BERLIN — As images of America’s overwhelmed hospital wards and snaking jobless lines flicker around the world, people on the European side of the Atlantic are looking at the richest and most powerful nation in the world with disbelief.
“When people see these pictures of New York City they say ‘How can this happen? How is this possible?’ ’’ said Henrik Enderlein, president of the Hertie School in Berlin, a university focused on public policy. “We are all stunned. Look at the jobless lines.’’
“I feel a desperate sadness,’’ said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European history at Oxford University and a lifelong and ardent Atlanticist.
The pandemic has done more than take lives and livelihoods from New Delhi to New York. It is shaking fundamental assumptions about American exceptionalism — the special role the United States played for decades after World War II as the reach of its values and power made it a global leader and example to the world.
Today, the nation is leading in a different way: More than 840,000 Americans have COVID-19, and at least 46,784 have died from it, more than anywhere else in the world.
As the calamity unfolds, President Trump and state governors are not only arguing over what to do but also over who has the authority to do it. Trump has fomented protests against safety measures sought by scientific advisers, misrepresented facts about the virus and the government response nearly daily, and this week used the virus to cut off the issuing of green cards to people seeking to emigrate to the United States.
“America has not done badly; it has done exceptionally badly,’’ said Dominique Moïsi, a political scientist at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne.
The pandemic has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of just about every society, Moïsi noted. It has demonstrated the strength of, and suppression of information by, an authoritarian Chinese state as it locked down the city of Wuhan. It has shown the value of Germany’s deep well of public trust and collective spirit, even as it has underscored the country’s reluctance to lead Europe.
And in the United States, it has exposed two great weaknesses that, in the eyes of many Europeans, have compounded one another: the erratic leadership of Trump, who has devalued expertise and often refused to follow the advice of his scientific advisers, and the absence of a robust public health care system and social safety net.
“America prepared for the wrong kind of war,’’ Moïsi said. “It prepared for a new 9/11, but instead a virus came.’’
Ever since Trump turned America First into his mantra, Europeans have had to get used to the his casual willingness to risk decades-old alliances and rip up international agreements. Early on, he called NATO obsolete and withdrew support from the Paris climate pact and Iran nuclear deal.
But this is perhaps the first global crisis in more than a century in which no one is even looking to the United States for leadership. Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, has said as much: China took “very authoritarian measures, while in the US, the virus was played down for a long time,’’ he told Der Spiegel magazine.
The country that defeated fascism in Europe 75 years ago and defended democracy on the Continent in the decades that followed is doing a worse job of protecting its own citizens than many autocracies and democracies.
There is a special irony: Germany and South Korea, products of enlightened postwar US leadership, have become potent examples of best practices in the coronavirus crisis.
Of course, some countries in Europe were overwhelmed by the virus, with the number of dead higher as a percentage of population in Italy, Spain, and France than in the United States. But they were struck sooner and had less time to react. Germany is praised for a near-textbook response, thanks to a robust public health system and political leadership.
Some caution that the final history is a long way from being written. “All of our economies are going to face a terrible test,’’ Garton Ash said. “No one knows who will come out stronger at the end.’’