and an extremely favorable geopolitical location. Those qualities make long-term success more likely but do not guarantee it. The country also faces a number of serious rivals—most notably a still rising China—but recent decades suggest that Americans remain their own worst enemy. Trump didn’t deliberately and consciously set out to ruin the United States—and torpedo his own chances for reelection—he just couldn’t help himself. It is the rest of us—and especially our children and grandchildren—who will suffer the consequences.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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