international analysis and commentary

America’s leadership: failing its way to success


There are two epidemics raging across the United States today: the coronavirus and a febrile sense of national failure. Just like the so-called Flagellants, who roamed across Europe during the Black Death – beating themselves with scourges and bewailing their sins – pundits and politicians now solemnly intone that a failed coronavirus response proves that American society is sick and that American global leadership is dead. The doomsayers aren’t just found at home; from East Asia and Europe, observers are speculating about whether American world leadership will be a casualty of the pandemic.

The Atlantic Council has claimed that us global leadership is at risk. Headlines from The New York Times read “‘Sadness’ and disbelief from a world missing American leadership”. Articles have also run in The Guardian, on National Public Radio, and elsewhere, all with the same sentiment: the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus demonstrates that the era of us global leadership has ended.


FLAWS, YES. BUT FATAL? Certainly, the us response has been flawed. The Trump administration and local and state officials should have made much better use of the precious time gained by Trump’s much criticized but now universally imitated coronavirus travel bans. The time could have been used to get the country in substantially better shape for testing and treatment, and an earlier adoption of strict social distancing protocols would have impeded the spread of the virus significantly and reduced the projected death toll.

In an election year, and with the country as polarized as it has become, it is inevitable that the race to fix the blame for any failures of preparation or execution preoccupies many observers. The current administration offers opponents a large selection of inviting targets, beginning with the “chief magistrate” himself, as Trump’s series of long and unfocused press briefings does little to build confidence in the country about his command of the situation. There are also problems with state and local responses; New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, was widely criticized and then effectively sidelined by governor Andrew Cuomo after a series of early misjudgments.

Barring the sudden appearance of a miracle cure, the disaster will likely ripple across the country again, testing medical facilities and all levels of government to — and, in some cases, past — their breaking points. Each piece of bad news will stimulate our modern-day Flagellants to histrionic transports of passionate handwringing.

The dominant strand of thinking among amateur epidemiologists is that the United States’ approach has been scattered and incompetent, that there is only one way to achieve success and it is through a centralized approach. In early April, nbc reported that many experts believed that “the only way to win what President Donald Trump has called a war against an ‘invisible enemy’ is to establish a unified federal command.”

Beyond that, the Trump administration’s combative approach to the World Health Organization (who) is often seen as a strategic failure to lead. At the hour of greatest need, the Americans have withdrawn funding from the only organization – also admittedly flawed – that exists to fight a global pandemic. How shortsighted can one be? And how can an administration that came to power under the slogan “America First” provide effective leadership in a struggle against a disease that recognizes no boundaries and knows no national loyalties?


PAST “FAILURES”. It is, however, a little too soon to say that America has failed, either at home or in its responsibilities to the international order. For more than two centuries, Americans have repeatedly staggered in the face of unexpected challenges and reversals, and their early responses have seldom been effective or wise.

World War ii is now often seen as the epitome of American success, but how did it look at the time? Thanks to bad strategic and operational decisions in 1941, us Pacific forces were sitting ducks when war broke out. Except, mercifully, for its aircraft carriers, the Pacific fleet was concentrated and poorly guarded in Pearl Harbor.

That fiasco was followed by a debacle in the Philippines. The issue was not that the Americans hadn’t prepared but that they had prepared poorly. By December 1941, the us garrison stood at over 31,000 men, a 40% increase over its numbers from the fall. Still, limited cargo space for shipping crucial supplies undermined any efforts to prepare for a Japanese attack. By the end of 1941, most of the Philippine Army reserves were mobilized alongside American forces, but they lacked artillery, ammunition, uniforms and training.

By April 1942, MacArthur’s men were caught in an indefensible position: more than 22,000 American military personnel were captured or surrendered, and 10,000 underwent the infamous Bataan Death March into brutal captivity. Tens of thousands of lives were lost in some of the most brutal fighting in world history before the United States would recapture the islands that its own poorly prepared armed forces had yielded up in the opening months of the war.

Institutional dysfunction has long been a hallmark of the American way. After President Andrew Jackson destroyed the Second Bank of the United States, the American economy was hobbled by the absence of a central bank for eighty years. That mistake was only righted when Woodrow Wilson persuaded Congress to establish the Federal Reserve system in 1913. Poorly regulated financial markets, a weak banking system, and a chaotic internal payments system still dogged the United States for decades. Yet somehow, through it all, the United States built the greatest industrial economy in the world at that time, and its private banks competed effectively with British and other banks around the world.

In the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth, the United States lagged behind western European countries at introducing scientific medicine, much less at the public health measures needed to bring sanitation to the swelling cities of the day. Similarly, the American civil service remained more politicized – and more corrupt – than the administrative structures of many European states. Long after Britain, Germany, France and much of the rest of Europe had created professional bureaucracies, the American system was still largely staffed on a patronage basis.

There have been times when these failures proved costly. The weakness of the banking system, of the civil service, and of the professional military crippled the Union in the early months of the Civil War, for example. In the First World War, us forces did not arrive in the European theater until more than a year after the declaration of war, offering Germany a last chance to defeat the western allies in the spring of 1918. The United States also essentially failed to manage the influenza pandemic of 1918-20, and the poor state of its public health system helped ensure that the influenza casualties among American forces overseas were high.

Today we look back on the diplomacy of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations with awe and respect, but the record of American policy in the years following World War ii appears much less impressive when viewed close up. Soviet spies operated almost at will in the casual, informal American state system of the day. Not only were spies able to relay atom bomb secrets to Stalin, but Harry Dexter White – America’s chief negotiator at Bretton Woods – had long-standing connections to the Soviet Union. He may not have consciously shaped his approach to Britain to serve Stalin’s goal of dividing the us and the uk, while weakening the British, but those were the final results.


GOLDEN ONLY IN HINDSIGHT. The United States more or less blundered its way through the Cold War. From Dean Acheson’s failure to include South Korea in his list of American priority security interests (a decision that made the Korean War much more likely) through Ronald Reagan’s administration and the Iran-Contra scandal, American leadership was anything but consistently excellent.

Victory in the Cold War has cast a retrospective halo over those years, but those who remember the U-2 flights, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the whole obscene catastrophe of the Indochina wars, the “Nixon shocks” of the early 1970s, the moralistic fumblings of the Carter years, or the bitter transatlantic battles of the Reagan era will not be easily persuaded that American statecraft was passing through a golden age.

The task for students of American history and of “American leadership” is not to explain why a once supercompetent nation lost the gifts that formerly made it great. The task is to understand why the nation became great and remained so for such an extended period, while lacking many of the qualities we associate with success. How did a nation hobbled by a dysfunctional banking system become the greatest industrial and financial power in the world? How did a nation with such poor skills in foreign policy survive, much less succeed, in the Cold War?

Some of the answer lies in the sources of American strength. We have never been a nation of Colberts and, typically, most Americans have resisted the idea of building a strong, efficient and powerful central government. We have a constitutional gift that, arguably, many continental European societies lack. It allows us to create a stable and enduring state. We do not, however, distinguish ourselves by the quality of the state we build. The division of authority under our constitutional system, the short tenure of our presidents, and the reservation of certain powers to the states militate against the creation of a sleek and efficient federal machine. That inefficiency may be the price of longevity; the American system of government has lasted as long as it has in part because it is the product of compromise.


THE GENIUS OF COMPROMISE. Our national genius is for the private economy and private pursuits. When crisis comes, it often takes the inefficient American state more time to move to an emergency footing and coordinate the many moving parts of its society; to get the various state, local and federal authorities to mesh; and to get the private and public sectors working together effectively. The United States typically stumbles out of the starting gate, but once it gets going, the ingenuity, adaptability and dedication of the American people enable it to make up the lost ground.

A sudden and fast-moving pandemic is not the kind of challenge that is likely to put America in its best light. Even so, the American response has been less dysfunctional than some believe. Despite un Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ claims that a lack of leadership “allowed the virus to spread”, America has already done more to fight the pandemic and its consequences than any other country. China has sent a few high-profile shipments of often-defective medical supplies, usually at top-dollar prices, to developing countries. But in Africa and elsewhere, medical systems that were built with American (and European) aid to fight hiv and Ebola have given dozens of countries capacities they wouldn’t otherwise have possessed, and American aid is currently being deployed to help those systems prepare for the latest challenge, too.

Recently, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund announced immediate relief measures to free African nations from billions of dollars of debt. Washington is working with G7 and G20 countries to respond to the need. This is a marked contrast to the attitude of Beijing, which holds at least a third of the continent’s debt in bilateral agreements and has yet to make any clear statement regarding relief for African countries.

In a little noted but extremely important development, the Federal Reserve has acted swiftly and decisively to prevent a global dollar shortage from causing a financial crisis that would have dwarfed the 2008-2009 events. In March, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan both drew more dollars than in the 2009 crisis, and the Fed has established dollar swap lines with a dozen other central banks.


MEETING THE TEST OF HISTORY. The true test of leadership has yet to come. America can’t help the world much if it is flat on its back. But as the us rises, it can help others up, too — and it will be in America’s interest to do so. Americans can’t stay healthy if the pandemic continues to surge around the globe, and our economy won’t prosper for long unless the world recovers with it.

On the home front, the American response has been dramatic. One can argue about the design of the American stimulus programs, but even at a time of bitter partisan division, in an election year, the American fiscal and monetary response to the crisis has been overwhelming. Congress, the White House and the Federal Reserve are united behind a “whatever it takes” approach to the greatest American emergency since the second world war.

The United States may yet fail to meet the test that history has presented. Even if it does, there will be plenty of opportunity for self-flagellation and woe. But the American response to date, flawed as it is, suggests that the strengths that brought the us through even worse crises in the past have not yet faded away. America may once again be failing its way to success.