Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

What does it mean to be resilient? As an individual? As a country? My father lived through the 1918 Spanish flu, the Great Depression and the Second World War, and retired as a successful school principal. The United States, which has had the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world, is witnessing unemployment rates not seen since the 1930s and is now going through protests and riots across the county resulting from one more police homicide.

My father was resilient. He adapted to change. How resilient is the United States?

There are, of course, the short and long term perspectives. In the short term, the pandemic will recede. Like post-September 11, there will be changes in our behavior. We now accept long lines at airport check points and various intrusions in our private lives in the interest of national security. In the future, masks and ventilators will be stored; public health systems will be on alert for a new strain of the virus and welcome kisses, bro hugs and handshakes may become less socially acceptable.

There are many questions about the short term consequences of the pandemic. Economically, will the stock market come back to its record highs of 29,000? Will the unemployment figures return to less than 4%? And if so, how long will it take?

Politically, beyond the immediate results of November’s U.S. presidential election – if there is one – it is the medium and long term effects that should be the focus of our attention to resilience. Have the pandemic and current riots been the last nails in the coffin of America’s decline?

If we reread Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, the current riots should refocus our attention on the deteriorating domestic situation in the U.S. Although the uproar over the death of George Floyd may appear to be limited to white police brutality and highlight the BlackLives Matter movement, the riots and looting point to deeper fractures within the country.

The rising inequalities and frustrations of a forgotten underclass are part of the racial divide. The percentage of blacks and Latinos who died from Covid-19 is higher than their percentage of the general U.S. population. During the pandemic, voices called out for a rethinking of government social policies. While the lessons of the 2008 bank bailout are still fresh, hopes were raised that this time the trillions spent would be used to not only fill holes in the dyke, but also to build better infrastructure (certainly not better walls), raise minimum wages, increase sustainable development etc. There was hope that the pandemic crisis was an opportunity. After all, we have been told by Albert Einstein and numerous business school gurus that in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.

And now with the riots, the call for change should be even more evident. There has never been an official American Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine the history of racism in the United States. Susan Neiman’s intriguing book, Learning from the Germans, is an invitation for the United States to look at how Germany dealt with its painful past. The U.S. seems incapable of coming to terms with its history, although universities such as Brown and Georgetown should be commended and used as examples of how institutions examine how they profited from slavery

But for every action there is a reaction. Calls for law and order – “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” President Trump wrote – bring back memories of President Nixon’s successful 1968 law and order campaign, and how the images of the furloughed Willie Horton, who committed assault, armed robbery, and rape during a weekend pass, became a key to George H.W. Bush’s successful 1988 campaign. There is nothing linear about progress. The arc of history doesn’t always move forward.

The riots are another layer on a structure that is losing its foundations. Marilynne Robinson eloquently asks, “What Kind of Country Do We Want?” in the New York Review of Books. Her optimistic answer, written before the riots, was that “this comes down to the need to recover and sharpen a functioning sense of justice based on a reverent appreciation of humankind, all together and one by one…We can do this as individuals and as a nation.”

The video of Derek Chauvin, hand in pocket, kneeling on George Floyd, silently watched by three colleagues while Floyd and observers cry for help, gives little hope for optimism that “We can do this…”. We have been here before. As with the numerous school shootings, the list of killings goes on with no light at the end of this tunnel.

There is rage, anger and frustration. That is the short term reaction. The medium and long term deals with how a country can be resilient. There are those who would say that from its very inception the United States was created on the backs of slaves, that the lofty words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution only applied to a small percentage of the population, that they were not inclusive documents. Recovery in this sense is not acceptable. More is needed.

What becomes clearer and clearer today is that calls to recover will demand resilience and change. Status quo ante is no solution. What is there to recover? If resilience means to change in order to adapt to a new environment, there is reason for hope. The lesson of Gibbon and Kennedy is that empires and great powers failed because they didn’t change. Their failures were due to entropy and a failure to be truly resilient.

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Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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