Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Donald Trump’s petulance on the global stage during this crisis has provided an open door for others to take control of global hegemony.
The 45th President of the United States, in his three-and-a-half years at the helm of his country, been hellbent on destroying the legacy of the 44th. Domestically, this has manifested itself in his attempts to repeal ObamaCare, his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords and reimplementation of sanctions on Iran have been key to destroying some of Barack Obama’s most important foreign policy successes. In doing so, however, he has destroyed America’s place in the world forever.
If you are able to think back to the high-points of American influence in Europe in the twentieth century, often called the ‘American Century’, it lies in two places. Immediately after the Second World War, a war more-or-less decided by Soviet and American intervention, aid from the Marshall Plan rebuilt European infrastructure and cemented the United States’ cultural and political hegemony in the West. When George Marshall announced the plan at Harvard University in June 1947, he argued that:
“It is logical that the United States should do whatever is it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.”
Marshall knew that if the United States wanted to strengthen its sphere of influence and its own continued prosperity, then it would need to pay to uphold it. This was the basis of the pact between America and its neighbours and sympathisers from NATO to UNESCO and, indeed to the World Health Organisation (WHO); America pays, and the rest of the world obeys.
The second high point of American influence came at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Francis Fukuyama called it ‘the end of history’, at the point of no return from liberal democracy, neoliberal economics and the American way of life. Nevertheless, the United States, much like a political party who has been in power much too long, has squandered its lead and become bloated, corrupt and, finally, powerless.
In April this year, Donald Trump cut off funding for the WHO, an unprecedented move, especially during a pandemic. Ever since his repetition of ‘America First’ at his inauguration, his scaling back of American foreign influence has been perhaps expected. He is wrong, however, if he thinks that this will best serve the American people.
Whilst Italy was at the high point of its coronavirus crisis, Russian trucks brought medical aid into the country. China has sent medical specialists and equipment into European countries, including Italy and Spain. While the quality of Russian and Chinese equipment has been questioned, it is an important step in European public relations in both countries. Italy, one of the grateful recipients of Marshall Aid after the war, signed a Memorandum of Understanding as part of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative in March last year. The coronavirus crisis has provided belligerent political figures inside the EU, such as Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán, an opportunity to strengthen the soft power of Russia and China.
After the Marshall Plan, Europe quite rightly felt that it owed the United States a huge debt. In the wake of this crisis, Europe will remember the role- or lack thereof- that America played. Russian gas pipelines are creeping into Europe, as is the ‘Belt and Road’. While there have been efforts in recent years to screen and slow down the purchase of European businesses by Chinese companies, particularly in strategic sectors such as energy, an exhausted European economy will present opportunities to China in increasing its soft power.
Yet the bloated political party marches on, dominant for too long, blaming its opposition for problems that it has failed to solve. The fall of the American Empire has been a little overblown in the past. Even in 1951, Isaac Asimov predicted it in his Foundation series. However, the cracks caused by the sheer petulance of the current American administration will surely be impossible to paper over. In 1947, George Marshall saw opportunity in a moment of crisis on the continent. In the future, others will see the opportunity where the United States has given it up.