Amid a Pandemic and Social Unrest, America Appears Unrecognizable to Its Allies

From his vantage point in Berlin, Hans Santner says the United States appears almost unrecognizable from the nation he’s watched for so long from afar. The retired 76-year-old Briton who has lived in Germany for 23 years says he’s never seen Americans warring with each other the way they appear to be today.

“It seems like it’s completely different to World War II,” Santner says. “People may have been on different sides but it felt like they were all fighting for what they believed in, together. But this seems to be total mayhem in all directions and very confusing.”

Rent asunder by a summer of racial unrest, a raging pandemic that caught the nation unprepared, and a political system that seems to reward division over unity, the United States appears unrecognizable to many in the industrialized West and to allies that once followed in America’s footsteps.

In Australia, a stalwart ally that fought alongside America in World War II, Vietnam and recent wars in the Middle East, Greg Barns, an attorney and spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, has a harsher view of the U.S. “This is a case of the empire in decline — that (President Donald) Trump is the symptom of a nation in decline, and now has decided to enter into an existential battle with China.” Barns worries about how the tensions between the U.S. and China may affect his country. “Australia has sadly decided to follow the declining empire and fire micro-bullets at the giant in the room that is China.”

While all countries in 2020 are facing the twin threats of the deadly coronavirus pandemic and sharp economic downturns, the U.S. finds itself in a unique position with levels of social unrest not experienced since the 1960s. Seen for more than 70 years as the politically stable leader of the democratic West, America and its deep social and economic cleavages are being laid bare before the rest of the world in the final week of August.

The arrival of Hurricane Laura, which barreled into Louisiana early Thursday with winds of up to 150 miles per hour, seems to underscore the multiple crises facing the U.S. and what some abroad see as a possible defining moment for Americans.

“It’s a health crisis, it’s an economic crisis, it’s a governance crisis,” says Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a constitutional crisis and it’s a crisis of democracy.”

Consider this week’s events: An unprecedented show of unity by athletes who on Wednesday boycotted games in various professional sports leagues to demand justice for Black America in the wake of the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake — the latest case of an African American shot by police.

The shooting of Blake, which has left the 29-year-old partially paralyzed after being shot multiple times in the back, has triggered a new wave of protests across the U.S. — some violent — that are calling for reforms of the police and in the criminal justice system. The arrest of a 17-year-old white male for allegedly shooting and killing two people in Tuesday night protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, provided a stark contrast to the Blake shooting — police initially drove by the white suspect as they responded to the shootings, even as he walked down a street with a long rifle.

Summing up the growing frustration about the disparities of meting out justice in the U.S., NBA coach Doc Rivers bluntly said, “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

With the Wisconsin unrest as a backdrop, the Republican Party continued its national convention this week, with few mentions of the social unrest roiling the country and an emphasis on law and order, a strategy that Republicans have employed for decades.

On Thursday night, Trump doubled down on that theme: “Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans, or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists, agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens.

[GALLERY: Protests and Outrage in Kenosha Over Police Shooting]

Meanwhile, the U.S. Labor Department reported on Thursday that just over 1 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, the latest sign that the pandemic continues to threaten jobs across the U.S. And the Commerce Department said the country’s economic output fell by 31.7% the second quarter of this year.

And the coronavirus pandemic continues to inflict a greater toll on the U.S. than any other country. By Friday, COVID-19 had led to more than 5.8 million cases and more than 180,000 known deaths — numbing numbers in a country where debates are still being held on how to reopen businesses and schools, and even whether to wear face masks.

These issues, showcased on the world stage, are leading some allies to question U.S. leadership and policies.

In Israel, some see the damaged U.S. economy and the out-of-control pandemic as exposing frailties in the U.S., says professor Tamar Hermann, director of the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute. Those crises are also forcing Israelis to rethink their own economic policies, she says.

“In a way Israelis are seeing the vulnerability of the U.S. now, they see the risks of a free-market economy and the lack of a national health care system. This doesn’t make Israelis hostile to the U.S., but it does make them think twice about those in Israel who promote a more free-market in certain sectors.”

That skepticism is seen elsewhere, too. Theresa Mallinson, a South African journalist based in Johannesburg, scrutinizes the U.S. through a political lens.

“So often we have the United States telling countries in the developing world or the global South that we need to strengthen our institutions,” she says. “And yet, if you look at the case in the USA, I wouldn’t say their institutions have shown their strength during the crisis of Trump’s presidency.”

[SPECIAL REPORT: The Racial Divide]

That institutional weakness has been decades in the making, Stelzenmüller says. “The Reagan era ushered in four decades of a deliberate degradation and disinvestment in the institutions of the state, based on the theory that small government is good and the rest can be taken care of by markets,” she says. “That is what sets apart this American moment from other moments in Western democracies that also are struggling with this pandemic.”

Americans themselves are acknowledging the country’s shortcomings and schisms. In a survey the nonpartisan Pew Research Center conducted this summer, 47% of Americans said the country had done a good job handling the pandemic, only the United Kingdom was lower with 46%.

The same survey showed that 18% of U.S. respondents said their country is more united now, and 77% said they are more divided — by far the highest such percentage across the countries surveyed.

Those views appear to be shared abroad. In a July survey conducted across Europe by the British research firm YouGov, sharp majorities of people in nine European nations say they are most concerned about American tourists coming into their countries.

Still, hope exists that America can be delivered from its long, torturous summer of discontent.

“I think there’s a great deal of goodwill (toward the U.S.),” Stelzenmüller says. “America has such extraordinary cultural power. A measure of that is the immense appeal of American music, American movies and TV. That said, I think a lot of damage has been done in the last four years.”

Adds Tamar Beeri, a Jerusalem-based journalist who was born in Israel, grew up in the U.S. and has dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship: “Right now the U.S. is not a safe and stable place. But I also believe this is temporary, that this chaos will peak and changes will come, things will calm down.”

The demonstrations and protests are refreshing to see, Beeri says, as well as witnessing people raising money for charitable causes. “Despite the chaos there is also something amazing about seeing people come together around a cause.”

Thalia Holmes in Johannesburg, Tamra Sami in Perth, Australia, Cathrin Schaer in Berlin, and Sara Toth Stub in Jerusalem contributed reporting.

More from U.S. News

U.S., U.K. Rate Poorly for Coronavirus Pandemic Response, Survey Shows

10 Most Politically Stable Countries, Ranked by Perception

The 25 Best Countries in the World

Amid a Pandemic and Social Unrest, America Appears Unrecognizable to Its Allies originally appeared on

Related Categories:

Latest News

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up