America 'Needs' Enemies
Post-Imperial America is disintegrating, and a governmental consensus believes a long struggle with big existential enemies will fix it.
Nation-states are killing machines, the alpha predators of governance. Over the last five hundred years, they have slain all other competitors through an iron grip on a combination of muscle (bureaucracy, from military to academic/scientific), energy (capitalism and industrialism), and killing intent (nationalism and ideology) and have warred among themselves for dominance until only one remained (the US).
That victory late in the last century created a problem. Nation-states, particularly the most significant, need conflict to legitimize and animate their existence. Without it, they and the society they rule decompensate — the functional deterioration of a structure or system that had been previously working. A deterioration that accelerated as the number of countries the US could call enemies dwindled (even by refurbishing them through propaganda, as we did with Iraq with a fear of terrorism and WMDs).
The Communist Bloc + Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and Libya
The Communist Bloc+ Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and Libya The Communist Bloc+ Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and Libya
That was where we were in the early days of 2022. A nation-state;
riven by networked tribalism, psychologically unmoored by rapid technological change, plagued by cultural disintegration, and jaded by political corruption.
in deep decline, with attempts to turn its self-identified soft challenges — pandemics, pollution, and social justice — into enemies sufficiently dire to broadly legitimize its control, accelerating its decline rather than reversing it.
willing to resort to crude network censorship and control to regain its dominance of the national narrative.
However, that situation suddenly changed with;
Russia’s botched invasion of Ukraine.
the intervention of a networked US political faction — that had previously cast Trump and his supporters as fascist puppets installed by Putin (a claim that went into overdrive after Jan 6th) — that reframed Putin’s invasion as a replay of Hitler's rapid expansion during the early days of WW2.
the escalation of the war with Russia, made tangible through an embargo by thousands of companies and its broad popularity in the US and Europe, led the US government to embrace the war as an existential defense of ‘democracy.’
As the emergence of a new enemy worthy of the name began to provide the national clarity, cohesion, and broad support craved by the nation-state’s elites, the government doubled down. Soon, a new greater enemy was quickly identified: China.
China, unlike Russia, provided the specter of a foe sufficiently dangerous to justify rapid growth in military spending.
It also allowed industrialists to block China’s access to critical technologies and fund efforts to rebuild portions of the US industrial base.
Finally, it has led to a series of overtures to Taiwan (similar to the offer of future NATO membership made to Ukraine) to coerce China to comply with future US directives regarding Russia.
While Russia and China pose challenges, far more challenging now than in the earlier part of the century when it would have been far easier (instead, we were distracted with terrorism and Iraq/Afghanistan), they are hardly existential enemies worthy of a long struggle.
They are shrinking (population decline) and have been primarily focused on expanding their influence in the global economy, from energy to critical materials to manufactured goods.
Although authoritarian, there’s no revolutionary or expansionary ideology to fuel expansion. Instead, they are extremely focused on defensive actions on their periphery and will act reflexively if they feel threatened (a paranoia made more acute by alliances built to contain them).
They are far more aggressive in the online fight through information and networks than in physical aggression, with an acute focus on how external sources of information and narratives impact their domestic populations.
There Can only be One
So, what does the US seek to achieve with this new ‘war’ with Russia and China if it isn’t an existential fight? A revitalization of unipolar dominance. This includes:
Defanged. For Russia, nuclear disarmament and regime change, and for China to drastically limit the sophistication of its military capabilities and help in the effort to neuter Russia.
Caged. Complete containment through alliances that surround the borders of both countries and economic limits imposed by networks of partners working in concert with the US.
Tamed. Trained to avoid antagonizing the US or its allies through online attacks, coercion, or distractions/disinformation.
The problem with this approach includes:
The vast majority of nations don’t support the US in this endeavor and resent pressure to do so. Most countries, from Brazil to Turkey to India, don’t support the US effort to contain Russia. Even France expressed an unwillingness to support the US effort to contain China by improving the security of Taiwan (they see this as a provocation). Does the US actually ‘run’ the world if few follow them and actively resist
pressure to do so?
It escalates tensions to a level that makes a world war possible again. In Russia’s case, the conflict in Ukraine is genuinely existential, and any forced loss that humbles Russia could result in a nuclear exchange. Furthermore, due to this escalated tension, even if handled carefully (a big assumption), small events or misunderstandings can inadvertently lead to an uncontrollable escalation to a conventional or nuclear war that nobody wants.
We might not win. This entire strategy rests on the assumption that the US can coerce Russia to limit its behavior (particularly regarding nuclear weapons) through superior military and economic might and that the US will easily defeat China in a conventional war. Neither assumption is strong. There are many scenarios where the humiliation of a defeat drives Russia to use nukes. Additionally, there are strategies made possible by rapid technological change (particularly regarding autonomous weapons and AIs) that could result in an unexpected and devastating defeat for US conventional forces deployed to Asia to halt Chinese expansion.
A final note, in a networked environment undergoing rapid technological change — the cohesion and clarity derived from an existential war are likely to be shortlived. If that proves true, the current consensus (left vs. Russia and right vs. China) won’t last past the next presidential election as vociferous internal debates (culture wars, etc.) push it to the periphery. Worse, if that occurs, the US would have turned Russia and China into actual enemies while demonstrating an inability to sustain the conflict.
PS: Our approach to Russia and China needs correction (long overdue). However, the choice isn’t between doing nothing and waging a long war to subdue them. Many more options and potential outcomes are available if we are willing to think clearly about what we truly want to achieve and risk.
"Many more options and potential outcomes are available..."
Could you elaborate?
As time goes by, I've come to believe that it is actually the US (and not Russia) who is backed (more?) into a corner and therefore capable of 'heinous acts' to win the day. For the US, losing in Ukraine is almost equivalent to Russia losing. For Russia, it's existential and it cannot/will not allow the West to defang them. For the US, though, it is existential to the unipolar hegemony......which is an absolute threat to our current way of life in the US. This has led me down the thinking that perhaps it's the US that will act more aggressively (use nukes in a "Nordstream-like-way") to win the day? It feels vicious and brutal beyond belief for me to even entertain this idea - but I haven't been able to let it go as the timespan of the war continues to extend. Relatively speaking, who has more to the lose?