Many commentators and analysts have questioned why a powerful country such as the United States seems disorganised and unprepared for crises. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP
Many commentators and analysts have questioned why a powerful country such as the United States seems disorganised and unprepared for crises. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

US internal weaknesses don't reflect its global power, here's why

By Siyabonga Hadebe Time of article published Apr 13, 2020

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PRETORIA – Many commentators and analysts have questioned why a powerful country such as the United States seems disorganised and unprepared for crises. First, it was regular shootings and terror attacks, then came the sub-prime mortgage problem in 2008 and now the coronavirus pandemic. In all the events preceding the Covid-19, the US is said to have fared the worst. With the novel virus unfolding the same assessment is currently given.

Although the US got affected by the coronavirus quite late in comparison to Europe and Asia, it is, however, now the epicentre of the world in terms of infections. It now accounts for a third of the 1.5 million confirmed cases in the world. And at around 20 000 deaths it has not been long since the US surpassed Italy. It now has the largest number of both deaths and infections, and counting. The world’s most powerful economy adds on average 27 000 cases daily. This growing crisis has been matched by the harrowing response on the part of Washington DC. Some experts decry lack of available testing, among others, which they say makes the US fall short in addressing the pandemic.

Some of the information is also coming out that in 2018 President Donald Trump “disbanded the US government's team dedicated to responding to a pandemic”, according to former Utah Republican Governor Mike Leavitt. But also, it is claimed that the US government dismissed the seriousness of the spread when the first cases were reported. Trump called it "China flu". Furthermore, a plethora of reasons has been given why the virus is estimated to kill between 100 000 and 240,000 people. These include the lack of universal health care and poverty, especially among the African-American population.

But at the heart of it, many those who monitor the US situation closely are taken aback by the "lack of co-ordinated public health response". The reason that this results in “a shortage of tests and an incomplete patchwork of shelter-in-place orders”. Meghan May, a professor of infectious disease at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, points out that the government should have foreseen that the virus was going to leave China and enter the US. In this regard, some groundwork should have started such as “thinking about quality controlling test kits, ramping [up] production of tests, thinking about hospital capacity and what the contingency plan would be if that capacity — physical space, healthcare workers, and supplies — were to be challenged.”

Political analysis exposes the US as a country with a weak drive to tackle the virus in a co-ordinated manner. But its international outlook has also been criticised by many for creating a paralysis to a possible global or multilateral approach in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Its spat with China and the World Health Organization (WHO), among others, signals a distracted global force in the midst of a global crisis. According to Al Jazeera's Mike Hanna, the US accuses the global body of minimising the threat of the virus in the early days. This is after WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus remarked, “Please quarantine politicizing COVID... we will have many body bags in front of us if we don’t behave.” In response, Washington has threatened to withdraw its contribution to the WHO of about $500 million.

The current scenario does not work in favour of the US. Increasingly, its response is contrasted with that of another superpower, China. Foreign Policy’s Morten Soendergaard Larsen and Robbie Gramer claim that Beijing initially mishandled the Covid-19 outbreak which helped lead to the global spread of the pandemic. They add that China is now in control while the US is still fumbling. The Asian nation already exercises ‘soft power’ by shipping sorely needed medical supplies and doctors worldwide. 

Also, Russia makes a meal of the highly politicised virus: it urged other nations to stand in the absence of a credible global leader. Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov says there’s a new geopolitical era characterised "multipolarity" and a shift in economic power to East from West. John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul adds, “it looks like China’s out there helping the world, whereas the United States is in ‘America First’ mode.” Of course, China isn’t sparred from criticism either. Keith Bradsher of The NY Times accuses Beijing of not opening its wallet enough to help the world back on track. China has spent close to nothing in comparison to the US, European countries and Japan. Nonetheless, the shock has been directed towards America’s ‘third world’ or amateurish overall capacity which affects its reaction to crises.

This article is not an exercise to evaluate and assess the response of the US government to the coronavirus outbreak from a health perspective. However, it seeks to explore the reasons why the US’s internal makeup does not seem to match its international credentials as an invincible, powerful state. Focusing on the memoir by the French sociologist and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) who toured the US in 1831, it is hoped that the "patient" can be correctly diagnosed to understand its struggles by looking at its internal political system. In his book "Democracy in America" (1835), de Tocqueville admired the functioning of internal structures and democracy. However, this opinion piece takes an opposite view that the type of "democracy" found in the US weakens its internal functioning between different levels of state, and its historical origins can be useful to understand the present.

The US is normally characterised as many nations in one. In the book "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America", Colin Woodard sees the US as “neither united nor made up of 50 states”. Following his study of US voting patterns, demographics and public opinion polls, Woodard reached a disturbing conclusion that the US is in fact really made up of eleven different nations. Using the historical settlement patterns of Europeans, the author points out that the "nations" exist across the present-day US, Canada and Mexico. Woodward infers that these nations “are all stateless, though at least two currently aspire to change that, and most of the others have tried to at one time or another”. 

De Tocqueville also came to a similar conclusion: “the emigrants differed from one another in many points, their goal was not the same, and they governed themselves according to diverse principles”.

Some of the nations mentioned in Woodward’s book are summarized as follows: 

- Firstly, ‘Yankeedom’ in the Northeast and industrial Midwest was created by “Puritans and residents there have always been comfortable with a government that regulates and moderates.”

- Former West Indian slave, plantation owners founded communities of the Deep South in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and another state. Here, they “wanted to recreate the society they were used to, government based on the sacrosanct rights of a few wealthy elite.”

- ‘Greater Appalachia’ which extends from West Virginia in a wide band to the northern half of Texas was created by people from the British Isles. These people “were openly antagonistic to the so-called ‘ruling oligarchies’ and upper classes, so they opposed the slave plantation economy, but they also distrust government.” As a result, a culture that developed resulted in personal sovereignty, or personal freedom.

- Another interesting region covers remnants of Spanish settlements that always had secessionist aspirations from both the US and Mexico.

Based on the above, Woodard says the US has never been a "united states". This means that nation-building and one uniform culture in a deeper sense did not quite develop. People’s attitudes and cultures when it comes to things such as taxes, gun control and other issues. What Woodward says the cultures from the early colonial period have survived to this day and largely inform how Americans view freedom, religion, mercantilism, statehood and many other issues from gun control to universal health. De Tocqueville did not review America in detail as Woodward but their views tend to overlap somewhat on such things as individualism and mistrust for the central state. Homogeneity of the American society is therefore highly contested.

De Tocqueville observed: “If there is a single country in the world where one can hope to appreciate the dogma of the sovereignty of the people at its just value, to study it in its application to the affairs of society, and to judge its advantages and its dangers, that country is surely America.” In his book, the Frenchman generally obsessed about how individual freedom (or personal sovereignty) and the power vested in local communities made the US completely different from Europe. Centred around personal freedom and community, American society mistrusts centralisation of power.

De Tocqueville was impressed by political organisation in the American state. He noted that first comes the township, followed by higher the county, and the state occupies the last position. He reasoned, “The freedom of a township in the United States, therefore, flows from the very dogma of the sovereignty of the people.” As a result, the township never relinquished its independence from early days in favour of the state. In simpler terms, the inverted power structure places the individual as the most important authority in the US political system. That explains the choice of the economic system that largely reduces power and influence of central state (read federal government). This goes for other issues as well including the contentious issue of healthcare, which draws extremist views in US politics. The debate on Obamacare needs to be understood in this context.

The US was founded by people who’d run away from oppressive and warring governments in Europe, so their views on stronger political organisation at central level were rather sceptical. Even those who believed that “society should be organized to benefit ordinary people,” such as those in the Midlands (historically of German descent), still were “extremely sceptical of top-down governmental intervention.” One feature that makes America unique is that “township had been organized before the county, the county before the state, the state before the Union [the federal government in Washington].” This stands in sharp contrast to Europe (and other parts of the world) where political existence began in the higher regions of society and then gets devolved down to local level. 

Political existence in American society is mainly driven by individualism and selfishness. Evidently, all this has huge political consequences on how the Big State organizes itself in effort to pull together individuals and communities who get constantly pulled apart by personal sovereignty. Everybody has always desired to be equal at the expense of a state with authority. Individuals, therefore, tend to consistently “defend their independence against the aggressions of power [by the central authority, or the state].” This comes as a surprise seeing that the US state is comfortable to exercise external power over other countries and groups but it is largely impotent within its borders. De Tocqueville explains this phenomenon: “The form of the federal government of the United States appeared last.”

In summary, to understand why the US fails to adequately respond to national crises, including coronavirus, can be located in the design of its political system which places little or no importance on government intervention, or the power of the Big State. For the longest time, the US overly emphasized personal sovereignty (individualism) and boasted that this was the source of its strength. As a result, collectivism as demonstrated through strong public institutions and or policies aimed to benefit all. Nevertheless, the focus is generally on the change in the global order. But what is happening is that US political system could be undergoing drastic.

Keith Johnson suggests that under Trump, “the invisible hand belongs to the government.” Maybe, the US is coming to a serious realization that collective action could be a new direction the country needs to take. Economics could be the focus at the moment but state intervention could soon extend to other areas well, starting with healthcare, to make the American Dream a dream for all Americans…

Siya yi banga le economy!

Based in Pretoria, Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economics, politics and global matters.

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