In 1987 the British historian Paul Kennedy forecasted the decline of the United States in his bestseller The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
Many prestigious academics criticized Kennedy by arguing no country was better prepared to lead the world than the United States. Respected authors like Joseph S. Nye argued that the U.S. was destined to lead.
For a while, after the end of the Cold War, it seemed Kennedy was not right: that the United States was the winner of the East-West confrontation and that no other country was able to lead the world. Even Bill Clinton said by mid-90’s that America was “the most essential nation.”
Yet, at the beginning of this century, the 9/11 terrorist attacks destroyed America’s credibility as the leading country, by portraying it as vulnerable as anyone else. Terrorism turned into the most important threat to American and world security and, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak it received most of the attention by the international community, despite warning signals about other worrisome threats.
Speaking about health issues, one of the first warnings came from Asia between 2002 and 2003 due to the SARS coronavirus outbreak. Later, in 2009, Mexico notified the world about a new influenza strain, A H1N1 which hit North America and the world hard. It was the first pandemics of the 21st century. Three years later, in 2012, Saudi Arabia announced a new coronavirus strain, MERS, which not only hit the Middle East but other countries like South Korea. The world, however, was not paying attention. Health simply was not on the agenda.
President Obama tried to improve health access to the American population. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States had the worst health system within the industrialized world. That began to change under the Obama Administration. Yet, when Trump became President, he distanced himself from the previous government and even reduced the budget of the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC). Security, according to Trump can only be achieved through the military, which explains the 746 billion allocation for national defense in fiscal year 2020. Apart from that, both the “Make America Great Again” and the “America First” rhetoric have made very difficult for the US’ allies to work together with the Trump Administration on global threats such as environmental, energy, and health challenges, just to mention a few. Trump has devoted a precious amount of time to criticizing and mocking the US allies in Europe and Asia, thus leaving the world without much needed leadership at this critical juncture.
To make things worse, a couple of days ago Donald Trump ordered that U.S. companies could not export/sell essential medical supplies to Canada or Latin America. This was in the context of prohibiting a shipment of medical supplies to Canada by 3-M, one of the leading manufacturers of the medical-grade N95 masks. President Trump said he would use the Defense Production Act to prevent American companies from selling surgical masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment to other countries. He justified this decision on the following grounds: “We need these items immediately for domestic use. We have to have them,” giving the Federal Emergency Management Agency the power to “allocate to domestic use” several types of medical personal protective equipment that would otherwise be sold abroad. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized the decision and later Trump seemed to soften his position. Yet it is not clear how is Trump going to deal with the fact that, according to the national surgeon and prominent medical experts, next week is expected to be worst than Pearl Harbor and 9/11 since COVID-19 cases will multiply throughout the country. Americans will have to wait for a while to “flatten the curve.” In the meantime, medical appliances will be required in large quantities.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates 3.5 billion N95 masks will be required over the course of a year. Yet, only one percent of that figure is currently available. These masks are manufactured in China, a country that faces its own demand on medical equipment and intends to supply the world as fast as possible. COVID-19, however, spreads faster than the possibility of increasing and shipping the N95 masks production where needed.
What is Donald Trump doing to “flatten the curve”? He seems to work on the opposite direction. For instance, he is planning on reducing by 37 percent the budget request for the Biological Threat Reduction Program of the Department of Defense, aimed at facilitating and reporting diseases caused by dangerous pathogens. Instead, Trump asked Congress to increase the budget by 19 percent to maintain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear weapons program – thus the allocated budget for 2021 would exceed 44. 5 billions dollars.
COVID-19 has dramatically changed our lives. Health issues have demonstrated as relevant and disruptive as terrorism, organized crime and climate change to international and national security. Since the beginning of the 21st century there were several warnings before the COVID-19 outbreak, but governments, specially the Trump administration, were looking in a different direction. The toll of the outbreak goes beyond the COVID-19 confirmed cases and the deceased: it includes unemployment, economic stagnation, debt burden, the collapsing of airlines, tourism, hotels, restaurants, the entertainment, manufactures and car industries, and more poverty and social unrest. In the words of Henry Kissinger: the coronavirus pandemic will forever alter the world order. So, Paul Kennedy was right after all, right? Two of the most prominent losers at this point are Europe and the U.S., and then the question arises: who is in charge then? Who is taking the lead? Is it China? Russia? Just wait and see.