Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Death of American Competence

| Mar. 23, 2020

Washington's reputation for expertise has been one of the greatest sources of its power. The coronavirus pandemic may end it for good.

No matter how the federal government responded, the United States was never going to escape COVID-19 entirely. Even Singapore, whose response to the virus seems to be the gold standard thus far, has several hundred confirmed cases. Nonetheless, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration’s belated, self-centered, haphazard, and tone-deaf response will end up costing Americans trillions of dollars and thousands of otherwise preventable deaths. Even if the view that the dangers may have been exaggerated due to a lack of accurate data turns out to be correct, Trump's entire approach to governing and the administration's erratic response squandered public confidence and made a more measured reaction untenable. Despite his denials, he is still responsible for where the country is today.

But that's not the only damage the United States will suffer. Far from making "America great again," this epic policy failure will further tarnish the United States' reputation as a country that knows how to do things effectively.

For over a century, the United States' outsized influence around the world rested on three pillars. The first was the its awesome combination of economic and military strength. The United States had the world's largest and most sophisticated economy, the world's best universities and research centers, and a territory blessed with bountiful natural resources. These features eventually enabled the United States to create and maintain military forces that none of its rivals could match. Taken together, these combined assets gave the United States the loudest voice on the planet.

The second pillar was support from an array of allies. No country every agreed with everything Washington wanted to do, and some states opposed almost everything the United States sought or stood for, but many countries understood that they benefited from U.S. leadership and were usually willing to go along with it. Although the United States was almost always acting in its own self-interest, the fact that others had similar interests made it easier to persuade them to go along....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Death of American Competence.” Foreign Policy, March 23, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt