Where Is the ‘Indispensable Nation’ in the Great Pandemic?

8 mins read

Imagine a coronavirus plague in the days when Bill Clinton glorified America as the “indispensable nation.” Why this paean to American exceptionalism? His Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explained in 1998: “It is because we are America. We stand tall. We see farther into the future.”

 That was in the golden age of American “globalism,” a Trumpian invective. The “city upon a hill” used to be the guardian of the liberal order, fending off despots and disasters. Habitually, the United States helped stricken nations around the globe.

In today’s pandemic, the United States would have rushed aid to Italy, the hardest hit in the Western family. President Trump has ditched this splendid tradition. Framing COVID-19 as a foreign threat, he offered not succor, but indifference. Christian outfits had to deploy American health workers and equipment to Italy.

The United States used to be smarter, converting responsibility into leadership.  Now, say “Hello” to China, America’s only worthy rival. Casting itself as a good citizen, Beijing has dispatched hundreds of helpers to Italy, offering medical aid to Balkan countries.

Where was the United States, after Trump stopped minimizing the threat? The administration is pumping liquidity while churning out face masks and ventilators. Yet for U.S.-only use – no foreigners need apply.

Compare the isolationist reflex with America’s postwar career as No. 1 global leader. Though based on hard-headed self-interest, the strategy transcended traditional great-power politics. So, taking care of other nations’ needs and order beyond one’s own borders, the United States would honor a maxim both lofty and lucrative: Do well by doing good for others, serve your interests by attending to the needs of the world. Trump must believe that his predecessors, from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman onward, were a bunch of suckers.

They did not trade in woolly headed idealism, but shrewd realpolitik. The new tools were “public goods,” a fixture of economic theory.  Once these exist, everybody may enjoy them – like Central Park or the Interstate highway grid. So in 1946, the Marshall Plan changed great-power history. Let’s hand billions to the Europeans, who will revive their economies and finance imports from the United States on the rebound. Good for them, good for us. Everybody wins.

In pre-Trump times, the United States produced international public goods galore. Alliances protected America as well as its friends. Massive dollar flows jump-started world trade, enriching both sides. So did crumbling tariff walls, an American project that fed global growth for decades and now faces Donald Trump’s shredder. Alliances he calls “obsolete” may go the same way, but beware. Public goods need a leader who secures the peace and disciplines malfeasants. If security goes, so do stability, trade, health and wealth.

Will China or Europe safeguard the freedom of the seas from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Taiwan? The European Union cannot and will not project credible forces, and Beijing would act as arsonist masquerading as firefighter. Russia is busy tightening its grip on the Middle East while bombarding the West with toxic coronavirus “news.”

From FDR to JFK, American presidents cooked up a whole alphabet soup of international institutions ranging from the United Nations to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (rechristened WTO, the World Trade Organization), from NATO to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. This is how America grew into the “indispensable nation.” Trump is putting the axe to this glorious legacy.

Why did his precursors step up? Even if self-serving, altruism spells power and status. Realpolitik-plus seems to have no place in Trump’s mental universe. It should. Those who give, get, and those who lead, reap. Smart “globalism” yields authority and consent, which are more cost-efficient than raw power.

The fusion of domestic and global concerns made America great. Its liberal empire was based on invitation, not imposition – at least when the “better angels of our nature” had the upper hand. That they often lost out is a familiar American story shot through with hypocrisy, folly and cruelty – from the Indian wars and intervention in Latin America to the Iraq campaign that flattened the sturdiest bulwark against Iranian expansion.

That stained record does not discredit the grand strategy of the postwar decades when the United States served as linchpin of the liberal order. Trump, the Demolition Man, thinks that the country is on a fool’s errand, with 330 million Americans being taken for a ride by devious foreigners. His petty strategy is not win-win, but “I win when you lose.” In due time, such a ruthless game will backfire on the protector and profiteer of the U.S.-designed architecture. America über alles will alienate friends and embolden foes, one step at a time. Right now, Trump’s obliviousness spells not forced, but voluntary abdication. While the ghost of the Great Depression is oppressing the world, it is America first and only. No. 45 is practically inviting totalitarian China to occupy center stage as the make-believe Good Samaritan in a post-Western theater.

What-me-worry nationalism may gladden Trump’s base. Will his loyalists keep cheering when America ditches its penthouses and rents from China? No patsy, Teddy Roosevelt wrote: “I believe in power, but I [also] believe that responsibility should go with power.” Let’s add:  and never more so than during today’s existential threat to America and the world.

Josef Joffe serves on the editorial council of Die Zeit in Hamburg and is a fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution. His most recent book is “The Myth of American Decline.”

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