American Exceptionalism in the Era of Coronavirus

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Perhaps right now there is a chance that Covid-19 – an actual, not metaphorical contagion – can have the opposite effect on America by lifting the veil of our exceptionalism.”


In the United States, shock at how unprepared the country is to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic is often couched in comparisons to the “Third World” (e.g. “We have Third World countries who are better equipped than we are now.”)  At its core, this comparison betrays a widespread ignorance in America about the power of the United States in the world and the impact of that power on its domestic politics. This ignorance contributes to an ongoing sense of exceptionalism which is particularly dangerous during a pandemic.

Because the United States is not merely one nation among many; it is a globe-spanning hegemony supported by a sprawling security apparatus. The origins of this global primacy can be found in the wreckage of World War Two when America stepped into the shoes vacated by European empires to ensure that three-hundred years of imperial resource extraction and wealth distribution remained undisturbed, despite decolonization. Since then, the U.S. has both gone to war to achieve these ends and overthrown or attempted to overthrow the governments of nearly 50 states, primarily in the Global South (what was once called the “Third World.”)

In fiscal terms, maintaining American hegemony requires spending more on “defense” than the next seven largest countries combined. The United States operates 800 military bases in over 70 nations, listening posts, “black sites,” aircraft carriers, a massive nuclear stockpile, and deploys military personnel in approximately 160 countries. At nearly a trillion dollars, Trump’s last security budget was passed in December with the overwhelmingly support of House Democrats.

And yet, from the perspective of public discourse in America, this resource-draining behemoth exists in an entirely parallel universe to the one most people experience on a daily level, becoming visible only during those rare moments when the U.S. engages in overt military action abroad that entails the loss of American life.

Why is this invisibility particularly a problem during a global pandemic? On the one hand, lack of awareness about the American security system means that people cannot see how it contributes to making the situation worse. For instance, the outsized influence of American foreign policy is encouraging the spread of Coronavirus in Iran as sanctions hamper that country’s ability to respond to the virus, guaranteeing its spread throughout the region.

On the other hand, the fact that America’s massive security budget has gone so long without being questioned means one of the most obvious courses of action for the United States during this crisis – deep cuts in military spending to salvage the welfare state – remains unthinkable.

Finally, because citizens are blind to America’s power abroad, they turn that blindness on themselves.  This means that even during a pandemic when one aspect of American exceptionalism – it’s lack of a national healthcare program – has obvious negative consequences for the population, the idea of looking to the rest of the world for solutions remains unimaginable.  For this reason, Senator Bernie Sanders’ suggestion that America should nationalize its healthcare system is dismissed as a crazy pipe dream rather than an obvious solution to a human problem embraced by a majority of countries throughout the world.

Over one hundred and fifty years apart, political commentators Edmund Burk and Aimé Césaire used the same language to describe imperialism; as a “gangrene” that “poisons” the colonizing body politic. They each argued that colonial power boomerangs back, causing irreversible damage to nations that consider themselves humane and enlightened.

Perhaps right now there is a chance that Covid-19 – an actual, not metaphorical contagion – can have the opposite effect on America by lifting the veil of our exceptionalism. Perhaps the shock of recognizing the U.S. is less developed than our imagined “Third World” might prompt Americans to tear our eyes away from ourselves and look to the actual world for examples of the political, economic, and social solidarity and cooperation that are going to be necessary to fight the impact of Coronavirus on our societies.

Perhaps we can move beyond shock and incredulity to genuine recognition and empathy with people whose economies and democracies have been decimated by American hegemony, thus beginning the process of reckoning with the costs of that hegemony, both abroad and at home.

This article was initially published in a longer format for Responsible Statecraft.