America was a curious country in the 19th century, attracting such figures as Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling. By the end of the century, it was a world power. Its own elite, fabulously rich by almost any standard, did the tour of Europe as commercial conquerors and brought home its spoils in art and fashion.
Then came the two world wars. America bankrolled the British and French in World War I, and when that did not suffice entered the war to tip the balance. For a year, the Allies hung on desperately, waiting for the Yanks to arrive. They did, and the Germans gave up. In World War II, the conquered French and beleaguered British waited two and a half years for deliverance until we crossed the English Channel with the greatest flotilla ever seen to once again rescue democracy and capitalism for the Old World.
America then took its pick of Europe’s best artists and scientists in setting up its own imperium not only in Western Europe but around much of what it dubbed the “Free World.” Not only could the rich and the occasional art-tourist like Ernest Hemingway enjoy Europe (or anywhere else they chose to go), but a generation of backpacking, pot-smoking students — blissfully unaware of the shoulders of privilege on which they stood — came to gawk at the Vatican, the Parthenon and the Pyramids.
This was the American Century, proclaimed Time Magazine’s publisher, Henry Luce, in 1941. It climaxed in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet empire, America’s only competitor. Confidently, we looked forward to a world wholly remade in our image, and, not to put too fine a point on it, obedient to our will. One commentator even declared an “end to history,” in which what we called the “American way of life” would become not only the gold standard for the world but the only standard. I doubt that even the Romans were ever that arrogant.
Then came 9/11. Humiliatingly, the largest attack ever perpetrated on American soil was not the work of our Russian or Chinese rivals, but of a ragtag band of terrorists funded by Saudi sheikhs against whom we dared not retaliate. For a moment, our allies united behind us. In Paris, which we’d liberated nearly sixty years before, people said, “We are all Americans.” You aren’t going to hear that again.
Our European allies followed us as we plunged into the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq, the first one under specious premises and the second under false ones. In Afghanistan, they shared the battlefield losses, and in Iraq the disgrace of our torture sites at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, at least by association.
Still, American might remained Europe’s protective shield against a resurgent Russia, and it spearheaded a joint drive to extend the European Union up to Russia’s own borders and then deep into what had formerly been Soviet territory. Moscow’s military response to the American-led coup against Ukraine’s government threatened Europe with general war for the first time since 1945. This gave pause to our continental partners, but, dependent as they were on our arms, they could only watch nervously as the two former Cold War superpowers flexed muscles against each other.
Donald Trump brought these tensions to a head. A real estate tycoon leveraged by Russian oligarchs and politically indebted to Russian intelligence, he expressed contempt for the Western alliance and its leaders, and for the democratic process in general. Isolating the United States by unilaterally exiting the Paris Climate Accords, the Iraq nuclear arms agreement, and the World Health Organization, he threatened as well to leave NATO, for seven decades the cornerstone of American policy. Many had been uncomfortable before with America’s overweening power; now it seemed to be acting as a rogue state, untethered to norms of conduct and shared interests of any sort.
European leaders, no longer able to rely on an American guarantee, began to look to themselves for security and to contemplate a world in which they would have to act on their own. When the Congressional conviction of Trump on impeachment charges failed in February 2020, they had to face the fact that he could not be regarded as a temporary aberration in American politics, but that he might go on to reshape them for good. With a substantial base of support, he exemplified an anti-intellectual, anti-secular and anti-democratic strain in American life that, abetted by one of its major political parties, had now come to the fore.
COVID-19 then moved America from a rogue state to a pariah one. With whatever hesitations and missteps, China, much of East Asia, most of Europe and parts of Africa moved speedily to contain the virus by testing, contact tracing and a rigorous economic shutdown. These tried and true remedies were successful. By summer, they had not only flattened the curve of viral infection but reduced it, despite occasional outbreaks, to a level compatible with the resumption of much normal activity.
This did not occur in the United States, the only country in the developed world that failed to adopt a national strategy for dealing with the virus. The obvious central reason for this was the willful refusal of Trump to acknowledge and act upon the crisis until a stock market crash, the only barometer he would respond to, compelled him to act. In general, America’s shutdown period was the briefest of any major country’s, and its rate of infection was still alarmingly high when it resumed business.
The result was that infections soon soared, and are now threatening to reach levels beyond control in major parts of the country. Europe’s response to this has been to deny Americans entrance across their borders. True, Donald Trump had himself peremptorily closed the United States to European visitors in March, without notice or consultation. Europe had as good reason to return the disfavor. But that Americans, twice welcomed as saviors of Europe in the past century, should now be persona non grata on the very soil they had liberated, was a comedown without precedent in history. My country has become a pariah; I am an undesirable.
As Tom Engelhardt and others have pointed out recently, the moment when friends around the world rallied to our side after the World Trade Center bombing was the beginning of our eclipse, and Osama bin Laden, the architect of 9/11, has achieved a victory beyond his wildest dreams. But our imperial overreach had set us up for a fall long before; even now, our hubris remains largely undiminished and, for the most part, unexamined.
In “The Man Without a Country,” the 19th century American writer Edward Everett Hale depicted a man who, convicted of treason against the United States and renouncing it defiantly, is condemned to live out his days on the high seas. I’m not a man without a country. These days, though, I feel very much like a man living in a country without a world.