The confused response of the United States to the new coronavirus suggests that the era marked by Washington’s global leadership has come to an end.
Historically, moments of great geopolitical instability, such as wars or profound economic crises, tend to mark the end or the beginning of an era. Not necessarily because of the crisis itself, but for its power to reveal new realities which, in moments of peace and stability, were not easily visible. It is when it is realized, suddenly, that old arrangements and ways of being articulated decades before have become obsolete.
In 1898, for example, the United States victory in the war against Spain in Cuba and in the Philippines led to the loss of Spanish possessions in the Americas and in the Pacific. More important than this, however, the event revealed something which many analysts already felt, but which had not manifested itself so clearly: The United States, at that time still with limited war power, was in the process of becoming a global power. It was obvious that European countries, the majority of which had given diplomatic support to Spain until the beginning of the hostilities, already had no way to deter Washington.
Another example is the Suez Crisis in 1956, when the decisive actions of the U.S. revealed that Europe already had no control over events in the Middle East. While London still saw itself as the great power until that point, events in Egypt showed the world that there were just two global powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. After Suez, not even the most patriotic politicians in London and Paris would be able to deny the hard reality that Europeans would have to content themselves with their second-class power status.
It was the 2008 financial crisis that revealed that, although the U.S. still led the world, the country at that point did not have the capacity to resolve the greatest economic instability since World War II by itself. The old arrangement symbolized by the Group of Seven, the five richest European countries, along with the U.S. and Japan, whose leaders up until then had met periodically to manage the global economy, now did not function any more. BRICS, above all China, led the response to the crisis, increasing their financial contributions to the International Monetary Fund, and the annual meeting of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging-market nations meeting became the principal platform for discussing the future of the global economy.*
The relative decline of the U.S. on the global stage since then has become apparent at various moments. In 2014, President Barack Obama was incapable of gaining the international community’s support in his attempt to isolate President Vladimir Putin after the invasion and Russian annexation of Crimea, something which Russia would hardly have dared to do 10 years earlier. In the bloody Syrian war which produced the largest migration crisis in decades and destabilized Europe, Washington never managed to control events. With the arrival of Donald Trump, whose election was much more a reflection than a cause of the erosion of American hegemony, the U.S. pulled out of the three main current global debates: the liberalization of trade, the migratory crisis and global climate change. More recently, Trump failed in what is perhaps the greatest legacy of his presidency. He was incapable of persuading the majority of his major allies, including the United Kingdom, to exclude the Chinese business Huawei from building a 5G telecommunication network, which will give enormous power to China in the 21st century.
The confused and incoherent response of the Americans to the coronavirus , which international security specialist Micah Zenko called “the worst intelligence failure in U.S. history,” shows that Washington is not prepared to assume global leadership in the great crisis that humanity is confronting today. In an article entitled “The Death of American Competence”, Harvard professor Stephen Walt recently wrote, “Washington’s reputation for expertise has been one of the greatest sources of its power. The coronavirus pandemic may end it for good.” Even worse, accounts have been mounting that the American government is confiscating shipments of masks and ventilators made by the Chinese for allied countries, among them Germany and France.
It is likely that the Chinese government did not convey all the information about the number of victims at the start of the pandemic. However, Trump’s statements about victimization and conspiracy saying China should be responsible for the United States’ incoherent response is not sustainable. In the end, Germany as much as South Korea, managed, with publicly available information, to articulate much more effective strategies than did Washington.
The overwhelming weakness of the U.S. response to the pandemic has a great impact on its role in the world, because countries don’t become great powers just by the military power they accumulate, but also by their capacity to resolve international problems and provide for the global public good. This is fundamental for its leadership to be viewed as legitimate by the global community. The Peking leadership, aware of the limitations of its political authoritarian system in an attempt to accumulate soft power, has been seeking to provide ever more for the public good, such as, for example, sending additional soldiers on U.N. peace missions than all other permanent members of the Security Council put together; becoming the principal investor and major commercial partner in the majority of developing countries; and converting itself into the largest investor in sustainable technology in the world. Peking’s decision to donate medical equipment to nations around the world, as well as its capacity to increase the production of masks and ventilators in the middle of a pandemic, is proof of the Chinese ambition to fill the global power vacuum left by Washington. There seems to be no doubt that it will be Peking, not the U.S., which will help other countries climb out of the global recession that will come.
It will take years to be able to evaluate the geopolitical consequences of the pandemic. There is much, however, that shows it will be remembered by historians as a “Suez moment” for the United States, revealing in an indisputable way, that today the international community does not look to Washington to resolve its most urgent problems. Beyond accelerating the end of American leadership, the current crisis reveals more clearly, the urgency of the debate about how we should adapt to the post-Western world.
*Editor’s note: BRICS is an acronym for an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
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