The Coronavirus, Europe, and the United States

Reflections on the Narcissism of Small Differences

By Jon Nighswander and the Cosmopolitan Globalists

Vienna and Paris


Pestsäule

The Americans had vanished. Evenings in July at the Irish bar felt like November: no foreign exchange students, just stranded Irish businessmen tending their lager, a handful of Austrians watching the game on Sky. Photographers wandered the squares and museums trying to capture the emptiness. Cruise ships stood at anchor on the Danube. The freight barges that usually chug to and from the Black Sea, reassuring the Viennese they’re still at the heart of something important, had disappeared.

I’ve been in Vienna throughout the pandemic. Austria has a long history of managing plagues, but it also has a talent for forgetting history. Things here have not gone as well as many seem to think. Throughout the summer, Americans and Europeans eyed the other’s response to the pandemic with condescension and incomprehension even as both spectacularly failed the test and attributed their own mistakes to the other.

The two halves of the West were, in fact, remarkably similar. And even if, in the end, the West has proven its technological superiority, it has lost the propaganda war. China and Russia have skillfully exploited Western insularity and division to race ahead.

Deadly snobbery

In March and April, the exponential growth of the disease caused panic in Europe. Dire news from Lombardy encouraged most of the Continent to shut down hard, enforce lockdowns, and close borders. It worked. Cases dropped sharply.

Then Europe began to relax; and at first, in May, the situation seemed stable. The lack of tourists apart, life felt normal enough. Many Europeans drew a moral lesson from the disappearance of the Americans: That’s what happens when you elect a feckless President.

Addressing the European Parliament in July, Angela Merkel declared that the virus had “exposed the limits of fact-denying populism.” Said a German friend: “That’s why we aren’t letting you in.” Masochistic American friends on Facebook agreed they should be banned from Tuscan farmhouses. A country that elected Trump deserved nothing less. Europeans read these American lamentations and concluded their success in combating the virus could be attributed to their superior social systems.

They were wrong. Europe’s success was an illusion. Europeans devoured stories about the virus’s explosion in the Red States, the closing of America’s internal borders, and the high cost of American health care—and from this, somehow drew the conclusion it was time for Europe to reopen its internal borders and declare victory.

The Austrian government was so confident it told everyone not to worry about the guidelines its own health ministry had issued. In late May, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz cheerily offered on Facebook that Austria was safe and secure: “My recommendation for this summer: vacation in Austria!”

No one even took that advice. Europe’s prime tourist destinations had been emptied of Americans, Chinese, and Russians; prices were low; who could resist? By the end of August, everyone in Austria was returning from a Croatian beach or regaling his neighbors with tales of a bargain trip to empty Venice.            

In September, Pew found that 68 percent of the German public believed the EU had “done a good job dealing with the outbreak.” Only nine percent thought the same of the United States. Belgians were more generous, with 11 percent thinking the US had done well—and 61 percent approving the Belgian response. Italians were more guarded about the EU: Only 54 percent thought it had done a good job. But Italians had outperformed America, they thought, by a country mile. Only 18 percent held that Americans had handled things competently.

Then the case numbers in Europe began to climb. Not to worry, Austria’s health minister assured us mid-September. Yes, we were at a crossroads; but at worst, we’d hit 2,500 new cases a day—and really, we should be able to avoid that. Austrians met the news without alarm. Schools reopened; restaurants stayed busy; shoppers strolled through the malls without masks. In October, Austria reached 2,600 new cases in a day. Since then, it has rarely dropped below that number.

So many missed chances. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Czech Republic applied some of the strictest measures in Europe. It escaped the first wave. But in July, the government let down its guard and let in the tourists; by September, it was a land of raging pestilence. Obviously, this should have been a warning. European governments should have been urging utmost vigilance upon their citizens. Their governments should have been preparing for the next wave. The skyrocketing death rate in America, too, should have been a warning, not a source of reassurance that Europe was better governed.

By November, most of Europe faced uncontrolled community transmission and lockdowns were again unavoidable. Fatalities throughout Europe soared, exceeding those of the first wave.

Normally, politicians would pay dearly for an abject failure like this. But Europe failed quietly compared to America, whose President was proposing curative injections of bleach. The delirious drama of the Trump presidency and the soaring infection rate in the United States somehow protected European politicians from attention and accountability.

Americans, meanwhile, looked at Europe—locking down again! They swore that lockdowns didn’t work and they’d never do it twice. But lockdowns do work. Ignoring the virus doesn’t. Now Americans are locking down again.

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Le virus, c’est moi

The virus exposed the limits of populism, true, but paused en route to expose the limits of everyone else’s intelligence. Two days ago, the Elysée Palace sheepishly announced that the President of the Republic “was diagnosed with Covid-19.” But how is this possible, Europe gasped? Macron n’est pas populiste. (Another typical cohort of Americans on Twitter drew the conclusion that Macron must have been infected because he’s a racist, which was just as epidemiologically insightful.)

Macron took part in last week’s two-day meeting of the heads of state of the European Council in Brussels. His contact list included EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, OECD President Angel Gurria, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin, President of the EU Leaders’ Council Charles Michel, and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez—none of whom were best pleased to be forced into quarantine during the dramatic dénouement of the Brexit negotiations. Macron’s chief of staff, prime minister, culture minister, and justice minister, too, either tested positive or are languishing now in preventive detention. A heck of a good week’s work for a virus meant to expose the limits of populism.

Clearly—on both sides of the Atlantic—people cannot get their heads around the idea that SARS CoV-2 is a positive-sense single-stranded RNA virus, not a political program. It truly does not care whether its host is a populist or a superbly nuanced cosmopolitan. It has no volition at all. If it did, the most it could be said to favor is the moist comfort of the nearest upper respiratory tract, be it Reinhold Niebuhr’s or Eva Perón’s. You can’t negotiate with a virus; you can’t reason with it; it doesn’t care whether you mean well; and if you think your country—or you—will be spared because only populists die of Covid-19, the limits of your political philosophy (not to mention your faculties of reason) have been exposed.

France’s shock quickly turned to outrage as the details came out. Macron, it would seem, did everything to fall ill short of swimming in a vat of Covid-19. He violated all of his own government’s guidelines. At least one endless, lavish dinner party—where guests took off their masks—seems to have been involved. Everyone who attended, despite knowing perfectly well that one after another world leader has succumbed to this virus, convinced himself it was only fair he be allowed take off his mask: One must eat, after all? It seems beyond the cognitive powers of any Westerner to grasp that the virus doesn’t give a damn whether you’re hungry.              

The Palace has tried to damp down reports by appeal to “medical secrecy,” but the words “fever, chills, and utterly fatigued” have escaped their cordon unsanitaire. We assume the solid-gold Versailles ventilator is close at hand.

Macron’s misfortune gave rise to profound dismay in France, uncontainable mirth in China. “I’m going to die of laughter,” wrote a commenter on Chinese social media. “Among the five permanent members of the UN, all the Westerners died in battle.”

Graffiti on a Vienna building, November 19, 2020. Photo credit: Jon Nighswander

Der Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen

In 1917, Sigmund Freud described der Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen—the narcissism of small differences. Communities with adjoining territories and close relationships, he surmised, were especially likely to engage in feuds and mutual ridicule not because they were so different, but because they were similar. They were hyper-attuned to the small details that distinguished them. “Of two neighboring towns,” he later wrote in Civilization and its Discontents, “each is the other’s most jealous rival; every little canton looks down upon the others with contempt.”

The narcissism of Europe and America’s small differences has kept both focused on the policy failures of the other and distracted them both, too, from the far more important point: The West—Europe and America together—failed.

The distinction between perception and reality here is striking and important. Europeans have misjudged their own governments’ competence very considerably. The key metric is per capita fatalities. Or course it is: If people weren’t dying, we wouldn’t care about any of this. In this regard, the US has done better than Spain or the United Kingdom and roughly as well as Italy and France. Austrian per capita deaths now exceed the United States.’ 

The point is not that the US is managing the crisis well. It is not. It is that Europeans do not grasp how badly they have performed. Like American journalists, European reporters have been so transfixed by the Trump Administration, so mesmerized by the grotesque absurdity of the whole thing, that they’ve ceased properly training their fire at home. Die Zeit breathlessly reported that the virus “had thrown once-sparkling regions of New York City back into the 1980s and transformed them into a chilly, empty, trash-strewn stage set.” The editor of one of Austria’s  top newspapers wondered, on Twitter, how American mortality rates could be lower than Europe’s—surely it wasn’t the quality of American healthcare, right? All the while, Europeans were dying in agony, dying for nothing, and dying at similar rates.

Old-fashioned anti-Americanism was obviously at work. The widespread perception that the US has done a vastly worse job in confronting the pandemic was owed, too, to the tendency, among Europeans and Americans alike to view the other continent not as a real, physical place, but a morality tale. For Europeans, America is the expression of their idealized selves or their shadow side; for Americans, “Europe” is a metaphor for “the Democratic Party,” for good or ill: a canvas onto which their partisan fantasies are projected.

A Continent that can’t lead itself

All the same, in both the US and Europe, the perception that the US has done worse than Europe—and is indeed worse than Europe in every way—is Trump’s fault.

Europeans have been stunned throughout the pandemic by the failure of the United States even to try to lead. It was not just that the Trump Administration failed to muster a global effort to combat the virus, as every previous Administration would have. It was that Trump did everything in his power to make the situation worse. (His encouragement of vaccine development may be the exception: It is not yet clear whether he truly did anything to speed the process, and it will be many years before partisan passions subside sufficiently that historians may study this dispassionately.) There is no doubt, though, that Trump’s denial, disinformation, and lunatic conspiracy theories spread across the Atlantic at the speed of light, making it easy for Europeans—and the world—to believe any insane story about the United States’ incompetence, and making Europeans crazier than they could have dreamt of being on their own.

The American Ambassador to Germany, breezily waving off the germ theory of disease, mocked social distancing. The American Secretary of State announced, without evidence—indeed, despite the evidence—that the virus was a Chinese bioweapon. Trump withdrew from the World Health Organization in a fit of impulsive petulance. The grain of truth in his criticism—the WHO did fail to assert itself aggressively in the face of Chinese pressure—was obscured, given that Trump so clearly was seeking a scapegoat.

Americans, in turn, viewed Europe through a childish prism of provincialism, partisanship, and wishful thinking. Were you to read only the comments section of The New York Times, you would conclude Europeans were polite and dutiful mask-wearers and social-distancers to the last. Nonsense. In much of Northern Europe, antipathy toward masks and lunatic theories about the virus are as widespread as in the US.

France—the birthplace of Pasteur and a country that prides itself in its superior facility for reason—is a hotbed of anti-vax sentiment. A recent survey in Le Journal du Dimanche found that only 41 percent of French respondents were willing to be vaccinated. Indeed, according to Gallup, France is the most vaccine-sceptical country in the world. The runner-up is the US.

In the spring, during the first wave, France suffered severe shortages of such equipment as face masks—the result of a government decision, following the failure of the 2009 Swine flu to live up to the hype, to allow its national stockpiles to atrophy. Should it ever face a true emergency, the government decided, it would just buy their supplies from China. Great plan.

During the second wave, the government squandered the gains made during the Draconian first lockdown. It failed to develop an effective test-and-trace system. (France’s first effort to develop a mobile tracing app was not “a failure,” Macron explained; it just “didn’t work”—a distinction lost on all but the most enthusiastic enculeurs des mouches.) Do not forget that it was Dr. Didier Raoult, of Marseille, who prematurely declared that the anti-malaria drug chloroquine would cure the virus.

Protesters hold a banner reading "Mask + vaccines + nanoparticules + 5G" at a Gilets Jaunes demonstration in Bordeaux, September 12, 2020

Nowhere in Europe did the rules issued by health authorities make sense, nor did they stay the same day after day, nor did they evolve in a logical way. In Scandinavia and the Netherlands, just as in the United States, government officials initially derided mask-wearing. Only in August did Norwegian officials concede it would be wise to wear masks on public transport.

In Austria, at first, we wore masks in the supermarkets and the subway. But even at the height of the April lockdown, we kept breathing all over each other everywhere but the supermarkets and the subway. Public squares in Central Europe would soon be thronged with Querdenker—one of those perfect German words that means what it sounds like—who set up their microphones and little stages everywhere and rabbited on about Bill Gates, microchips, global cabals, and pedophiles. Americans would have felt right at home.

Officials in Europe, just like their American counterparts, were dumbfounded to discover there were no good options. Every politically attractive choice led to death or economic doom. Unable forthrightly to confront this, they vacillated in their advice, trying simultaneously to keep the economy and their citizens alive, and killing both in numbers too large for the human mind fully to grasp. Just as in the United States, their inconsistency contributed to the public’s confusion and its growing suspicion that the authorities must be incompetent or malevolent. “They’re just not consistent,” an Austrian man complained to me as he stood exactly fifty meters outside the Starbucks, obeying the latest injunction. “One day it’s ‘Do this,’ the next day, ‘Don’t do that anymore.’” It was true. The advice made no sense. Don’t play tennis, but you can ski. Don’t eat outside at a café, but you can shop in crowded stores. Don’t travel. Unless you really want to.

It is hard not to wonder how Europe might have fared if only the United States had behaved normally. Surely things would have gone better.

But it is idle to speculate.

The mutual incomprehension of the mutually obsessed

My regular basketball game—until October, we could still play basketball indoors in Austria—was a ritual of national humiliation. Every week, Trump offered my teammates an even more impressive spectacle to mock: the shining lights that would cleanse our bodily cavities, the bleach. Note, however, that like idiots, we were still happily playing basketball—even though Americans were supposed to be the incompetent ones.

If you looked closely, you could see that the two halves of the West were, in fact, having the same arguments: about wearing masks, closing schools, dining in. The narcissism of small differences obscured what should have been obvious. Like Europe, the United States is diverse. It’s not all South Dakota, motorcycle rallies, and megachurches. Some regions of the United States have outperformed comparable regions in Europe. Until recently, when millions of Americans decided that foregoing Thanksgiving dinner with their relatives was a sacrifice they were not willing to make—indeed, even as recently as December 14—California had a significantly lower fatality rate than France, Spain, or the UK.

Massachusetts, my home state, is nearly as populous as Austria and even more densely packed. Austria has one of Europe’s best health systems. Massachusetts has one of America’s best. Massachusetts was hit hard in the spring first wave, but acted swiftly to mitigate the impact of the second. Over the summer, Massachusetts’ citizens took the threat more seriously than their Austrian counterparts. They strenuously observed social distancing guidelines. Between October 26 and December 15, Austria reported 3,859 deaths; Massachusetts, 1,601.

That’s hardly a success for Massachusetts. It is a disaster. Still, it makes more sense to compare Massachusetts with Austria than it does to compare either with the mythical Sweden of breathless Twitter arguments. (The real Sweden has meanwhile fired the epidemiologist responsible for its disastrous policy, having suffered ten times the per capita fatalities of neighboring Norway.)

Above all, it makes no sense for Europeans and Americans to ignore the comparison that really puts things in perspective: The West versus Asia. The West failed. Asia succeeded. As the host of the German podcast Fernostwärts recently put it, “I think Germany will go up in flames before it seriously comes to terms with what we can learn from Asia.”

The West will probably set itself on fire before it asks an even more interesting question: What might it learn from Africa? Ghana has recorded 326 deaths from Covid-19. It’s entirely possible this is an undercount, but the lack of curiosity about this statistic in the Western media speaks for itself. It’s also possible it is a public health triumph, one linked to Ghana’s experience of infectious disease and the alacrity with which it responded to the threat. Taiwan and Ghana, not Sweden, are where Western countries would look for meaningful comparisons—not each other.

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What now?

On November 9, Pfizer and BioNTech revealed that their vaccine worked. The market soared. A ray of hope from America? That startled everyone who had concluded America no longer had much to offer the world.

Let’s face facts. In the past four years, the United States destroyed what remained of its global reputation. Fairly or unfairly, it is now viewed as an unreliable lunatic nation consumed by disease and corruption.

I speak now as an American. If we wish to regain the world’s respect—and it is not clear that we do, or even that there is still a “we”—it will take much more than a few emollient words from Joe Biden. Saying, “America is back!” will convince no one. Americans must now decide whether they wish to be global leaders—an exceptional nation—or just another country.

There is a clear path to redemption, if we choose to lead, and it is the obvious one: curing the pandemic—globally. The country that won the Second World War could do it. Indeed, so could Europe, if it chose. If they acted together, they would be unstoppable.

If the Biden administration is serious about proving that Trumpism was an aberration, not the future of American foreign policy, here is what it must do: Swiftly deliver affordable vaccines and mass vaccination programs not just to Americans, but to anyone in the world that wants them. Diplomatic pablum won’t begin to cut through the noise of a world awash in information, disinformation, and sophisticated propaganda delivered by massive armies of bots. But curing the pandemic just might.

When it comes to innovation, America is still an exceptional country, as our rapid development of effective—and revolutionary—vaccines demonstrates. Pfizer and Moderna are headquartered in America. Cutting-edge mRNA technology was first tested in humans in 2015. American scientists have now produced not one, but two stunningly effective vaccines based on this technology.

Russia and China developed vaccines quickly, too, but the old-fashioned kind. The Chinese vaccine gave rise to a “severe adverse incident” in Brazil. The Russian vaccine was obviously both unsafe and ineffective.1 Russian bioethicists resigned in protest, and Russians joked uneasily that the vaccine had a fifty percent success rate: “We tested it on Putin’s daughter and Navalny.” A virulent second wave of the disease in Russia followed the announcement that the vaccine had been deployed.

In reality, the American pharmaceutical sector is better, more innovative, and more trustworthy than Russia’s or China’s. But Russia and China have been far more successful than the United States in portraying themselves as global leaders in combat against the virus. The Sputnik V vaccine, as Russia called it, was a public relations coup. Russia recently announced that more than 50 countries had requested it. Earlier this month, the Russian media proudly reported that its vaccine had already arrived in Argentina, Hungary, and Uzbekistan.

China has been even more aggressive in its vaccine diplomacy. The Party has earmarked millions of vials for Africa, Mexico, Brazil, and Turkey. Their vaccine is easier to transport and store than the mRNA vaccines, an advantage in countries with less developed infrastructure. China has hardly been shy in spreading the message that it can afford to give away millions of vaccines because—thanks to its success in controlling the virus, in turn owed to its superior society and system of governance—it doesn’t need them.

The US has the resources to vaccinate itself and the emerging world—if it chooses to commit them. Matching or exceeding China in vaccinating nations whose economies have been devastated by disease, shutdowns, and cratering global trade would be a demonstration of real power—and far more impressive than the grotesque posturing and boasting the world has seen recently.

On the other hand, if the US continues to buy up as much manufacturing capacity as it can and force low-income countries to lose another year as the US races ahead, the diplomatic ramifications will be ugly, even in Europe.

For the US to return, at least, to reasonably good odor in the multilateral organizations it once led, an aggressive vaccination policy is the key. The Trump Administration never had any hope of reforming the WHO because other countries figured he was just looking for an excuse to leave—as he was. Now, though, skillful Americans diplomats could take advantage of the leverage created by our withdrawal to force overdue reforms on the WHO as a condition of our re-entry. The Biden Administration could actually improve the WHO. That would be genuinely useful to the world. There is no other world health organization; the world needs one that’s competent, not corrupt. Achieving this would demonstrate to the world that yes, the US is still useful—perhaps even essential.

The Biden Administration and democratic forces in Europe have common economic interests and a common purpose. Neither can survive alone in a growingly authoritarian world. Trump has made it clear how fragile the West really is. The virus has made it clear how broken our societies really are.

Biden claims the next century will be an American century. Does he mean it? If Americans truly want it to be—if they want to call the shots—they need to deliver the shots. They must literally provide vaccines to every human being alive, as fast as possible.

America must lead, and Europe must pitch in to help. Ideally, they would do so as equal partners. It does no good at all, though, for Europeans to watch America and carp. The truth is America and Europe are minor variants on the same culture. The perception of difference is a function of narcissism, not reality. If either wants to survive, they must hang together or hang separately—and now, it is time for them to give the rest of the world a shot in the arm.


In the 1990s, Jon Nighswander went to preach the gospel of the free market to Russia. It didn’t take. He returned to America speaking Russian, at least. In 2011, he went back to Central Europe to rehabilitate failing businesses in the former Habsburg and Soviet Empires. First, he ran a plant that made operating tables and hospital beds in Poland. Now he manages a firm in Austria that handles mergers and acquisitions in the pharmaceuticals and biotech sector. He has seen healthcare in Europe and America from many angles.

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1

Contrary to our assessment, the Sputnik V has performed superbly in clinical trials. It is safe. It is effective. If you can get one, get it. Contra Russia Today, we are not Russophobic. When Russians develop life-saving vaccines, we’re Russophiles. (When they’re killing Syrian civilians, invading their neighbors, and poisoning their dissidents, not so much. But let’s use carrots as well as sticks, shall we? Go, Russia! This is the real way to greatness.)