USA post Coronavirus. Waking the sleeping giant?

Paper 23 / 2020

The 1970 American production Tora! Tora! Tora!, narrating the events leading up to the Japanese attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor in December 1941, ends with the words of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, warning his compatriots, exultant after the apparent initial success obtained by their surprise attack “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”.

Historians cannot prove that the admiral actually said those words in public, but they do certify that he did make comments to that effect in his private diaries. The admiral was a great connoisseur and indeed admirer of American society and culture. His observation is not only a reflection of the purely short-term tactical consideration that, despite the great destruction inflicted by the surprise attack, they had failed to eliminate the all-important American aircraft carriers. The reflection was above all, the acknowledgement that Japan had embarked on a conflict against a nation endowed with vast human and natural resources, and above all a culture as well as a social and moral force that would make it an implacable and formidable enemy.

The current health crisis is of course not (until further notice, and only if and when very serious, specific and horrific facts and allegations can be and are proven) an attack by any nation on any other, or on the rest of the world in general. Indeed, for the moment, we are talking about a world-wide pandemic, not the first the world has seen, nor the last it will see, which apparently -to attribute it a purely geographic location- originated in China.

Likewise, the response of the different nations to the pandemic has so far been largely, with different nuances, pretty much the same throughout the globe: Generalised improvisation, with varying levels of success, and quite a diverse spectrum of “social distancing” measures, more or less strict direct confinement of the general population, more or less draconian shutdown of all non-essential business and economic activity, etc.

Internationally, commerce, tourism and the general mobility of people have fallen to the minimum necessary. The temporary total closure of borders between nations seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

The reaction of the US to this crisis is not on the whole being that much different, with its varying “successes” and “failures”, to that which we are witnessing being enacted in most other countries, although of course, because of its world power status it invites much more international interest and scrutiny.

From the “Western world” perspective, we observe with consternation certain reactions by the US, especially given the more extrovert and unpredictable nature and character of the current occupant of the White House: Statements against the World Health Organisation (WHO), its ambivalent position towards China, at times directly insinuating it may be consciously or even maliciously behind the virus, only to later insist on the excellent relations between both nations and the positive effects of their recently signed trade agreement, etc.  These would be short-term, tactical concerns about the US over which the Western world could (and indeed does) potentially worry.

The world as a whole will indeed change in certain aspects due to this crisis, whose probable true economic and financial dimension -actual mortal victims aside- we are only now beginning to envisage.

Certain aspects and practical lessons -new societal and behavioural norms and “recommended practices”, specific protocols for new pandemics, etc.- will indeed change in the medium to long term. Other changes or reflections will be inexplicably lost on us or very quickly forgotten, when we return to normality. How many times, after the latest recession, speculative “.com” or real estate market bubble do we tell ourselves “we’ve learnt our lesson, never again”, only to fall into the same bubble and exuberance a few years later, lured by the prospect of easy and rapid gains once more?

It is in this context that this reflection about some aspects of the USA’s reaction to the current health crisis is being made.

The US, like most other Western countries, is currently in the middle of resisting the “first wave” of the onslaught of the pandemic, achieving, or not, the “flattening” of the famous “curve” to avoid the overwhelming or direct collapse of its health systems. The short-term extent of many of the changes we may see, indeed the re-election of its current President this November, will no doubt depend on the success of the immediate management of the crisis.

Responding to the immediate health and economic crisis, the administration of President Donald Trump is mobilising its productive resources, financial rescue packages, emergency powers and other tools at its disposal on a scale with few historical precedents.

There are also certain more subtle changes in posture and nuance however, which are also starting to show, for better or for worse, and which are more inherent to the nature and spirit of American society and culture, than to the agenda or politics of any specific administration:

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US for example, did not bring about a massive destruction of US critical infrastructure, industrial capacity or -especially in number of actual lives lost- an objectively overwhelming blow to the American nation, but there is little doubt that because of the economic, financial and moral harm caused, and especially the blow dealt to the perception of security of the American people, the attacks did, for better or for worse, mark a “before and after” milestone, a true seismic change both in domestic American policy as in the balance of power in the world during these last 20 years.

The advent of the “War on Terrorism” as one of the main axioms of international politics and the subsequent alignment of great powers; the concept of “nation building” taken to a whole new plane; and the multiple interventions in the Middle East and wider region, led at first by the USA and later on by the EU (Arab Springs), now retrospectively seen and questioned, not only for their original justification or not, but also for their actual utility and unintended consequences, and a large etc. are but a few examples of the magnitude of the seismic change.

For better or for worse, the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US changed the posture, attitude, and determination of the US vis a vis the rest of the world. To date, it is still far too early to discern what specific policies this nation is going to choose to enact as a result of the current crisis, but there are certain actions which enable us to start to get a glimpse of what changes in general posture we can expect:

Some of these policies can be initially seen as erred or even counterintuitive as a consequence of, or response to a global pandemic. Indeed, in the same way that, for example, after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the American administration- then finally firmly intent on entering full on in the Second World War- after discussions with their European and Russian allies, decided to give partial priority to the European theatre against the German Reich rather than to concentrate exclusively on the Pacific theatre against the Japanese threat, (where the US had suffered its attack and where they saw the most clear and present threat to their own homeland and possessions), the changes in posture of the US resulting from this health and economic crisis may bring about policies in the short and medium term which may not ostensibly follow objectives perceived as immediate or even urgent:

Internationally for example, the US has mobilized part of its Navy to more closely monitor the Venezuelan “narco state/dictatorship” and other unfriendly states in the Caribbean region. They have also tightened the legal noose on these regimes, issuing official international arrest warrants and even financial rewards for the delivery of key individuals. There are many analysts who see these moves as short-term “knee-jerk” reactions or even attempts to distract attention from the current crisis, but historically, also again, for better or for worse, when the US “bites its prey” policy-wise, it seldom lets it go. It would be expected for example, that such a change in posture (barring a very extreme change as a result of the November elections), will transcend future changes in the US administration.

In much the same way, the US administration’s attitude towards China is also quite revealing. For the moment, relations seem to be ostensibly stable: Both leaders seem to insist on their good personal relationship and objectively yes, both nations have closed an important bilateral commercial deal in January this year after more than two years of intense negotiations.

Regarding the immediate future, the signals being sent by the US are quite confusing; quasi war-like rhetoric accusing China at times of opaqueness, disloyalty or even downright conspiracies on the one hand, interlaced with declarations of normalised relationships and even open enthusiasm and optimism brought about by the new trade deal on the other.

What is clear however seems to be the underlying will to establish a much more realist posture -this change comes from before the actual pandemic crisis- towards the Chinese regime in general. The American administration seems intent on finally dealing with China head on, “face to face”, insisting on actual, REAL reciprocity in trade relations and commercial dealings. Gone are the “free rides” of the Chinese regime regarding their ability to invest abroad and to enter in the capital of foreign firms and infrastructures (ports, telecoms and energy companies, etc.), while at the same time making it de-facto impossible for foreign firms to reciprocally invest or acquire any serious partnership -let alone control- of Chinese firms or infrastructures. Likewise, gone (or so the new posture seems to suggest) is the impunity enjoyed so far by the People’s Republic in patent violations and illicit technological transfers in programming codes, designs and other intellectual property through practices such as “reverse engineering.  In effect, the US seems intent on firmly and proactively insisting China respects the spirit and regulations of the existing institutions and rules-based system moving forward. Other issues such as currency wars, unfair state-sponsored subsidies and the like will still be of course equally discussed and vigorously lobbied for, but again also from a position of total reciprocity.

As far as other nations and international institutions are concerned, the current administration’s discourse against the «Who», and at times questioning the utility or even the nature and existence of other organisms such as the UN or NATO, bode a deeper rooted change (many now forget Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s more timid and subtle rebukes of NATO’s European partners for example -the “sleeping giant” was “woke”, albeit not yet filled with “terrible resolve”-), not only in specific policies, but of posture and attitude towards even friendly and allied nations moving forward.

The specific policies to be followed by the US, especially by THIS administration, on the aftermath of the current crisis seem extremely hard to predict. But there seems to be an underlying change in posture and attitude which will likely transcend this particular administration.

The current world pandemic crisis has brought about much more disruption than maybe what its actual health (number of deaths) impact will retrospectively seem to have warranted, catching the practical totality of our governments and political elites off-guard and forcing them into more or less successful or even panicked improvisations as a response. What an objectively frivolous and politically unacceptable statement to make as a mere observation: For better or for worse, that is the new reality our hyper-informed, hyper-connected, welfare-state based (at least in the West), extremely risk-averse societies have forced on us.

This pandemic will bring about a series of unintended (and unexpected) consequences to the relations between the US and the rest of the world. It will bring about similar consequences and changes in the practical totality of the other countries in the world, no doubt, and in blocs and bureaucratic institutions such as the EU as well. But here again, for better or for worse, history teaches us that many of those changes in third countries or at the level of institutions such as the EU will be much less consequential and will eventually be either watered down or wither to nothing, while those affecting the US are normally more substantial and lasting in time.

Much has been written as of late about “the end of American leadership” or “the end of American exceptionalism”. Indeed, much has been misunderstood or more precisely, been consciously and wilfully misrepresented about what this “exceptionalism” means: The US is NOT a perfect nation, far from it, and more importantly, the US is likewise NOT (nor should it be expected to be) a “selfless” nation. US citizens, like all other citizens, are imperfect. All nations have likewise legitimate interests and aspirations. There are noble ideals and maybe even a sense of “destiny” imbued in much of American culture, but a thorough study of its founding and indeed, most of its history, will reveal a culture and society much more prone to isolation and retreat from the world’s “troubles” than any overt imperialist or “domineering” mission.

Once again, for better or for worse, this pandemic crisis may indeed “awaken a sleeping giant” in the US. Let us all hope that the coming international economic, financial and social crisis will be as brief, mild and bearable as possible. God willing it will not fragment our world into autonomous or autarkic blocs or even confronting “trenches”, as happened during the Cold War. If that were to transpire, heaven forbid, I myself would personally, as a citizen of an EU nation, want the US, under whatever administration, firmly in MY “trench”; or speaking more realistically, I will want my country firmly aligned with the US in THEIR trench.

Autarky and isolationism (“America First” slogans included) seem to be, much like overzealous border controls, on the short-term general agenda of international politics, rather than the exception. The lasting changes brought about by this pandemic will no doubt at least initially have a fair amount of this ingredient, but the nature of the US as a deeply commercial culture, its fervent belief in individual rights and freedoms (including free and fair trade), and the sheer size and pre-eminence of its economy within the current system, will always make it firmly defend Western liberal values and the merits of a largely (not perfect) transparent, fair, international rules-based system.

The current pandemic may have, for better or worse, “awoken a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve”. The US is a nation endowed with vast human and natural resources, and above all a culture as well as a social and moral force that would make it either a desirable and reliable ally, or an implacable and formidable enemy.

At this moment in time, the Covid-19 pandemic dominates practically every aspect of our lives; our immediate health, our political discourse, our complete news and social media cycles, our financial welfare, our economic prospects and those of our future generations. Time will tell whether this will be a short-lived crisis, soon to be forgotten and studied as a short but painful anecdote or hiatus in the early XXIst century, or whether it will be a generation- or even historical era-changing shock.

Interesting times are upon us. Everybody brace for impact and buckle up for the brave new world. My instinct tells me I myself, if you don’t mind, will want to side firmly with the US. Hopefully just on their “side” or “team”, otherwise, if necessary, yes, in their trench.

Jesús de Ramón-Laca

Responsibility for the opinions set out in this analysis lies entirely with the author.