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The greatest country on earth. It’s a label assigned to the United States frequently by politicians, pundits, and average Americans. The most prosperous, the greatest democracy, the mightiest military, a singular world power. And yet, here we are, proving an abysmal failure, both relatively and absolutely, in our national response to the coronavirus pandemic.
It is easy to blame President Donald Trump’s ham-handed response, replete with dangerous misinformation and deadly politicization. Without a doubt, his actions have cost American lives, but the full picture of how we got here precedes this administration. American arrogance was costly long before Trump came to power. It is what made his own arrogance so dangerous to us all.
I recall growing up with a sense of American exceptionalism. It inspired me to join the Foreign Service, to serve as a career diplomat representing our country overseas for eight years before I resigned. I believed that our country was a force for good in the world, and I wanted to be part of the civilian army carrying that forward. But my illusions of our grandeur were steadily eroded. I’m saddened by our failures today but not so surprised as most. Years of seeing America from the outside can drive home just how unexceptional America really is.
Though our influence is unparalleled, how we use that influence becomes the rub. I saw this firsthand as a diplomat in South Sudan, where I was serving when civil war broke out in December 2013. By the time I arrived, South Sudan had been an independent country for only two years. The United States had provided the new country unparalleled financial and political support and unwaveringly supported its independence. In the pre-independence period and subsequent years, however, we failed to reassess what we had deemed a success story, turning a blind eye to increasingly authoritarian behavior and bad acts of the government we had long championed. In doing so, we failed to wield our tremendous influence to good effect.
We expressed concern when the nascent nation’s army slaughtered civilians as part of a violent counterinsurgency campaign, but we chalked it up to the growing pains of a rebel force in transition. When President Salva Kiir sacked his entire Cabinet in a brazen move to root out dissent and political competition, U.S. authorities worried quietly but did not raise alarm. These actions didn’t fit the tidy narrative of good versus evil that had underpinned our support initially in bringing the new country into being, but we were too stubborn to admit that we’d played a bad hand, that the “good guys” we’d bet on were not who we’d believed them to be. Instead of using leverage to press Kiir and his government for change and accountability, at a time when such efforts could have made a difference, we chose to stick to our story of success, long after that story became fiction.
Our arrogance in South Sudan was that we thought if we believed the country was a success, it would be. The work of actually making it a success would have been messier, less absolute, and less certain. Our lack of critical self-reflection stymied the utility of our actions and the efficacy of our significant investment. A similar pattern has played out repeatedly across our foreign policy repertoire. Our actions and outlook were dominated by short-term thinking, grounded in political expediency rather than principles. This is not a new problem, but one that has lured us time and again into foreign policy quagmires we could start but not finish. See Vietnam and Afghanistan for the most notable examples, but this trend repeats itself on a smaller scale far more frequently. When these projects inevitably fail, we cling to the assumption that we were right anyway, our actions were just, and bad outcomes were merely beyond our control. Because we were unwilling to admit our mistakes, we were unable to learn from them. However bad the result, it would have been worse without our intervention, we’d tell ourselves.
It isn’t that America is not capable of great things. It is—I’ve seen this firsthand too. We have led robust global responses in the fight against the Islamic State and the battle against Ebola. But we are also reluctant participants in group projects we are not empowered to dominate ourselves. We have worked with dozens of countries to promote more representative elections and reduce human trafficking and other crimes. Yet we are equally likely to pursue ineffective projects on untenably short timelines, designed to meet our own political ends rather than actual need on the ground. Undergirding all of this is our belief, as a nation, that America knows best, coupled with a reticence to admit our faults and failures.
The real tragedy is that we have that capability but readily squander it. We are seeing that play out today, to tragic consequence. The United States was perfectly capable of an exemplary response to the COVID-19 crisis, not only in how we cared for our own but in the role we could have played in leading a more integrated and effective global approach. We’ve dropped the ball, willfully, and our leadership’s unwillingness to admit that impedes us further still.
I’m certain that if someone else—anyone else—were president, our response would have been better, but America’s culture of arrogance made Trump’s actions, and inactions, possible. This culture is deeply embedded in our political leaders, who rarely prove willing to admit even the most obvious of missteps. Arrogance has enabled our political checks and balances to atrophy and undermined our bureaucratic ones. Gradually, our executive branch became emboldened and impervious to oversight. Under administrations of both parties, political allies would deem executive action bold and decisive as long as it aligned with their interests, while arguments for executive constraint were written off as partisan.
Arrogance is also woven into the fabric of both our civil service and military structures, neither of which nurture or welcome constructive dissent. If you doubt the power that culture wields, consider the standout stories of government officials over the past year. Out of 2 million federal employees, only a handful have taken the brave step of speaking out against this administration while still within its ranks, and most of them waited for a subpoena to do so. Career professionals routinely stand on a stage with Donald Trump and have little more recourse than flinching at his lethal lies. They contort mightily in statements and interviews to avoid contradicting their haughty leader. How is it that we find ourselves here, even as this administration’s poor decisions cost countless American lives? Because the culture in our staid, hierarchical bureaucracy rewards “good soldiers,” not challenging ones. Civil servants are expected to take it on faith that their leaders know best and are acting in our collective self-interest. If you disagree, it isn’t your job to say so.
As someone who pursued dissent through official channels in opposition to our support of the South Sudanese government in 2015, I know this trend predated Trump. Through the process of submitting a dissent cable to State Department leadership, I learned that this formal channel was designed to quell dissent rather than address it.
While this is not a new problem, it is executed far more indelicately under the Trump administration than it was before. The few public servants who do speak up only underline this point. Just ask Capt. Brett Crozier or a host of inspectors general pushed out of their positions for merely doing their jobs. The Trump administration has repeatedly gotten away with dismissing and retaliating against the loudest, most honest voices. Years of support for executive overreach—mostly partisan, but at times nonpartisan too—has provided some foundation for the growing autocratic actions of today.
Our redemption will not happen overnight. It will require a cultural shift in our governance, if we are to be an effective leader in the world once more. A change in administration is necessary, but alone it is not sufficient. Our government’s oversight mechanisms must be enhanced and respected. Our career civil servants and experts must be empowered to lead. Our discourse over policy, whether foreign or domestic, must be more honest, open, and accountable. Our failures must be admitted and evaluated to inform our future actions.
What America lacks as a leader is humility, an ability to admit mistakes and act to address them. Our hubris is our country’s Achilles’ heel. Perhaps a virus that brings us to our knees will leave us with this lesson learned. Perhaps we emerge less great, by measurable standards, but more capable of achieving greatness again.
by Elizabeth Shackelford. PublicAffairs.