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.