America’s Built-in Protection Against Bad Leadership

For all its failures, the U.S. has structural advantages over rival powers—and will come out of the pandemic even stronger.

Healthcare workers wearing face masks and bandanas with American flags printed.
John Moore / Getty

Arguing that America is in decline has been fashionable for at least three decades, since the pinnacle of the nation’s Cold War victory. Six in 10 Americans told pollsters last year that they believed the United States would be less important in the world in the future. And the COVID-19 pandemic, as The Atlantic’s George Packer has so trenchantly argued, has exposed chronic underlying failures: “a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.”

Yet there are reasons to believe the U.S. could emerge from the pandemic more powerful in the international order rather than less. Our democracy doesn’t produce fast, elegant solutions to problems, and it often fails to provide politicians who meet the moment history dispenses. But what it does provide is a distribution of power—across multiple levels of government and robust civil and private sectors—that corrects mistakes and limits the damage done by even the worst national leaders. The structural strengths of the United States are enormous, and likely to show to increasing advantage as the coronavirus burns its way through the world.

In this international crisis, the bill of particulars of American failure seems almost impossibly long. We have already suffered more than 60,000 deaths from COVID-19. More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance in the last six weeks, even before businesses start failing. Rather than use the executive powers of his office to lead a national or international response, the president of the United States contents himself with dispensing dangerous medical advice, and unintelligible statements like this: “We win and we win. We want to win; we always win. Sometimes we don't want to win, so we just go to a standstill. But that's always—that’s not the way this country works.”

But this is not the first time the United States of America has failed the international order, or even the most significant. As the historian Adam Tooze argues in The Deluge, the United States was the only country strong enough coming out of World War I to have stabilized the international order, and it declined to do so. During the Cold War, Dwight Eisenhower refused to contest the Soviet invasion of Hungary; integrating American schools in response to legitimate court orders required the National Guard; our prosecution of the Vietnam War revealed moral and strategic lapses; Richard Nixon unilaterally collapsed the Bretton Woods international monetary system almost overnight. Even in the time of American dominance after the Cold War, the nation’s culpability for the 2003 Iraq War and 2008 financial crisis badly damaged its stature.

What is surprising is how little movement this regrettable parade of mistakes created toward supplanting the U.S. as the dominant power in the international order. Even now, with the outlandish behavior and harmful policy choices of President Donald Trump, the structural strengths of the United States remain in place. The dollar remains the world’s holding currency, and Americans enjoy all the exorbitant privileges that accrue to that status. The U.S. just pulled the trigger on a financial stimulus of $2 trillion—a tenth of its gross domestic product—with no negative consequences for its ability to continue borrowing and printing money at essentially zero interest. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Nicholas Eberstadt described it, the United States is “embracing Keynesianism with an abandon that might have startled Keynes himself”—making the right economic choices to forestall a collapse. The U.S. Federal Reserve has quietly become the central banker to the world, opening swap lines to ensure dollar liquidity to emerging-market borrowers.

No other country seems able to step forward and organize broad collective action. And no other great power looks more responsible than the United States in its current behavior. Power is a relative index as much as an absolute one. For America’s position to weaken in the international order, others must succeed. Despite some adroit propaganda by China earlier this year, that doesn’t appear to be happening.

China is the world’s largest creditor and especially extended in emerging markets; its Belt and Road Initiative is likelier to become a burden than to reorient global trade patterns to China’s advantage, because infrastructure projects that once appeared profitable have turned into white elephants. The Chinese government will have to decide whether to forgive huge swaths of debt or to cement its own image as a predatory lender by repossessing infrastructure—at the same time that the pandemic is spreading to poor countries whose health-care systems were already strained.

Other major powers have problems of their own. To preserve itself and bring its lofty single-market rhetoric in line with reality, the European Union needs to assume the debts of all members—something Germany, the bloc’s most powerful nation, does not want it to do. Russia, whose power depends on oil revenue, provoked a dispute with Saudi Arabia that created so much downward price pressure, Vladimir Putin relented after six weeks and had to accept punitive terms from OPEC.

Just as the 9/11 attacks redirected governmental attention to terrorism threats and the 2008 financial crisis cast a long shadow onto economic policy, so the pandemic is likely to drive the U.S. government’s attention to strengthening health-care systems and other elements of the country’s social safety net. The best way for America to sustain its international prominence is to fix some of its own weaknesses, and that is a likely consequence of the pandemic.

Where federal policy is self-defeating, American civil society often steps in, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done in replacing money that the Trump administration cut from the World Health Organization. Governors are reminding us of the value of competent chief executives and federal systems of distributed powers. And the benefits of free societies begin to show to advantage: Even transparently false statements by Trump seem to create less international suspicion than the systematic dishonesty of the Chinese leadership, because the American president is subject to independent press scrutiny, citizens can freely criticize him, and other politicians can openly campaign for his job. Authoritarian governments will have a more difficult time as the pandemic wears on, because their legitimacy is based either on endlessly rising prosperity (as in the case of China) or an aura of total control (Russia), neither of which is sustainable in the pandemic.

The truth is that United States is almost never as good as many Americans congratulate ourselves for being. Yet we are unusually capable of acknowledging our failures and correcting them, in business, in war, and at the ballot box. For all the missteps the United States makes, it's not a unitary state. The existence of competing sources of power is a barrier to action at times but also a fundamentally stabilizing influence.

One telling example is that even after the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement and rolled back auto-emissions standards, many people and governments in the U.S. are still taking climate change seriously. States such as California have set rigorous environmental standards; major corporations are finding ways to limit their carbon footprint; Michael Bloomberg and other billionaires are shoveling money into the cause; cities from coast to coast are incorporating climate concerns into their urban planning; and American homeowners are opting for renewable energy sources.

All of which suggests that despite the colossal failures of the United States government this year, the country could emerge from this terrible pandemic in an even stronger position internationally—not just because other states are making their own mistakes, but also because of how our country and our society are organized. We are cohesive enough to accumulate and exercise global influence but not so cohesive that, during a crisis, an incompetent or malign leader can lead the entire nation to ruin.