In Search of the American State

The urgent need for US leadership to drive forward a coordinated international response to coronavirus is developing rapidly alongside snowballing demands for Washington to step up its efforts at home.

Expert comment Updated 7 April 2020 Published 6 April 2020 3 minute READ
Exercising in front of a deserted Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Exercising in front of a deserted Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

As the US surgeon general warns Americans to brace for ‘our Pearl Harbor moment’, the US faces a week in which it may see the worst of the global pandemic. The absence of US leadership at the global level has enabled the Security Council’s inaction. And at the G7, President Trump actively obstructed efforts to agree a joint statement.

US efforts to increase its support of international aid to the tune of $274million are minimal, not least in light of a 50% reduction in its support for the World Health Organization (WHO) and radically diminished support for other global health programmes as well. International coordination is essential to mitigate unregulated competition for critical medical supplies, manage border closures, and guarantee international economic stability.

True, it won’t be possible to control the epidemic at home if the global effort to defeat the pandemic fails. But the absence of leadership from Washington at home is palpable. And what happens at home sets a natural limit on America’s internationalism.

Both solution and problem

In response to the coronavirus crisis, the US state is proving to be a solution - and a problem. The dramatic response to the economic crisis is evident with the $2.3trillion stimulus package signed into law by President Trump boldly supported by both Democrats and Republicans in the most significant piece of bipartisan legislation passed in decades.

America’s political economy is unrecognisable, moving left and looking increasingly more European each week as Congress and the executive branch agree a series of stimulus packages designed to protect citizens and businesses. Some elements of this legislation were more familiar to Americans, notably $200bn in corporate tax breaks.

But Congress also agreed unemployment insurance, and cheques - one in April, one in May – to be sent directly to those Americans most directly hit by the economic impact of COVID-19. In effect, this is adopting a temporary universal basic income.

The stimulus plan also dedicated $367bn to keep small businesses afloat for as long as the economy is shuttered. Already the government is negotiating a fourth stimulus package, but the paradox is that without rigorous steps to halt the health crisis, no level of state intervention designed to solve the economic response will be sufficient.

The scale of the state’s economic intervention is unprecedented, but it stands in stark contrast to Washington’s failure to coordinate a national response to America’s health crisis. An unregulated market for personal protective equipment and ventilators is driving up competition between cities, states, and even the federal government.

In some cases, cities and states are reaching out directly beyond national borders to international organisations, foreign firms and even America’s geopolitical competitors as they search for suppliers. In late March, the city of New York secured a commitment from the United Nations to donate 250,000 protective face masks.

Now Governor Cuomo has announced New York has secured a shipment of 140 ventilators from the state of Oregon, and 1,000 ventilators from China. The Patriots even sent their team plane to China to pick up medical supplies for the state of Massachusetts. And following a phone call between President Putin and President Trump, Russia sent a plane with masks and medical equipment to JFK airport in New York.

Networks of Chinese-Americans in the United States are rapidly mobilising their networks to access supplies and send them to doctors and nurses in need. And innovative and decisive action by governors, corporates, universities and mayors drove America’s early response to coronavirus.

This was critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19 by implementing policies that rapidly drove social distancing. But the limits of decentralized and uncoordinated action are now coming into sharp focus. President Trump has so far refused to require stay-at-home orders across all states, leaving this authority to individual governors. Unregulated competition has driven up prices with the consequence that critical supplies are going to the highest bidder, not those most in need.

Governor Cuomo’s call for a nationwide buying consortium has so far gone unheeded and, although the Federal Emergency Management Agency has attempted to deliver supplies to states most in need, the Strategic National Stockpile is depleting fast. Without critical action, the federal government risks hindering the ability of cities and states to get the supplies they need.

But President Trump is reluctant to fully deploy his powers under the Defense Production Act (DPA). In March, he did invoke the DPA to require certain domestic manufacturers to produce ventilators. But calls for it to be used to require manufacturers to produce PPE (personal protective equipment), control costs, and manage allocations has so far gone unheeded by a president generally opposed to state interventions for managing the economy.

It is true that federalism and a deep belief in competition are critical to the fabric of US history and politics, and innovations made possible by market values of entrepreneurism and competition cannot be underestimated. In the search for a vaccine, this could still prove to be key.

But with current estimates that more Americans will die from coronavirus than were killed in the Korean and Vietnam wars combined, it is clear now is the time to reimagine and reinvent the role of the American state.

In the absence of a coordinated effort driven by the White House, governors are working together to identify the areas of greatest need. Whether this will lead to a recasting of the American state and greater demand for a deeper and more permanent social safety net is a key question in the months ahead.

In the short-term the need for coordinated state action at the national level is self-evident. US leadership globally, to manage the health crisis and its economic impacts, is also vital. But this is unlikely to be forthcoming until America gets its own house in order.