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?