By Katrin Bennhold
The coronavirus pandemic is shaking bedrock assumptions about U.S. exceptionalism. This is perhaps the first global crisis in more than a century where no one is even looking for Washington to lead.
BERLIN — As images of America’s overwhelmed hospital wards and snaking jobless lines have flickered across the world, people on the European side of the Atlantic are looking at the richest and most powerful nation in the world with disbelief.
“When people see these pictures of New York City they say, ‘How can this happen? How is this possible?’” said Henrik Enderlein, president of the Berlin-based Hertie School, a university focused on public policy. “We are all stunned. Look at the jobless lines. Twenty-two million,” he added.
“I feel a desperate sadness,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European history at Oxford University and a lifelong and ardent Atlanticist.
The pandemic sweeping the globe has done more than take lives and livelihoods from New Delhi to New York. It is shaking fundamental assumptions about American exceptionalism — the special role the United States played for decades after World War II as the reach of its values and power made it a global leader and example to the world.
Today it is leading in a different way: More than 840,000 Americans have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and at least 46,784 have died from it, more than anywhere else in the world.
As the calamity unfolds, President Trump and state governors are not only arguing over what to do, but also over who has the authority to do it. Mr. Trump has fomented protests against the safety measures urged by scientific advisers, misrepresented facts about the virus and the government response nearly daily, and this week used the virus to cut off the issuing of green cards to people seeking to emigrate to the United States.
“America has not done badly, it has done exceptionally badly,” said Dominique Moïsi, a political scientist and senior adviser at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne.
The pandemic has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of just about every society, Mr. Moïsi noted. It has demonstrated the strength of, and suppression of information by, an authoritarian Chinese state as it imposed a lockdown in the city of Wuhan. It has shown the value of Germany’s deep well of public trust and collective spirit, even as it has underscored the country’s reluctance to step up forcefully and lead Europe.
And in the United States, it has exposed two great weaknesses that, in the eyes of many Europeans, have compounded one another: the erratic leadership of Mr. Trump, who has devalued expertise and often refused to follow the advice of his scientific advisers, and the absence of a robust public health care system and social safety net.
“America prepared for the wrong kind of war,” Mr. Moïsi said. “It prepared for a new 9/11, but instead a virus came.”
“It raises the question: Has America become the wrong kind of power with the wrong kind of priorities?” he asked.
Ever since Mr. Trump moved into the White House and turned America First into his administration’s guiding mantra, Europeans have had to get used to the president’s casual willingness to risk decades-old alliances and rip up international agreements. Early on, he called NATO “obsolete” and withdrew U.S. support from the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.
But this is perhaps the first global crisis in more than a century where no one is even looking to the United States for leadership.
In Berlin, Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, has said as much.
China took “very authoritarian measures, while in the U.S., the virus was played down for a long time,” Mr. Maas recently told Der Spiegel magazine.
“These are two extremes, neither of which can be a model for Europe,” Mr. Maas said.
America once told a story of hope, and not just to Americans. West Germans like Mr. Maas, who grew up on the front line of the Cold War, knew that story by heart, and like many others in the world, believed it.
But nearly three decades later, America’s story is in trouble.
The country that helped defeat fascism in Europe 75 years ago next month, and defended democracy on the continent in the decades that followed, is doing a worse job of protecting its own citizens than many autocracies and democracies.
But critics now see America failing not only to lead the world’s response, but letting down its own people as well.
“There is not only no global leadership, there is no national and no federal leadership in the United States,” said Ricardo Hausmann, director of the Growth Lab at Harvard’s Center for International Development. “In some sense this is the failure of leadership of the U.S. in the U.S.”Sign up to receive an email when we publish a new story about the coronavirus outbreak.
Of course, some countries in Europe have also been overwhelmed by the virus, with the number of dead from Covid-19 much higher as a percentage of the population in Italy, Spain and France than in the United States. But they were struck sooner and had less time to prepare and react.
The contrast between how the United States and Germany responded to the virus is particularly striking.
While Chancellor Angela Merkel has been criticized for not taking a forceful enough leadership role in Europe, Germany is being praised for a near-textbook response to the pandemic, at least by Western standards. That is thanks to a robust public health care system, but also a strategy of mass testing and trusted and effective political leadership.
Ms. Merkel has done what Mr. Trump has not. She has been clear and honest about the risks with voters and swift in her response. She has rallied all 16 state governors behind her. A trained physicist, she has followed scientific advice and learned from best practice elsewhere.
Not long ago, Ms. Merkel was considered a spent force, having announced that this would be her last term. Now her approval ratings are at 80 percent.
“She has the mind of a scientist and the heart of a pastor’s daughter,” Mr. Garton Ash said.
Mr. Trump, in a hurry to restart the economy in an election year, has appointed a panel of business executives to chart a course out of the lockdown.
Ms. Merkel, like everyone, would like to find a way out, too, but this week she warned Germans to remain cautious. She is listening to the advice of a multidisciplinary panel of 26 academics from Germany’s national academy of science. The panel includes not just medical experts and economists but also behavioral psychologists, education experts, sociologists, philosophers and constitutional experts.
“You need a holistic approach to this crisis,” said Gerald Haug, the academy’s president, who chairs the German panel. “Our politicians get that.”
A climatologist, Mr. Haug used to do research at Columbia University in New York.
The United States has some of the world’s best and brightest minds in science, he said. “The difference is, they’re not being listened to.”
“It’s a tragedy,” he added.
Some cautioned that the final history of how countries fare after the pandemic is still a long way from being written.
A pandemic is a very specific kind of stress test for political systems, said Mr. Garton Ash, the history professor. The military balance of power has not shifted at all. The United States remains the world’s largest economy. And it was entirely unclear what global region would be best equipped to kick-start growth after a deep recession.
“All of our economies are going to face a terrible test,” he said. “No one knows who will come out stronger at the end.”
Benjamin Haddad, a French researcher at the Atlantic Council, wrote that while the pandemic was testing U.S. leadership, it is “too soon to tell” if it would do long-term damage.
“It is possible that the United States will resort to unexpected resources, and at the same time find a form of national unity in its foreign policy regarding the strategic rivalry with China, which it has been lacking until now,” Mr. Haddad wrote.
There is another wild card in the short term, Mr. Moïsi pointed out. The United States has an election in November. That, and the aftermath of the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s, might also affect the course of history.
The Great Depression gave rise to America’s New Deal. Maybe the coronavirus will lead the United States to embrace a stronger public safety net and develop a national consensus for more accessible health care, Mr. Moïsi suggested.
“Europe’s social democratic systems are not only more human, they leave us better prepared and fit to deal with a crisis like this than the more brutal capitalistic system in the United States,” Mr. Moïsi said.
The current crisis, some fear, could act like an accelerator of history, speeding up a decline in influence of both the United States and Europe.
“Sometime in 2021 we come out of this crisis and we will be in 2030,” said Mr. Moïsi. “There will be more Asia in the world and less West.”
Mr. Garton Ash said that the United States should take an urgent warning from a long line of empires that rose and fell.
“To a historian it’s nothing new, that’s what happens,” said Mr. Garton Ash. “It’s a very familiar story in world history that after a certain amount of time a power declines.”
“You accumulate problems, and because you’re such a strong player, you can carry these dysfunctionalities for a long time,” he said. “Until something happens and you can’t anymore.”
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin and Constant Méheut from Paris.
Katrin Bennhold is The New York Times’s Berlin bureau chief. Learn more about Ms. Bennhold here.
This article was published on April 23 in The New York Times.