Mark Twain, America’s humorist and public moralist, regularly advised his countrymen to get up and go. Explore, dream, and “sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.” Those who refused would come to regret their timidity.
As Americans we celebrate the novelist’s advice. But this has been a calamitous year. The coronavirus has upset our plans, restricted our travel and curtailed family visitations. Friends are more distant, often connected by phone and social media instead of in person. Many experience a degree of longing or loneliness they have not previously felt. And something else, too – a sense of drifting, of not being quite sure of the best way to proceed in their lives.
The perception of drift is not only personal, but also political and institutional. Two hundred fifteen thousand deaths have been recorded in the United States, far more than other countries have experienced. It stings when the world’s wealthiest country falls from being envied to one that is pitied and snickered about. Foreign peoples, including allies and partners, no longer see us as many see ourselves, as history’s exceptional nation.
We may choose to disagree, but data stake their claim on our attention. Earlier this summer, a reputable Pew Research Center poll of more than 13,000 respondents in 13 countries detailed how far our image abroad has fallen. America’s botched pandemic response, with skyrocketing deaths and infections, has made worse what was already becoming apparent.
Another contemporary survey, this one of 11,000 correspondents in European countries, and commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations, echoes America’s Pew research. Only 2 percent of Europeans surveyed believe that the U.S. is a helpful ally in countering COVID-19. They have swallowed the fact that in times of need the U.S. is no longer necessarily a friend for Europe, the report reads. Though the strength of American democracy has long been based on pillars such as trust, that appears to be virtually gone.
We need not rely on European perceptions, however, to recognize the drift present in our society. Unlike during the decades following World War II, we Americans are ambivalent about just who we are and where we stand on the world stage. Our cooperative skills and social cohesion have weakened as we face not one but several crises all at once – climate change, educational adjustments necessitated by COVID-19, racial unrest, and vanished jobs.
Making matters worse is erratic leadership in the White House (site of a recent coronavirus cluster) that daily prompts fears of election fraud. Instead of urging the public to act in unison and face the challenges before us, the president encourages partisanship. As a result, obviously wise choices to socially distance and wear facial masks are widely disregarded.
It’s not only in the response to coronavirus – which after eight months has yet to yield a national policy – that we sense drift. Three years ago the current administration renounced the Paris climate accord. With nothing to replace it, the partisan divide between scientifically based analyses and climate change deniers has widened. Current warming models suggest that “everyone in the Northern Hemisphere is effectively moving southward at about 12.5 miles a year.” Due to rising sea levels and the movement of people to cooler and less humid areas, climate change will inevitably alter the political map of America.
Early in the Trump administration the president pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the major consequence being that China’s authority in international trade negotiations has grown. Two years ago, by executive action, the U.S. withdrew from an Iran nuclear deal that was designed to hold off, though not eliminate permanently, Iran’s development as a nuclear power. Unfortunately, subsequent events have actually encouraged Iran to pursue a nuclear program.
Combined with President Trump’s disparagement of NATO as “obsolete,” it now appears that his decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization, scheduled for July 2021, will take place if he wins a second term. Despite certain failures through the years, the under-funded WHO has enjoyed notable successes, among them the eradication of smallpox and leading global efforts to combat polio and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Negation and withdrawal. Steeped in personal wishes and pique, it’s unworthy of a great nation. Far better to listen and engage the international community. In a dangerous and constantly changing world, one needs friends. A policy of America First risks the consequence of becoming America Alone.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at [email protected]