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How to Ruin a Superpower

  • Stephen M.
  • Aug, 2020
  • 136
  • States’ Statement

Washington’s status as a superpower has been declining for years. Trump’s handling of the pandemic is killing it off

Over the past 35 years or so, warnings of imminent American decline have fared poorly. Paul Kennedy’s bestselling The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers suggested that “imperial overstretch” might cause the United States to follow Great Britain’s downward path, a gloomy forecast that proved to be at best premature. Other prominent scholars suggested that America was becoming an “ordinary country,” heading for a world “after hegemony,” only to be surprised when it was the Soviet Union that collapsed and the United States emerged as the sole remaining superpower. Ideal conditions, it turned out, for a dangerous combination of hubris and complacency.

By the mid-1990s, the United States found itself in a position of primacy unmatched in modern history. Its combination of economic, military, and soft power dwarfed all others, and scholars such as William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks offered sophisticated and well-reasoned arguments for why the unipolar era might last as long or longer than the bipolar era that preceded it. What these optimists did not anticipate, alas, was the series of self-inflicted wounds that the United States would suffer in the years that followed, a train wreck of recurring blunders that has accelerated and worsened under Donald Trump. In particular, Trump’s egregious mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic is producing debilitating long-term effects that will further accelerate America’s decline. Even if he is defeated in November and a Joe Biden administration does nearly everything right, the consequences of Trump’s reign of error will be with us for many years to come.

Before Trump, the mistakes of the unipolar era fell under three main headings. The first error was adopting a grand strategy of liberal hegemony, which sought to spread democracy, markets, and other liberal values far and wide and to bring the whole world into a liberal order that was designed and led by the United States. This vastly ambitious strategy provoked a strong backlash from a variety of quarters, led to unnecessary and costly wars that squandered trillions of dollars, and undermined key sectors of the U.S. economy.

The second mistake was to allow public institutions to deteriorate, by starving them of resources and then blaming them for all our problems. Republican leaders pushed tax cuts with scant regard for the fiscal consequences, while the IRS was defunded to the point that it could no longer deter or detect widespread evasion and fraud. Like the Prussian Junkers or the pre-revolutionary French aristocrats, wealthy Americans - including Trump - found countless new ways to avoid contributing enough to public coffers and with less and less fear that they might get caught. Instead of creating and funding robust, competent, and respected public institutions - the sort of administrative and managerial capacity that would be invaluable in a pandemic and that some other countries have-Americans decided they didn’t need them.

The third misstep was the weaponization of partisan politics that began with the Newt Gingrich revolution in the U.S. Congress. As Julian Zelizer documents in a fascinating but disturbing new book, Gingrich’s decision to take down House Leader Jim Wright began a process that turned American politics into a blood sport where gaining and retaining power mattered more than advancing the public interest. Aided by talk radio hate-mongers like Rush Limbaugh and the factually challenged propagandists at the Weekly Standard and Fox News, conspiracy theories, slander, and the steady erosion of the “soft guardrails” of democracy replaced respectful debate, discussion, and compromise.

Unfortunately, these three trends were also sharply at odds with each other. Remaking the world in America’s image is an enormous undertaking; if you were serious about it, you’d need a large, well-funded, and highly competent state to do it. Not only would running the world require a strong military, but it would also take a large, highly professional diplomatic corps to manage the political fallout abroad, a vast army of well-trained development experts, and lots of safety-net programs back home to deal with the destabilizing consequences of economic globalization. In this way, the grand strategy of liberal hegemony was fundamentally at odds with the endless demand for tax cuts and the concomitant desire to shrink the state. Liberal hegemony’s defenders got around this problem by assuming that the tides of history were running their way and that creating a global liberal order would be relatively easy. As Fareed Zakaria noted back in 1998, the result was a “hollow hegemony,” as the United States tried in vain to manage the world on the cheap.

Moreover, if a single country h...

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