In the last few months we have witnessed the continued unraveling of the United States. Many might attribute the dismantling of what once was America to Donald Trump’s election, but, truth be told, this has been in the making for quite some time. The long-standing problems plaguing the US system of governance and its economy, along with its growing social injustice and inequality have all exploded into plain view because of Covid and, more specifically, because of the way that the federal government led by the president’s team has mishandled the pandemic and its devastating impacts.
Political indecision, conflicting messages (mixed with disinformation and falsehoods), a blatant lack of empathy for the dying and unemployed, the absence of tangible concrete planning for all Americans that might have reassured the public – all were on display day after day during the White House briefings and subsequent follow-up tweets that only exacerbated fears, resentment and confusion. If it hadn’t been for governors and mayors, the country might have fallen into full-fledged chaos.
At the height of the pandemic in April, urban dwellers realized in the most concrete way possible that they were entirely dependent on essential workers that included nurses and doctors, ambulance drivers, firefighters, the police, post office workers, but also the delivery personnel that kept their refrigerators and pantries full of food to weather the storm. These people maintained the flow of the most vital goods and services that were once taken for granted. The culmination of this disfunction and the outbreak of anger has now led to riots all across America.
People – most of them young and passionate (older ones who have been activists their entire lives have been more careful because of their vulnerability to the virus) – are demonstrating with conviction. They see the inequality that has engulfed America; they have witnessed the millions lining up for food while farmers – who once supplied markets and restaurants – are now destroying their surplus production, unable to switch the direction of their supply chains.
Americans can no longer ignore the fact that public schools were not able to immediately close at the start of the pandemic because millions of children relied on free school meals to eat each day. The rich lamented quarantining in their estates, while the poor struggled with unemployment, employment with high-risk exposure to Covid, and months of quarantining in difficult surroundings. One cannot begin to cover all the revelations that Covid has made public. Now years of unresolved racial tensions and a society that has learned to rely on force as the principal instrument to ensure peace and order is outraged. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are taking to the streets day after day to voice their objections to a system that is broken on every conceivable level.
Importantly, the disintegration of the image of America in the eyes of the world is especially painful, particularly for those who have stood with America, believed in the American dream of opportunity and excellence, in the right to free speech, and in the progressiveness that social mobility ensured. Moreover, it is particularly troubling as this is happening during a period of significant global power realignments.
That the United States has been recoiling from world affairs and will continue to do so has been evident for quite some time. What is now highly problematic is the realization that this no longer constitutes a temporary retreat. While Trump’s disregard for positive global engagement dealt the death blow to the world order created after WWII, countries across the globe can no longer look to the United States as a place for inspiration, hope, freedom, norms and values. It is a country that will for years need to turn inward to solve its long-standing problems, and the ensuing period is likely not only to be fraught but violent.
What might such developments mean for the rest of the world and for the global order? How and by whom will the power vacuum be filled? There are those who have long lamented the inequality in global affairs as traditional industrial powers that have included the US, Europe and Japan asserted themselves as exclusive drivers of global engagement, finance and trade. To them, the demise of American hegemony and all it has meant on different levels and for different people across the world might actually be a good thing. It may, in fact, help democratize multilateralism and lead to truer partnerships among the developed and the developing world.
Caution, however, is warranted in optimistically embracing this sort of narrative. On the one hand, unimaginable as it may seem to many American scholars, analysts and policymakers, clearly a world in which the United States is no longer the guarantor of a post-World War II order is already in the making. China has indicated that it would like to lead the developing world through comprehensive partnerships, regional multilateral institutions, new trade corridors and connectivity as envisioned by the Belt and Road Initiative. And of course there is the European Union that has for years been underestimated because it has often failed to act with one voice and one resolve.
For Europeans, the unraveling of the United States poses an existential threat. The US has been its closest ally and its greatest trading partner. Americans and Europeans shared liberal and democratic norms and values, and until the beginning of the 21st century were, more often than not, on the same page vis-a-vis the global order. This is no longer the case and because it is not it requires a dramatic recalibration by the EU during a particularly difficult time. While nobody can predict the outcome of the events that we are witnessing, it is certain that Europe and China are looking at each other in a new light – one that is no longer powered by the “blinding brightness” of the United States.
Sophia Kalantzakos is Global Distinguished Professor in Environmental Studies and Public Policy at New York University and Fung Global Fellow at Princeton University. She is the author of “China and the Geopolitics of Rare Earths” (Oxford University Press) and “The EU, US, and China Tackling Climate Change: Policies and Alliances for the Anthropocene” (Routledge).