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.”