It is a truism in international affairs that we live in an era of rapid, often destabilizing, change. That said, the global situation just a few months ago actually looked relatively stable and predictable. A lot that was going on was not pretty. The war in Afghanistan kept grinding on with Afghans dying by the thousands. The bloodletting in Syria and Yemen was, if anything, even worse. Other international disputes including Iran and Israel/Palestine remained acrimonious and bitter, but seemed to be going nowhere. The Trump administration had periodically pronounced a breakthrough regarding one of our most enduring disputes—with North Korea—thanks to the President Donald Trump’s “excellent” relationship with that country’s murderous dictator. However, by the end of last year, it was evident that a Korean peace agreement was a pipe dream. U.S.-China relations blew hot and cold. Here, too, the White House tied U.S. relations to Trump’s rapport with a foreign leader, Xi Jinping. One minute, the White House was touting the President’s “wonderful” relationship with Xi and the prospect of the “greatest trade deal in history” with China. The next, we were condemning China’s hostile efforts to steal U.S. technology. In early 2019, the two countries seemed to have settled into a pattern as “frenemies”—closely linked economically whether we liked it or not.
U.S. relations with Europe and NATO were crudely devalued by the White House, but the Europeans were preoccupied with their own issues involving Brexit and the overall cohesion of the European Union. U.S. relations with Russia had settled into a peculiar twilight zone. Mr. Trump continued to give every indication that he was besotted with Russia generally and with Vladimir Putin in particular. But Trump couldn’t act on his desire to cater to Putin because U.S. sanctions on Russia due to its aggression in Ukraine were set in law. So, relations between Washington and Moscow remained locked into a bizarre state—politically cordial and substantively hostile. Economically, the picture was far brighter. Throughout 2019, the U.S. grew briskly, and unemployment hit historic lows. By the last quarter, growth was beginning to slow, but most economists agreed that the U.S. and the world would avoid a recession through 2020-21. There were concerns, notably an almost obscene wealth gap between rich and poor and spiraling federal debt. But on the whole, it was steady-as-you-go.
At the conclusion of 2019, no big changes, either domestically or internationally, seemed in the offing. U.S. influence and standing in the world was eroding as other countries reacted to Trump’s “my way or the highway” approach with distaste. By contrast, China’s power and influence were growing. But the changes were incremental, and as long as the international economy remained healthy and U.S.-China relations did not dramatically deteriorate, the future seemed, if not bright, at least familiar.
Then came 2020. Early reports in January of an outbreak of an unfamiliar virus in Wuhan morphed into a full-blown global pandemic by the end of February. In the absence of a vaccine or effective therapeutics, the only available response was to basically shut down whole societies and economies. As a consequence, we are now looking at unemployment numbers that match those of the Great Depression. The Chairman of the Federal Reserve, who a few weeks ago was predicting a rapid, full economic recovery, is now talking about a process taking years. A major investment bank expects that 100,000 small businesses in the U.S. will go under. Economic prospects took a further hit when Beijing moved to eliminate Hong Kong’s legal autonomy—which will likely trigger more U.S. economic sanctions just as the climate between the U.S. and China is already trending downward. Talk of a new cold war—this one with China—have become routine in Washington. If this were not enough, the tinderbox of racial tension in America was ignited by an ugly incident of police brutality.
In 1918-19, America and the world dealt with a flu pandemic, and then in the 1930s with a global economic depression. But we have never dealt with both simultaneously. In the 1960s, we experienced the Vietnam War and an explosion of domestic dissent, much of it racial. But these coincided with periods of economic growth both here and abroad. Nor was there any concern about a global disease outbreak. In sum, America has faced tough times before, but nothing quite like this. Beyond their severity and complexity, two things about the current challenges stand out—their international character and the stunning absence of presidential leadership in response. If there was ever any doubt about it, the pandemic demonstrates that we live in an intimately interconnected world. America’s racial unrest is domestic—but international, too. Large demonstrations in response to events in Minneapolis have taken place in Berlin, Toronto, London, New Zealand, and well beyond. It’s a reminder that what happens in America matters—matters a lot—to people around the world.
The closest historical analogy to our grim present was probably the 1930s-1940s, when America grappled with the Depression and then World War II. This nation overcame both challenges thanks to the innate strengths of its people (“the greatest generation”) and to the quality of its political institutions and leaders. The U.S. had the good fortune to have had a president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ranks among the greatest in history. Again and again, he rallied and unified the country—inspiring, challenging, and leading. What we have today is a pathetic contrast—an occupant of the Oval Office who hides behind his Twitter account threatening demonstrators with “vicious dogs” while lashing out against the media and his critics. Instead of unifying and inspiring, he has chosen to blame everything that has gone wrong (including the pandemic) on his political opponents (“the only good democrat is a dead democrat”). Meanwhile, the White House response to the pandemic has been a case study in incompetence.
How far have we fallen.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.