This time, Americans are doing … nothing. Or to be more specific, because plenty of American governors, mayors, doctors, scientists, and tech companies are doing things, the White House is doing nothing. There is no presidential leadership inside the United States; there is no American leadership in the world. Members of the G7—the U.S. and its six closest allies—did meet to write a joint statement. But even that tepid project ended in ludicrous rancor when the American secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, insisted on using the expression “Wuhan virus” and the others gave up in disgust. Not only is the president talking nonsense, not only is America absent, but the nation’s top diplomat is a caricature of a tough guy—someone who throws around insults in the absence of any capacity to influence events.
Others are drawing even more radical conclusions, and with remarkable speed. The “disinfectant” comments—and the laughter that followed—mark not so much a turning point as an acceleration point, the moment when a transformation that began much earlier suddenly started to seem unstoppable. Although we are still only weeks into this pandemic, although the true scale of the health crisis and the economic catastrophe is still unknown, the outline of a very different, post-American, post-coronavirus world is already taking shape. It’s a world in which American opinions will count less, while the opinions of America’s rivals will count more. And that will change political dynamics in ways that Americans haven’t yet understood.
Look beyond the Lego video at China’s more serious public-relations campaign: the stunts at airports around the world, from Pakistan to Italy to Israel, designed to mark the arrival of Chinese aid—masks, surgical gowns, diagnostic tests, and sometimes doctors. These events all have a similar script: The plane lands; the receiving nation’s dignitaries go out to meet it; the Chinese experts emerge, looking competent in their hazmat gear; and everyone utters words of gratitude and relief. Of course some of this, too, is propaganda.
In reality, some of the equipment billed as aid has been purchased, not donated. Some of it, especially the diagnostic tests, has turned out to be defective. Some of those who receive these goods also know perfectly well that they are designed to silence questions about where the virus came from, why knowledge of it was initially suppressed, and why it was allowed to spread around the world. If, in these circumstances, the propaganda “works,” that’s because those who receive it have made a calculation: Pretending to believe it is a way of acknowledging and accepting Chinese power—and, perhaps, a way of expressing interest in Chinese investment.
In the Western world, this dynamic has played itself out with striking success in Italy. Flattened by the virus and depressed by the lockdown, Italians are deeply divided by years of conspiratorial social-media campaigns, some with Russian backing, that have attacked Italy’s traditional alliances, NATO as well as the European Union. China has added its own unsubtle social-media campaign. Bots have been promoting Chinese-Italian-friendship hashtags (#forzaCinaeItalia) and thank-you-China hashtags (#grazieCina). But there is another, less visible layer of activity, too.