Whether invoked by a neo-conservative in the George W Bush administration or denied by a liberal in Obama’s, America is an empire. However, for decades the reach and influence of this empire were checked by the existence of other empires. The 30 years since the end of the Cold War and the defeat of the former Soviet Union have been a unique moment in history when America became the world’s sole empire.
Now that moment is coming to an end, and geo-strategists are busy thinking about the multitude of scenarios in which the American empire could interact with today’s rising power, China, which is determined to become an empire and very likely will become one. Yet, what is happening inside America today still merits close attention, for it has a major influence over how America will interact with China and the rest of the world.
American politics are becoming much more polarised than at any point since the end of the Civil War and the period of the Reconstruction of the South that followed in the second half of the 19th century. This polarisation transcends the Republican and Democratic Parties descending into wars of words to discredit each other. Today’s polarisation has become socially entrenched and in terms of opposing (and not just different) views of what America means and what its social order ought to be.
The polarisation stems from different identities and ways of living, rather than from political positions or economic interests. This is important, because it means political contestation in America is no longer based on seeing the other as intellectually wrong, but rather on seeing the other as belonging to a different moral (and spiritual) place.
When societies arrive at this point, politics typically become paralysed. The public space becomes increasingly empty. If one faction sees the other as intellectually, morally and spiritually corrupt (or at best utterly mistaken), it will not only not discuss with it. It will also try to cut its links with anything that has to do with it.
This is already happening in different parts of the US today, not only geographically, but also culturally. The result is that the common social space – to which the nation as a whole used to come to debate, discuss and find compromises – initially loses its centrality and then gradually disappears. The diminishing importance of American newspapers, traditional centres of excellence (for example, top universities), national TV networks, and culturally unifying threads (think of the great American novel that captures the national mood and sentiment) are all cases in point. Some might say that the extreme bipartisanship in the US Congress today is the most glaring example.
As political contestation becomes increasingly polarised, representing not only different viewpoints, but also different convictions, ways of life, and identities, the other could well become more than just “different” or even “wrong”. It could become “evil”.
American political rhetoric has often combined the sacred with the secular. More than in any other Western country, God has always had a central presence in America’s politics. (It is important to emphasise that the most influential of the country’s Founding Fathers, the initial architects of the American project at its birth-moment, saw God in grander hues than those gleaned from anthropomorphic understandings.) As articles of faith and views stemming from what is “good” and what is “evil” take centre stage in any highly polarised polity, demonising the other quickly follows.
As a result, the centre becomes diluted, and power is fragmented. The traditional nodes of power in America get marginalised in favour of powers that traditionally were on the margins. We are already seeing this as far-right (and to some extent also far-left) groups that were always on the fringes are now at the centre of the two American political parties.
The rest of the world should care about this because what happens in America has always affected how it deals with the world outside. And at this moment when China’s rise is bringing American global hegemony to an end, the effect of the inside on the outside is particularly important.
The situation is historically unique. Never before in modern history (at least in the past three centuries) has a single empire ruled supreme in the world. There are no precedents for how America will behave at this moment of global transition.
America’s internal dynamics accentuate the uncertainty. The acute polarisation concerning what constitutes American values, frame of reference and way of life could translate into acute differences as to what its national interests are, what its role in the world is and what it is willing to do to defend those interests.
The increasing polarisation is unlikely to lead America to over-aggressive or over-acquiescent positions with regard to China. But the diverging views that result from polarisation could well lead to confusion and chaos, or at least to weakened decision-making processes.
Previous foreign policy mistakes have cost America dear, but serious mistakes in delicate geo-political situations (such as dealing with China at this moment in history) are of a different order of magnitude. They will have serious consequences for the whole world. This is because the interaction between America and China in the coming decade will affect international trade, the functioning of the most important international institutions, the development of revolutionary technologies, the global economy, and of course politics in different parts of the world.
Dousing the demon of acute polarisation in American society will benefit many parts of the world and not just America. As for those who have always looked with admiration at the intellectual rigour of the original American project, they are now looking at today’s American politics with surprise and wistfulness.