Testing large numbers of Americans for a raging virus is “never going to happen,” President Trump recently asserted. The amount of money and focused energy that such a project would require is evidently beyond the capacity of the United States. Yet around the same time Trump dismissed the idea of widespread testing, his Indo-Pacific Command announced that it is seeking an extra $20 billion to build up naval forces for confrontation with China. That contrast illuminates our national moment. Our response to the pandemic shows how far the American political project has careened off track.
Generations of Americans have grown up hearing that we live in the most powerful country on earth — or, as Senator Marco Rubio likes to say, “the single greatest nation in the history of all mankind.” Yet today the United States remains unchallenged in just one field: military power. We cannot produce the face masks and ventilators that our citizens need to help stave off death, and we blithely send underpaid nurses to fight a contagious disease with little protection other than plastic garbage bags, but we still build the world’s most advanced fighter jets and aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, millions of Americans live in squalor, our infrastructure is collapsing, and our vast national wealth is sequestered in the hands of a tiny elite. Never has the distortion of our collective priorities been clearer than in the last few weeks.
The United States has long considered itself a shining “city upon a hill” that leads the world through farsighted benevolence and inspirational example. In recent decades, and especially since the end of the Cold War, our image as a defender of fairness and decency has palpably faded. Since the beginning of this year it has all but evaporated. No other developed country has responded to the current crisis with such cynicism and incompetence. Not only have we proven unable to care for our own people, but we have prevented others from effectively fighting the pandemic. The United States, accustomed to seeing itself as the pre-eminent global leader, is now devoted to cruelties as enormous as blocking a $5 billion emergency loan for Iran’s health system, and as petty as blocking the shipment of medical supplies to small countries like the Bahamas and Barbados. The world will not soon forget this.
Future historians may look back at 2020 as the year when America’s global reputation fell off a cliff. How could it not? We have failed to protect our population from deadly viral attack and have done much to assure that other governments also fail. To many around the world, we appear dangerously disoriented, eager to spend mind-boggling amounts of money to fight distant and half-imagined military threat, but not so interested in saving lives here and now.
Blaming this dire circumstance on one person, one set of leaders, or one political party is tempting but too simple. Our response to today’s health crisis reveals a deep illness that has been festering within American society and our body politic. We have sacrificed our sense of common destiny to a hyper-individualism that rejects the concept of solidarity among human beings. Governments are supposed to assure that everyone enjoys at least a basic level of security. Ours has all but abandoned that responsibility.
Can we change course? Even some who have long dismissed that possibility — or insisted that there is no reason to consider it — are now rethinking their positions. Last month analysts for the world’s largest infrastructure asset manager, Macquarie Group, issued an astonishing report concluding that the global health crisis shows “conventional capitalism is dying,” and that the world is headed for “something that will be closer to a version of communism.” Soon afterward the Financial Times, which for more than a century has been an uncompromising promoter of global capitalism, predicted in an editorial that when the acute stage of this crisis is past, “radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. . . . Redistribution will be on the agenda. . . . Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”
Countries that survive over many centuries do so by riding the tides of history — by adjusting their political and economic systems to meet evolving challenges. There is alarmingly little prospect that the United States will be able to do that. Never since the Civil War have our politics seemed so immobile in the face of so grave a challenge. Today many Americans face suffering and death. If we do not respond to this cosmic wake-up call, our political system could face the same fate.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.