War Stories

The End of American Leadership

The coronavirus pandemic may mark the final shift of global power away from the United States.

Trump waves as he and Xi walk past an American flag.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images

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In 1994, on his 90th birthday, the legendary diplomat George Kennan, architect of America’s Cold War containment policy, said, in a speech looking back on his life and times, “It is primarily by example, never by precept, that a country such as ours exerts its most useful influence beyond its borders.”

With our response to the coronavirus, so different from any crisis the country has faced for over a century, we are providing a very poor example, and as a result, our influence abroad is declining to a historic low point—so low that we may be experiencing a pivot in geopolitical power away from the United States and its allies.

American influence had already been waning for a host of reasons—the collapse of power blocs (which gave us leverage in the Cold War competition), the rise of terrorist groups and sectarian militias (which can’t be quelled by conventional military means), the surge of Chinese investment and pressure in Asia and beyond. All of these trends have been accelerated, sometimes willfully, by President Donald Trump, who has dissed or deserted traditional allies, embraced authoritarian regimes, and wavered in his response to China’s rise from obsequious kowtowing to self-destructive trade wars.

Even so, until recently, Trump’s retreat from the ways of previous presidents only highlighted America’s esteem and power. His behavior alarmed so many allies because they desperately wanted the return of U.S. leadership—and delighted so many adversaries because they could carve new inroads of influence in the absence of this leadership.

Now, however, Trump has taken us to the brink of irrelevance—not quite to the abyss, but teetering on its edge. To lead or to inspire, a country has to offer a model—an “example,” as Kennan put it, of what its leadership or values or system of politics can produce. And facing the coronavirus, we are showing that, at least for the moment, we’re offering little or nothing.

The New York Times and Washington Post have reported long, gripping tales of how slowly Trump responded to the pandemic, ignoring warnings from scientists and top officials. Even now, fully seized of the urgency, he has no plan for minimizing the damage or restarting the economy. He has appointed two advisory teams—and is about to appoint a third—thus only exacerbating personal and bureaucratic rivalries. He continues to shrug off his responsibilities as chief executive, leaving under-resourced state governors to squabble among themselves in bidding wars for scarce medical supplies. His lousy relations with foreign governments have impeded the international cooperation that usually fosters a solution to these crises (though scientists are building consortiums on their own). He even tried to buy a German research company that was working on a vaccine, with an eye toward restricting its product to American buyers—a much-publicized attempt that could backfire if Germany or some other country comes up with a vaccine first.

Trump’s toxicity has infected our entire political system. The bureaucracy has been stripped of its experts; the few who remain often go ignored. The Cabinet, which once held a few independent minds, is now filled with mediocrities who see that their main job is to nod vigorously whenever the president speaks. Congress had one bright moment, when, with no help from Trump, it put together a $2 trillion rescue package and passed it almost unanimously; but the rudderless, threadbare bureaucracy has been slow to implement it. We’ll see if Congress, which since that vote has gone silent, will double down in a few months, as it will need to do, when the money runs out.

Meanwhile, China is acting like a leader. This status may be undeserved; the virus took hold within its borders, and the Communist Party leaders suppressed the earliest reports of its spread and have falsified data ever since. Still, China is the source of much of the world’s medicine and medical gear, and party leaders have made a great show of airlifting supplies to other countries, including the United States. As Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, tweeted, “Let’s be honest. It hurts to see China sending humanitarian aid to the U.S. and Europe.”

All over the world, people are asking: Who is the superpower now?

The impression is a bit misleading; much of the Chinese medical gear turns out to be defective. But the image is still powerful: At least, in the eyes of many, China is doing something. What, they ask, is America doing for the rest of the world’s suffering? What, for that matter, is it doing for the suffering of its own people?

All of this is occurring in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive network of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in more than 60 countries, encompassing two-thirds of the world’s population, costing $200 billion (with estimates of $1.2 trillion over the next seven years). President Xi Jinping sees this as laying the foundation for a Beijing-controlled global trade system—which could eclipse the West’s dominance since the end of World War II.

Some of the countries receiving funds under the initiative have balked at the political conditions attached to them but, in the end, have nowhere else to go.

Others may soon feel the same way in a variety of realms. Many countries would prefer American leadership, flawed as it has been through the years. But if that’s no longer an option, they will turn elsewhere—to other sources of supplies and security, maybe to other forms of governance.

At the end of his 1994 birthday speech, George Kennan warned that “unless we preserve the quality, the vigor and the morale of our own society, we will be of little use to anyone at all.” That’s the fate that we await if Donald Trump stays in power much longer.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Monday’s episode of What Next.