“You are more American,” a friend of mine once told me, “than some real Americans.”
A preposterous proposition, I thought. Berkeley based I may be, but I am Bangkok born and bred. I had never set foot in the United States before the fall of 2017. And any conversation would reveal my international roots rather quickly.
No, my friend pointed out, there’s a lot of Americanness that I’ve internalized. “You get super hyped about Cal football. You care more about American politics than most Americans. And you love Popeyes.”
Surely all that, he said, made me pretty American?
On one hand, I don’t know if I ever fell in love with the United States. I have always been clear-eyed about its problems. From the first day I set foot in San Francisco, its innumerable issues were blindingly obvious. The extreme wealth generated by the tech industry juxtaposed side-by-side with the despair of the homeless was jarring, for example, and the state of much of American infrastructure horrified me. Compared to the bustling metropolises of East Asia, the Bay Area initially seemed like a bit of a backwater.
But there is certainly a lot about America that I admire. The palpable creativity that radiates out of California, and its spirit of innovation which propelled a single state on the West coast into global renown impressed me. Values of openness and tolerance, along with an unstoppable progressive belief in the possibility of human betterment created a unique and dynamic society that I came to appreciate.
Commentators often talk about soft power: the ability to wield influence and shape preferences without having to resort to hard military power. American cultural influence, political values and economic power ensures that it continues to indisputably lead the world in this regard.
America’s image as “shining city on the hill”, a beacon of hope and opportunity, might have been tarnished somewhat in the Trump era. But if the admiration that Thai students have for the United States can be treated as a microcosm of its influence on the world, then surely American soft power is alive and well?
Perhaps it would have remained so. But in 2020, this is an admiration that has come to be punctured, quite severely. Faced with a deadly pandemic, American exceptionalism seems to have taken on a satiric tone. This is a sense that pervades Thai students in the United States, some of whom have fled for the relative safety of home, some still stuck stateside.
Take, for example, the American devotion to liberty, which fringe groups are now obsessing over at the cost of life. “I understand that Americans love freedom,” an exchange student told me, “but they are using liberty as an excuse to cause trouble.” It is hard to forget the images of armed protestors in Michigan demanding an end to the lockdown due to the supposed oppressiveness of social distancing, even as the American death toll mounts higher than any other nation.
Indeed, this death toll exposed the weakness of American institutions. As the federal government sat on its hands, states struggled to put together a coherent response. Against the backdrop of a tottering and increasingly overwhelmed healthcare system, many Thais decided to return home where universal healthcare guaranteed treatment.
And even those of us who dismay at the dearth of common sense prevalent in Thailand’s political class recoiled at the increasingly deeply rooted disrespect for science and common sense in the ruling Republican party, intensified under the Trump administration.
Watching the presidential briefings are painful. To describe them as press conferences would be to bestow an undue sense of modernity; the afternoon sessions hew closer to the court of a mad emperor. Even against the backdrop of everything that has happened under Trump, the president recommending blasting ultraviolet and injecting disinfects at a press conference still seems like an inflection point.
This is the leader of the free world?
More practically, some are feeling the effects of an age-old issue in the United States:
“I definitely no longer feel safe living in the United States as an Asian international student,” a friend said “People are looking to find scapegoats, and it is clear who the scapegoats are: Asian immigrants.”
Perception of American global leadership has been trending downward for years. Gallup polling shows that in Thailand, views of US leadership fell between the Obama and Trump presidencies, and another NIDA poll showed that Thais would not have chosen to elect Trump. It can only be guessed, in the absence of new surveys, how much further this would have decreased in the wake of this catastrophe.
Other American allies will have fared little better. The UK has also performed disastrously under Boris Johnson. Thais there decried the UK’s late imposition of a lockdown, the consequences of which the UK’s prized National Health Service is feeling. A student told me that upon reading of Johnson’s strategy herd immunity strategy, he immediately made plans to come home.
But if on paper the decline of faith in the Western-led liberal order opens up opportunities for America’s strategic rivals, they have struggled to fill the vacuum. Beijing, in particular, has not reaped the benefits of American mismanagement.
Undoubtedly, China has made some gains in global perception. Some have praised China’s quick response to the coronavirus and admired its ability to get things done. Building a hospital in ten days was an impressive feat, for example.
Equally, however, China’s initial coverup drew peoples’ suspicion, belying its claims to be a responsible stakeholder in the international system. Beijing’s soft power may have not been hurt by this pandemic, but to say it has been helped may be overstating the case.
A more pertinent question may be whether mismanagement in Western democracies has increased appreciation for autocracy or diminished faith in democracy. After all, less faith in democracy could very well undermine global appreciation of Western global leadership.
Political scientists emphasize that system of government has not seemed to be a particularly valuable indicator of whether a country will fare well or poorly in this crisis. Some democracies have done badly — the US and UK, for example. Others have done exceedingly well: Taiwan and New Zealand come to mind.
So has China’s authoritarian efficiency found more admirers? Only a survey would be able to find an answer, for which anecdotal evidence provides no substitute. But even as I thought it debatable whether most people will listen to this analysis when the image of bungling Western democracies seem etched into the minds of many, conversations I have had with many fellow Thai students give me hope that nuanced conversations about regime type does resonate.
“I don’t think I can generalize democracy in this context,” a friend said to me when I asked if she still believes in democracy. “There are democratic countries like South Korea that was quite successful in dealing with this outbreak. The problem with the US is people valuing individual liberty over the needs of the collective.”
On one hand, it is hard to escape the conclusion that America feels fragile. A fragile union, led by a man with a fragile ego, held together by fragile institutions. Confidence in American leadership is certainly at a low ebb.
Yet at the same time, it is striking that people still want to have faith in democracy. In liberal institutions. And indeed, in the United States itself. Its open society, its world-class education and its cultural capital will continue to attract Thais and others for a long time to come. Even disillusioned undergraduates who fled the crisis from the west would not turn down a later opportunity to study in a world class graduate program in the US or UK.
To me, this disorder in the world order has not produced a winner. The global competition for the hearts and minds of Thais, and indeed citizens around the world, remains an open contest.