As in many other countries reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 contagion, a wave of pessimism, fear, and hopelessness is sweeping vast sectors of the population of the United States of America. With over three million afflicted and the death toll rising to some 136,000 during the week of July 8 to 15, the number of COVID-19 cases in the US is way ahead of that of every country on the planet, including Third World countries with substandard healthcare systems. The pandemic has provoked analysts into taking a hard look at why the richest country in the world has fallen on such terrible times.
The economist, Nobel laureate, and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out that even if the daily average growth of the number of US cases is “only” 20,000 as the Trump administration claims, that number is still five times the rate in the entire European Union (4,000), with its more than 446 million population compared to the US’ 300 million. But the number of additional daily cases in the US, Krugman noted, has actually soared to 50,000.
Some 40 million mostly low-income workers have reported losing their jobs; thousands of companies have shut down; and the country with the world’s biggest economy is likely to suffer an economic catastrophe other economists say can be worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. The unemployment rate during the pandemic, say the same economists, is comparable to that of the Great Depression, when it was 25%.
What is needed, says Krugman, is for the US government to “bring the COVID-19 surge under control and [make] sure that Americans keep getting the economic aid they need.” Instead, thanks to the Trump administration’s continuing to play down the seriousness of the problem and its impact on the economy and the rest of society, the “infections will soar further, and millions of Americans will lose crucial economic lifelines in a few weeks.” Krugman, who had earlier been optimistic about US economic recovery, concludes that “The next four months are going to be very, very ugly” as the situation continues to deteriorate.
“Declinists” have been saying for years that the US is declining in terms of, among other indicators, its aging infrastructure, the unaddressed defects of its educational system, and its notoriously expensive, privately-run and profit-oriented health care network. Others add that it is also evident in the rampaging racism and inequality in US society, the destruction of the trade unions, and the vast economic gap between the wealthiest one percent of the population and the remaining 99%.
It is mostly unnoticed by most Americans and unremarked, but all this has been going on for decades. What has brought it to attention, “the most immediate cost of US decline — and the most vivid demonstration — comes from the country’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic,” argues the media and financial company Bloomberg’s Noah Smith. The US failure to stop the spread and toll in lives of the disease, says Smith, “will have real economic costs for Americans as fear of the virus drives people back into their homes and businesses suffer.”
If these dire assessments of the present and predictions for the future are accurate, they will inevitably impact the capacity of the US to continue functioning as the planet’s imperialist overlord, global hegemon, and the world’s only remaining superpower.
Some balk at the description of the US as imperialist. But the reality of US imperialism has been acknowledged by both conservatives as well as liberals. Following the US invasion of Iraq on the pretext that it had weapons of mass destruction but in reality to access and exploit its vast oil reserves, an adviser of then US President George W. Bush for example declared in 2003 that the US is indeed an empire. That declaration was tantamount to admitting that it is committed to defending and advancing its political and economic interests through diplomacy if possible, but through military means if necessary.
The US became a colonial power by acquiring formal control over Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines after the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 20th century. It eventually morphed into an imperial power,and to secure those interests it intervened in various countries by frustrating popular demands for change, installing US-compliant dictators, and overthrowing leaders whose policies it deemed contrary to its longstanding policy of global economic and political dominance.
The Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos was among the leaders the US supported up to his overthrow in 1986 to protect its economic and strategic interests, even as it continued to intervene in other countries and to surround its perceived rivals, such as the Soviet Union and China, with its over 800 military bases.
Despite its seeming invincibility and triumphs, among them the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, not only foreign but even its own analysts have argued that the US’ power to shape and influence world events to its advantage has been substantially diminished. The process, say these analysts, began with the “loss” of China in 1949, and continued to the stalemate that ended the Korean war in the 1950s, later the war in Vietnam which it lost, and, in this century, the disastrous consequences of its policies in the Middle East.
Of note, as far as the Philippines is concerned, is the US’ lukewarm response to Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea. Its reactions have been limited to reminding China of its Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines and some of its warships’ occasionally passing through those waters. Only recently did it seem ready to do anything about the Duterte regime’s passive acceptance of the militarization of the West Philippine Sea because “it is not against us” but against the US.
In 2004, the American military historian Gabriel Kolko noted that then President George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq despite the reservations of US allies weakened the Western alliance and made problematic the implementation of the policy of waging wars wherever and whenever it perceives any threat to its dominance over land, sea, and air. Although he feared that the 21st would be another “century of war” like the 20th, Kolko expressed the hope that because of the weakening of US war-making capacity, the wars in this century would not be as devastating as those of the previous one.
US President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration slogan of “Make America Great Again” implicitly recognizes American decline at home and abroad. Trump is presiding over a period in which the Western alliance has been weakened, US efforts to prevail internationally are floundering in the confusion generated by his policies, and capitalist China is challenging its global dominance.
But these do not mean the end of US power and influence in the Philippines, where, regardless of Mr. Duterte’s anti-Americanism, it has cultivated, with the collaboration of its local clients, decades of political, economic and cultural pre-eminence. Despite the damage inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the incompetence of the Trump administration, it can still wage the wars it needs to revive its military-industrial complex-dominated economy and to rule the planet for some time to come.
All empires decline and eventually fall. The US has been in decline for decades, but rather than imminent, its fall is likely to take decades more, pandemic or no pandemic.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).