Carl Bildt—a Swedish prime minister in the 1990s, a United Nations envoy during the Bosnian wars, and a foreign minister for many years after that—told me that, looking back on his 30-year career, he cannot remember a single international crisis in which the United States had no global presence at all. “Normally, when something happens”—a war, an earthquake—“everybody waits to see what the Americans are doing, for better or for worse, and then they calibrate their own response based on that.”
This time, Americans are doing … nothing. Or to be more specific, because plenty of American governors, mayors, doctors, scientists, and tech companies are doing things, the White House is doing nothing. There is no presidential leadership inside the United States; there is no American leadership in the world. Members of the G7—the U.S. and its six closest allies—did meet to write a joint statement. But even that tepid project ended in ludicrous rancor when the American secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, insisted on using the expression “Wuhan virus” and the others gave up in disgust. Not only is the president talking nonsense, not only is America absent, but the nation’s top diplomat is a caricature of a tough guy—someone who throws around insults in the absence of any capacity to influence events.