I'm struck, Damir, by the similarities between that Buchanan quote and the "forever culture war" I talk about in my recent Atlantic essay. He really was ahead of his time. I wonder what he's up to now and to what extent he feels vindicated. Although I suppose he might also be resentful that others have successfully taken his ideas and mainstreamed them in a way he never could.
There is inevitably and "us" and a "them," it's only a question of where one draws the boundary. Is the "them" to be found within or without? All other things being equal, the latter is a better option. But all things aren't equal.
Shadi goes on to say that given the track record that externalizing the enemy has had, especially when it comes to the domestic abuses that have come along with it, he prefers the "the fractious, tense hyper-pluralism that we have today."
Sure, sounds good.
But I wonder if we don't do a disservice to ourselves if we let words like "disagreement" and "fractious, tense hyper-pluralism" stand in for some of the passions that actually are roiling beneath the surface.
Here's Pat Buchanan speaking at the Republican National Convention in 1992:
My friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.
It's a little less cuddly when it's less theoretical—when it's obvious that for some, domestic "agonism" is literally about "the enemy within".
Since this blog is called "Friends and Enemies," it only seems appropriate to bring up the Belgian theorist Chantal Mouffe in response to Damir's previous post. There is inevitably and "us" and a "them," it's only a question of where one draws the boundary. Is the "them" to be found within or without? All other things being equal, the latter is a better option. But all things aren't equal. I'm tempted sometimes to think that the threat of China might serve as a rallying point for Americans to put to the side at least some of their differences. But this presumes that Americans need to be "united." If I had to choose between some artificially-imposed unity—like the kind that gave us the Patriot Act and civil liberties abuses after 9/11—and the fractious, tense hyper-pluralism that we have today, I know what my answer would be.
Earlier today, I was asked to brief some European think tankers and policymakers on what American polarization and paritsanship had in store for the transatlantic relationship. I used my old article, "America the Erratic," as a jumping off point for my remarks, and supplemented it with my recent Friday Essay update to the argument.
One of the themes that my interlocutors picked up on was America's enduring need for an external enemy. During the Cold War, the Truman administration was incredibly successful in shaping a foreign policy framework that centered around stopping World Communism. With the end of the Cold War, policing the world by the "indispensable nation" captured the imagination of the Clintonites, but they struggled to build and maintain a consensus around that mission. George W. Bush came into office campaigning explicitly against having America be "the world's policeman". 9/11, however, gave Bush's policymakers and speechwriters a new enemy: "terror". There was an almost palpable sense of relief among America's foreign policy doyens that a suitable "other" had been found to unite the country in a common sense of purpose.
The wars that resulted, however, had the opposite effect. President Obama won the office in no small part because he was the only Democrat who has firmly stood opposed to the folly of the Iraq War. Nevertheless, under Obama too, it became clear that China was coming into focus as the next focal point around which a Grand Strategy might be unfurled. For all their differences in approach, Trump and Biden have followed Obama's lead, and have worked to "pivot" America to Asia more and more.
"Is it wise that we are making a singular enemy out of China?" one of my interlocutors asked me in our discussion. I dodged on the wisdom part, but acknowledged that there was something Manichean in the American character—that we had a need to oppose ourselves to "evil" in order to get anything done.
It occurred to me as I was speaking that this is partly why many Americans really can't stand Henry Kissinger. Kissinger idolized Klemens von Metternich, and wrote a magisterial book about the old diplomat's efforts to build a lasting order in Europe in the 19th century. Maybe, I wondered, the emerging age will demand the subtle, unsatisfying skills of a scheming statesman, and will offer none of the satisfaction of the kind of moral crusades we have gotten used to. Will we be able to thrive in such an atmosphere?
Since he has a new book out, I've been thinking (again) about the French novelist Michel Houellebecq's legacy. The fact that it's called Anéantir, which means to "destroy oneself" but also to "disappear" seems appropriate. I re-read Micah Meadowcroft's fascinating and sprawling review of Houellebecq's career and what his insights tell us about the spiritual malaise afflicting Europe. One of Houellebecq's preoccupations is Islam, which has often led him to be accused of anti-Muslim bigotry. (The other one is sex, and the two are related).
As one of the relatively few Muslims who also happens to be a fan of Houellebecq's writing, I have a different view. I think he has been misunderstood. His main target of attack isn't Islam; Islam is used as the "other" through which to understand the follies and failures of the host civilization. Christianity is listless and irrelevant, a relic of a not-so-far-away past as well as a reminder of what America might still become. In this reading, Islam is to be feared because it has something that Christianity does not have—or that it lost.
One of the assumptions often voiced by the democracy promotion crowd is that countries themselves are a sort of blank slate, and that conflict comes when societies end up dominated by authoritarian rulers. One would think that for American democracy promotion types, the scales would have already fallen from their eyes after Trump. The idea that Trump was the source of American evil would have given way now to the realization that various elements of Trumpism in fact remain authentically popular among a large percentage of American voters. But not having been able to bring themselves to understand this at home, they persist in their errors abroad.
Take Vladimir Putin, the supposed source of all evil in Russia. If you believe this, Russia-watcher Paul Goble has some bad news for you:
Many Russians blame their country’s moves toward fascism on Vladimir Putin alone, Lev Ponomaryov says. But it is “important in principle” to recognize that those pushing Russia in that direction include a far broader spectrum of people, something that means replacing the current Kremlin leader is only a necessary but not a sufficient step.The senior Russian human rights campaigner, one of the founders of Memorial in Soviet times, says that “in fact, to a significant degree,” the push for fascism “comes from below, and people in shoulder boards and not only those woke up to the reality that they could do something” without constraint.Everyone hoped that those at the top would notice this and stop it, but instead, especially under Putin, they have encouraged this process. As a result, Russia is undergoing “creeping fascism, the most horrible kind in the country. And escaping from this will be put more complicated than escaping from Putin.”
Every so often, I put it out there that we have a Russia problem, not a Putin problem. I'm afraid I'm right on this.