Pandemic: The First Great Crisis of the Post-American Era

Medical staff treat patients suffering from the COVID-19 coronavirus in an intensive care unit at the Oglio Po Hospital in Cremona, Italy, March 19, 2020. (Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters)
The absence of American leadership in the current crisis is not an aberration, and it is not temporary.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE F aced with the great challenge of his time — the thermonuclear menace of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — Jack Kennedy famously laid out the American position: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge — and more.”

That was heady stuff — but exhausting, too, and expensive. Americans tire of heroism pretty quickly. We are the weary kind,  and the weariness is thoroughly bipartisan: Kennedy’s determination to fight the Cold War was met with opposition not only from the Left, which was sympathetic to the Soviet Union, but also from the Right, with some conservatives of the old school taking to heart Randolph Bourne’s dictum that “war is the health of the state” and believing that what they saw as imperialism abroad was inexorably linked to imperialism at home. And both sides coveted the money that was being spent, calculating that we could fill a lot of potholes in Poughkeepsie for the cost of an aircraft carrier or three. The Walter Mondale Democrats and the Ron Paul Republicans saw eye to eye on that, at least.

That dynamic has not changed much: Barack Obama complained about the money the George W. Bush administration spent chasing jihadists around the world and declared, “America, it is time to focus on nation-building at home.” Donald Trump’s embarrassing nickel-and-dime attitude toward U.S. commitments abroad, from NATO to USAID, is the barstool version of Obama’s schoolboy posturing. But, of course, we are Americans, we are restless, we like a fight, and we cannot actually mind our own business for very long. Our method is to get ourselves into a fight, grow bored with it, become agitated by the expense of keeping it up, and then retreat in a huff.

That makes for a peculiar politics on the Right, especially, as conservatives make like a guy trying to pat his head and rub his belly at the same time, simultaneously beating their chests and pinching pennies. On 24 June 2019, Sean Hannity lamented that President Trump had failed to follow through on his insane proposal to hijack Iraqi oil output, which Hannity proposed using to compensate the families of American soldiers who died in the American invasion and occupation of Iraq at a rate of “millions of dollars per family.” Warming to his theme but never quite managing to call his proposal “tribute,” the AM-radio moral philosopher concluded “We have every right to force you to pay for your own liberation.”

Us pay any price, bear any burden? No, you will pay any price, and you will bear any burden we damned well tell you to, buddy.

Kennedy laid out an invitation to ancient friends and new cooperators alike:

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do–for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. . . . To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.

That is . . . not exactly how we talk about those things today.

It is easy to criticize President Trump for his pettiness — in rhetoric and in fact — but he is not the cause of American surrender, only its symptom. It is impossible to blame the American people for their weariness. For one thing, the critics of JFK-style imperialism and those Poughkeepsie pothole-watchers are not without a point: There is an economic and a moral price to be paid for that kind of leadership, and government should, in most ordinary times, be mainly preoccupied with those potholes and not with dreaming up new crusades through which to aggrandize itself and its officers. And didn’t Hercules himself, sometime between killing the Nemean lion and that unpleasant Augean housekeeping business, look over his shoulder and mutter about the unfairness of it all, and wonder aloud why the . . . Belgians . . . weren’t shouldering more of the burden? “They have been very unfair to us,” I am sure he said.

The coronavirus epidemic is a global problem, one that points to the current deficit in global leadership. Americans are paralyzed by resentment. The European Union, having just been gutted by the departure of the United Kingdom, does not know quite what to do, and those European universal health-care systems so admired by U.S. progressives are failing. China has just reminded the world that it is a socially backward gulag state that is stalled right there between Mexico and Bulgaria in real economic performance. Putin is the czar of Twitter trolls. The U.S. president has two pornographic films, six bankruptcies, and a game show on his curriculum vitae, and the country is so short of emergency supplies that Ralph Lauren is making medical garments and Tito’s is producing hand sanitizer instead of vodka — not exactly in a position to exercise global leadership.

With the prominent exception of the European Union and a few relatively minor exceptions (ASEAN, OIC, etc.), the success of the prominent multilateral institutions of the post-war era depended to an extraordinary degree upon the willingness of the United States to carry them, applying its vast wealth, military power, and credibility to their missions. The United States is, at least for the moment, no longer as willing to do that as it once was — our relationship with NATO in the Trump era is indicative of a deeper and broader change in our national orientation. This is the age of the Little American, who turns up his nose at the world and asks, “What’s in it for me?”

The absence of American leadership in the current crisis is not an aberration, and it is not temporary. This is the new world order, light on the order.

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