In 2020, the United States accounted for 15 percent of the world economy, and 35 percent of the world’s military spending. For decades, American film and television have set the tone for global culture. American politics frequently merits primetime coverage and top headlines at the BBC and Le Monde. America matters because it is the most powerful country in the world and has been for more than a century.
But the present is not always the surest guide to the future. Hannibal had seemingly sealed Rome’s fate by destroying its armies at Cannae, but it would endure for another 692 years in the West. For a sense of perspective, an equivalently long step back from our own time would put us in 1328, when the Aztecs reigned on our continent and the bubonic plague was spreading westward out of the deserts of Central Asia toward a medieval Europe of kings and serfs. Obviously, the pace of history churns faster in our postindustrial society, but it should still give us pause to recall that the lost empires we think of as ephemeral thrived for such comparatively unfathomable spans.
The end, when it comes, comes fast. Historical change is more protean than classical physical processes—a fire that explodes without warning, destroying the old landscape, before flickering out and ushering in new growth amidst the ashes. The fire needs kindling, but you can never predict exactly the source of the fatal spark. George Washington led a combined force of American and French soldiers against the British to win independence at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Who among them could have guessed that across the Atlantic, famine stalked the French peasantry, and that the debt taken on by the French to fund the war against the British would precipitate their own revolution?
Obviously 2020 will offer historians an embarrassment of riches to sift through in coming decades. The coronavirus pandemic has poured forth numbers and patterns both easy to extract and ripe for analysis. But the patchwork paths along which the pandemic has either raged or faltered reflect deep underlying structures and vulnerabilities. The coronavirus is a force of nature. How we react to the shock of the pandemic exposes the frailty or robustness of our societies. Do we stand, or do we totter?
China has an official death toll of under 5,000 from Covid-19. The American tally now exceeds 500,000. Even assuming China is underreporting these figures, other evidence tracks a gap in internal state capacity. By last spring, life in Wuhan, the early epicenter of the pandemic, had returned to normal, as restaurants reopened and public concerts resumed. The World Bank last fall projected China’s economic growth at 2 percent in 2020 and 7.9 percent in 2021. China is the only one of the top 20 economies to record growth in 2020. For the U.S., the figure for 2020 is a 3.5 percent decline.
The year 2020 began with a hammer blow to the Chinese economy and society, but 2021 may give rise to a phoenix-like ascent of Chinese economic and geopolitical power. China’s rise has yielded the usual counterbalancing efforts by its neighbors. The reason Vietnam has become one of the world’s most pro-American nations over the last decade has little to do with anything the U.S. has done and everything to do with the geopolitical posturing of its neighbor to the north. China’s inevitable ascent will present America with opportunities—if it chooses to grasp them. The Chinese economy is still only 66 percent the size of America’s. The U.S. isn’t even behind in the race—yet.
But does the American colossus even understand that a race is on? Fewer than half of Americans hold a passport. Only a little over 10 percent of our economy is tied to foreign trade. The U.S. is a continent-sized nation state. To some extent it can pretend that the world doesn’t matter.
Today, our cultural hegemony is such that the Black Lives Matter movement, which has overturned many norms of American society, is continuing to spread into the wider world—even into areas with few people of African ancestry and no history of slavery. It was a curious spectacle to see Black Lives Matter protesters march in Tokyo. The U.S. may not care about the world, but the world has no choice but to care about the U.S.—for the time being, anyway.
Late-stage empires are subject to involution, as the society turns inward and looks to its past. No longer attentive to the world beyond its frontiers, it finds itself encircled by rising powers, grown powerful in neglect. Rome during its early centuries had to concern itself only with small barbarian clans to its north. This is why the early conflicts between Augustus and Mark Antony, or the civil wars that followed the collapse of the Julio-Claudians in the first century A.D., did not precipitate the intervention of outside powers. There were no such powers to intervene. Three centuries later, great confederacies had arisen beyond the Roman frontier, and outsiders began playing a role in imperial politics. By the fifth century A.D., barbarians filled the ranks of notionally Roman armies. Rome may have turned away from the outside world, preoccupied with its own internal conflicts, but the outside world eventually made itself very much Rome’s concern.
Analogies between Rome and the U.S. are tired, but it is notable that rival powers are now openly involved in American society and politics in a way that would have been unthinkable only a generation ago. Since 2010, the Chinese have been implicated in various hacks with a likely aim of gaining leverage over American citizens. The Russian government’s sponsorship of information warfare to influence our political outcomes has been a running drama for the past five years.
Meantime, cultural elites have been improbably resurrecting the demons of the past and shoving them to the center of the national conversation. The Black Lives Matter movement has yielded massive street protests, and a narcissistic performativity has become de rigueur in corporate boardrooms and elite universities. When Princeton University’s president declared that his institution was systemically racist, he was simply genuflecting to specific performative demands.
The fixation on systemic racism and the past injustices of American history reflects a form of nostalgia for the cultural changes of the 1960s, when all things seemed possible. Is it any coincidence that this cultural moment occurs when people of Latin-American background outnumber African-Americans? Just as MAGA reflects the yearning of many white baby boomers to restore our nation to its bygone postwar preeminence, the radicals of BLM aim to recapture the magic of 1960s radicalism, itself nourished by the same optimistic prosperity.
America is polarized between Left and Right but still strangely united in living in a rapidly fading past. The coronavirus pandemic was a natural challenge. It offered something U.S. elites could respond to, much as they sprang to action during the “Space Race” of the 1960s. This time, however, they failed—the bureaucracy, the media, and the government. Scientists in mid-February 2020 were more exercised by Richard Dawkins’s espousing eugenics than the specter of Covid-19. The CDC testing-kit debacle illustrated massive technical incompetence and left us blind to the advance of the pandemic. The lack of federal and state coordination, in tandem with constant bickering, exposed an elite focused on its own narrow interests rather than those of the broader society. Deep into March 2020, the mayor of New York City advised New Yorkers to continue socializing in bars and restaurants. President Donald Trump’s response to Covid-19 was inconstant, at best. Governor Andrew Cuomo took credit for any good news in New York State but denied or suppressed evidence that his directives on nursing homes possibly exacerbated the death toll of the initial wave.
A light of hope in the midst of all this has been the miracle of Covid-19 vaccines. The fastest vaccine development before 2020 occurred over four years. In response to Covid-19, the U.S. government and the international pharmaceutical industry kicked into high gear in a race against time. In less than a year, Americans had several vaccine options thanks to the coordination of government, basic science, and applied industry.
But even here, Americans came close to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Some plans for the vaccine rollout were marred by interference by ideologues focused on race, rather than on the greatest good for the greatest number. Lack of a coherent national plan produces uneven vaccination rates across the states. And due to national pride and bureaucratic sloth, the U.S. has consciously limited its vaccine options.
American science and engineering are without parallel. When the government is coordinated and focused, it can achieve wonders. But the broader society is not conducive to executing rapidly and flexibly on novel and difficult problems. It does not speak with one voice. Political polarization and cultural nihilism have set American against American even in the face of the pandemic.
Many Americans find themselves at a loss. They see an authoritarian China operating in a concerted fashion to squelch local virus outbreaks, able to deploy millions of tests in a single metropolis in a matter of days. The U.S., by contrast, is divided into countless jurisdictions, without a prayer of agreeing on a single paramount aim or goal. The genius of America has been its localism, openness, and tolerance for personal liberty. But each virtue proved a vice in the face of a pandemic requiring a unified voice.
America still has the largest economy, the most powerful military and the world’s reserve currency, but all these things can collapse much faster than we care to imagine. Our cultural elites need to wake up from their narcissistic fixation with glorifying the wisdom of the nation’s youth that began in the 1960s, with the eternal childhood of the baby boomers.
A digital native who believes Snapchat is for “boomers” barely comprehends the present. But we need also to resist the urge to reach back into history to reassure ourselves. We don’t need to look to 1619 right now—or 1776. The 1950s are more than 60 years in the past, and the romantic radicalism of the 1960s was underwritten by a singularly wealthy society with no credible economic rivals. American history is riven with white supremacy, but more than half of children born today in America are not white.
The challenge of the twenty-first century is not the dream of a multipolar world but the reality of one. There is no way that the U.S. will arrest the rise to ever-greater power of a nation of 1.4 billion Chinese. To meet this challenge, the U.S. must acknowledge that it is not the only sun in the sky. Many potential allies fear the rise of China and see in the U.S. a partner in containing its geopolitical machinations.
To realize these possibilities, Americans need to look up from their own concerns and shed the dead weight of their history. American pride must be rooted not just in the glories of the past but in bright visions of the future. We need to reform our sclerotic twentieth-century institutions—education, finance, and government—to deal with the challenges of the twenty-first century. Our intellectuals must grapple with how we can maintain a free society in a world of ubiquitous cybersurveillance. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the ends around which we design the free society; they are not simply flowery declarations. America’s racial and cultural diversity must be addressed on their own real terms, rather than in the unhinged imaginings of academic theorists. Unless we can orient ourselves to the year 2100, we will wake up one day and realize that history and the world have passed us by. We will have inherited just another old, decaying empire of memories. We still have a choice.