An empire unravelling
Daniel Lazare believes that Covid-19 could mean the end for the USA in its current form
The world has seen more than its share of failed states in places like Libya, Somalia and Venezuela. But now it may be about to see something new - a failed empire.
That is the only way to explain the increasingly bizarre behaviour of the United States in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. While not all countries have responded as well as they should have, the US reaction has been in a class by itself - not just incompetent, but uniquely so. Donald Trump seems to have been in a state of denial from the moment the crisis began. “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine,” he insisted on January 22, two days after the first US case appeared. “We only have five people. Hopefully, everything’s going to be great,” he added a week later. A month after that, he continued sticking to the line that it was much ado about nothing: “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero. That’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
That was on February 28. By March 26, America had more cases than any country on earth, while 75-cent face masks continued to be in short supply and healthworkers were forced to fashion protective suits out of torn-up garbage bags. The failure was reminiscent of George W Bush’s non-response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when New Orleans was all but abandoned - except that this time it was taking place on a far broader scale.
Failure, moreover, replicated itself on an imperial level as well. At a time when international cooperation would seem to be of the first order, the US wasted valuable energy trying to persuade world leaders to sign onto a statement blaming China for “the Wuhan virus”.1 It threatened more military violence in Iraq, stepped up its war against Venezuela by formally charging president Nicolas Maduro with drug trafficking, tried to persuade other countries to reject Cuban medical aid, and slapped additional sanctions on Iran.
The last was especially cruel, since sanctions effectively prevent the Islamic republic from importing pharmaceuticals and equipment needed to combat the virus. But it was also self-defeating, since coronavirus is all but certain to cross into neighbouring countries like Iraq and the gulf states, where thousands of US troops are stationed. Not only is America incapable of fighting the epidemic: it is incapable of doing anything other than making it worse.
This is more than another policy failure for the simple reason that Covid-19 is more than another problem. Rather, it is an existential crisis that is at once biological, economic and political. The health consequences are unprecedented in recent decades, amid predictions that the US death toll could go as high as 200,000, even if social distancing is fully implemented. Financially, the shock is unprecedented as well. Where it took three years for the 1929 and 2008 crashes to make themselves fully felt - as the economist, Nouriel Roubini, has pointed out recently - the corona crisis has wreaked the same havoc in just three weeks.2 After half a century of financial engineering aimed at pushing up assets ever higher, a major deflationary wave is plainly gathering strength, as rents fall, real estate plummets and the bank loans undergirding the entire rickety structure come tumbling down.
Finally, there is the political dimension. If 2020 is a super-compressed version of 2008, then constitutional structures will soon buckle, beginning with the weakest of them all - the United States. This goes contrary to decades of bourgeois punditry about the US as a constitutional Gibraltar - the anchor of the western alliance. But the US is in fact a provincial republic dating from the age of silk knee britches and powdered wigs, one that has persisted long past its sell-by date due purely to a quirk of history. As a consequence, it is increasingly unstable and unmoored. Its politics are more corrupt than those of any comparable nation and more unresponsive to the needs of society. While a source of endless pride, its 233-year-old constitution is in fact a gridlock machine that bottles up political passions and has allowed them to build up to explosive levels. The structure cries out for an overhaul from top to bottom. Yet a constitutional amending process that allows tiny minorities to veto even the most minor reforms makes it all but impossible. So complete is the paralysis that even the idea of structural reform has been lost.
And yet the ship of state has so far sailed on - despite gaping holes in its hull, a crazy captain barking nonsensical commands, corrupt officers selling off sails and rope, and a much-abused crew, whose wages have been repeatedly cut. Now the question is whether, thanks to the coronavirus, it is finally running aground.
A closer look at the Covid-19 timeline shows why this may be the case. January 20 is the day the first case appeared in Snohomish County, Washington. But that was also the day that Washington came to a near standstill after the Democratic-controlled House voted to impeach Trump and the Senate began preparing for a trial the next day.
Rather than a functioning government, consequently America was left with something in between an 18th-century show trial and a bar-room brawl. With official Washington riveted by Democratic attempts to drive Trump from office on charges of being overly cosy with Moscow, it was inevitable that the coronavirus would wind up being ignored.
Contextually, bland assurances that “it’s going to be just fine” are thus a bit more understandable. The system was so wrapped up in itself, so consumed with its own internal agony and strife, that it had little left over for an outside threat from an unexpected direction.
This explains the amazing lack of focus. In South Korea, infectious-disease specialists had begun brainstorming about how to respond to a major outbreak even before the coronavirus had been identified in Wuhan. As a result, they were able to get a massive testing programme up and running as early as January 9 and bring the pandemic under control within weeks.3 In Australia, the much-maligned Scott Morrison - the man who said that Aussies had nothing to fear from global warming - was also quick off the block in declaring a national emergency.
But, with impeachment stretching out three weeks or more from mid-January to Trump’s acquittal on February 5 - a period in which the virus was beginning to race through the population at large - the US government barely stirred. As The New York Times showed in a 4,000-word analysis last weekend, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta - one of the country’s premier health agencies - dithered and stalled when a coronavirus test it had developed turned out to suffer from a manufacturing defect. As the effort to fix it dragged on, tests by mid-February were only running at around a hundred per week - a tiny fraction of the 10,000 per day then underway in South Korea. Yet the agency continued to assure Congress that it was able to “identify potential cases early and make sure that they are properly handled”.4
Conceivably, a nudge from on high could have broken the logjam. But Trump was annoyed that the issue was distracting from his impeachment victory and deeply suspicious of his own bureaucracy after years of warfare with the ‘deep state’. He did not believe what his own experts were telling him and suspected that they were spinning the facts in order to weaken him all the more. On February 11, he proposed cutting more than $100 million from public-health agencies that were in the front line of the anti-Covid effort, even though they were already severely underfunded.5 Two weeks later, he reportedly went into a fury when the CDC’s top respiratory-disease specialist warned that, thanks to the epidemic, “disruption to everyday life might be severe”. A day later, he tried to quiet growing unease by putting vice-president Mike Pence - a man notorious for denouncing Darwin on the floor of the US Congress - in charge of the federal response.6
On an imperial level, the United States bragged about taking advantage of Chinese economic distress, while senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a key Trump ally, floated the idea that China had manufactured the virus in a Wuhan lab. (“Fact: super-lab is just a few miles from that market,” he tweeted on February 9. “Where did it start? We don’t know. But burden of proof is on you and fellow communists.”7) Simultaneously, the administration began revving up the international war machine, even though the effect was to spread corona all the more. By late March, the virus was racing through the military, while the problem was particularly acute onboard America’s 11 aircraft-carrier battle groups, in which thousands of sailors sleep 60 to a room in triple bunks known as racks. One carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, had to be sidelined after 25 sailors tested positive, with others sure to follow.8
What is the point of a $15 billion aircraft carrier that is little more than a floating petri dish? What is the point of sending troops to far-flung outposts in places like Djibouti, if the military only has to fly stricken soldiers back to regional medical centres at great expense, while quarantining the remainder? Just as the Trump administration was slow to wake up to the virus itself, it was slow to realise how it was wreaking havoc with all the traditional methods of imperial force projection.
It was incapable of facing up to reality. Biologically, it is the equivalent of an organism that is slow to recognise an imminent threat and incapable of an adequate response. Just as a species under such circumstances is slated for destruction, it is becoming clear that the superannuated structure known as the United States is heading in a similar direction.
This is not wishful thinking, but a process playing out in real time, thanks to Covid-19. While no-one knows how the story will end up, there is no question that the plot is accelerating.
P Cockburn, ‘The US is losing its world superpower status due to its failure to lead on the Covid-19 crisis - and this time it might not recover’ The Independent March 27.↩︎
N Roubini, ‘Coronavirus pandemic has delivered the fastest, deepest economic shock in history’ The Guardian March 25.↩︎
H Shin, ‘South Korea’s emergency exercise in December facilitated coronavirus testing, containment’, Reuters, March 30.↩︎
MD Shear, A Goudnough, S Kaplan, S Fink, K Thomas and N Weiland, ‘The lost month: how a failure to test blinded the US to Covid-19’ The New York Times March 28.↩︎
N Wetsman, ‘Trump administration wants to cut funding from public health preparedness programs’ The Verge February 11.↩︎
S Lock, ‘Sitting ducks: two US aircraft carriers in the Pacific are “taken out of action” after coronavirus outbreaks on board’ The Sun March 27.↩︎