A civics lesson

Absolution is a powerful intoxicant. Those addicted to its thrills will go to great lengths to get it. In America, where absolution has been made artificially cheap and plentiful, we’ve lately been forgiving ourselves for our role in the global health crisis, and sometimes pretending that we didn’t have one at all. In this view, the virus was like a great ship, unmarked and untraceable, which arrived on the shores and unloaded its cargo before we knew what was happening. We were the passive recipients of a deadly gift from overseas. Like so many other recently minted myths, this is a dangerous one. In order to prevent the next crisis, and mitigate the one we’re still very much in the midst of, it’s important for us to reverse our thinking about this, and understand and accept exactly what America is, and what our global responsibilities are.

America is unlike any other country in the world. Every country is exceptional, but the ways in which America is different far outpace the ways in which it is an average citizen of the community of nations. The main reason that America can’t be treated like other countries is an economic one: the dollar is the world’s reserve currency. This wasn’t always the case. Before World War II, the world economic system was largely backed by the British sterling. In the second half of the twentieth century, the international order was reshuffled, and American money was made the anchor of global commerce. To some degree, this revaluation was an acknowledgement of a shift in power that had already happened. The strength of American industry and ingenuity had been made visible to the entire globe. But countries were also willing to fall into the new order because they believed that America would be a capable steward. The eagle looked like a bird to follow.

Sometimes we’ve justified that faith, but lately, we haven’t. Our government has often taken advantage of our reserve position in the world economy by borrowing trillions and running enormous deficits — debts that no other country could sustain without jeopardizing its citizens’ way of life. Our leaders have been able to do this because belief in American industry and ingenuity remains strong worldwide. Creditors continue to buy our bonds, and maintain their trust that we’ll make good on our gigantic promissory notes. Among those paying customers are the treasuries of foreign countries, including ostensible competitors like China. Our debts tether us to those countries more securely than any military treaty ever could. American politicians may jump up and down and shake their fists at the Chinese authorities for sending pathogens our way, but they do it with fingers crossed behind their backs. They know that if investors stop purchasing our debts, the system that provides us our great economic advantage will dissolve like a sandcastle under a great wave.

This might sound ugly, or even unpatriotic to you, but it’s undeniable: the economic well-being of the United States is based on a kind of confidence game. Investors simply must continue to see our treasury bonds as a safe asset pool. The moment that stops, the jig is up. Markers will be called in, and we’ll find ourselves trillions of dollars in the hole and without ready means to fund public services. This does not mean that our leaders have no latitude to project moral authority. On the contrary, confidence in America requires that we act the part of the leader. We don’t have the option to become a pariah nation. There is simply no way for America to step back from its position of international stewardship without jeopardizing everything that we have come to count on.

For many reasons, almost all of which have been bad, recent American governments have been reluctant to acknowledge this. Some of them have worked hard to obscure it. The current administration may indeed be the fullest expression of a national hunger for a fantastic self-sufficiency, but this snow job has been going on for years. The groundwork for disengagement was laid in the 1980s, and all of our popular politicians have furthered it in one way or another. Consider, for instance, another global responsibility that most Americans don’t like to think about: control of the commons. The waterways and airways by which all of the products we need come to these and other shores are, technically, international. But the moment they’re threatened by pirates, or bomb-throwers, or unscrupulous regimes looking to set up a shipping chokehold, the entire planet expects Uncle Sam to swing around the big stick. You might find this unfair, or just unfortunate; I sure do, and I’ve been loud about that in the past. I don’t think it’s healthy for America to be the global heavy. Nevertheless, that’s the role we’ve taken on, and it’s one of the cornerstones of our hegemony. If an American commander in chief ever said you know what?, we’re not going to do this anymore, you people do it instead, that would absolutely recalibrate the world order.

During the twenty-first century, our international authority has steadily dwindled. That has happened with the consent of the public, which has clearly grown weary of shouldering an international burden. The rest of the globe has been slow to catch on to our loss of confidence, and that’s been good thing for us, since we’ve continued to reap the residual rewards of the arrangements that were made seventy years ago. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a radical global reordering was right around the corner, and if, during that reordering, America was treated with rudeness that we’ve never experienced. That relegation hasn’t happened yet, and people around the world continue to look to America to project strength in difficult times.

What this means is that we still have a moral responsibility to stay steady at the tiller — even if the ship is going down. We can’t pretend to be geopolitical newbies, or behave like our concerns stop at our borders. If something strange is going on in China, we’re supposed to be on top of it; we’re not allowed to behave like innocents who just happened to be standing downwind of international affairs. We’re not allowed to pull out of global agreements or yank the plug from oversight organizations, even if we don’t like how they’re staffed or who their investors are. If the first third of 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there’s no taking our ball and going home. American inattention has dreadful global consequences. That’s the way the modern world is built, and there’s no getting around it. There may be a day in the not-so-distant future when another nation takes on the mantle of world stewardship. In the meantime, the planet can’t float on rudderless. We shouldn’t hasten the start of that new day. Believe me, fellow American, you’re not going to like it one bit when it dawns.