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The US Needs External Enemies to Overcome Internal Division

The US is deeply divided and its political system is dysfunctional. Only the perception of an existential threat allows Republicans and Democrats to work together. Hence, the US needs an enemy.
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The US Needs External Enemies to Overcome Internal Division

Democrats vs republicans are in a ideological duel on the american flag. In American politics US parties are represented by either the democrat donkey or republican elephant. animal shadows on flag © diy13 / shutterstock.com

March 31, 2023 01:57 EDT
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One may wonder what has prompted the US government to become so heavily involved in the war in Ukraine after the defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

I take the view that the conflict arose from the expansion of NATO to ex-communist countries in breach of initial promises to Moscow. The unstated aim was to block any attempt by Russia to reemerge as a major world power. The list of new NATO members after the Cold War includes the former East Germany, three former members of the Soviet Union and five former members of the Warsaw Pact. 

It is also well known that some de facto powers in the US have a private financial interest in the war industry. President Dwight Eisenhower, who was Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Chief of Staff of United States Army, knew what he was talking about when he warned citizens in his farewell address in 1961 to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower predicted that “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” 

An enemy has its uses

It is well known that warmongering think tanks in Washington pushed to arm Ukraine after the Russian occupation of Crimea. Many Washington, DC strategists believe that the lesson of American defeats in the Middle East is that the US must sell arms without sending soldiers. That benefits shareholders, creates jobs and keeps America as the dominant superpower.

Private geopolitical and economic interests for the foreign conflict need a favorable internal political situation, something I discuss in my forthcoming book Constitutional Polarization: A critical review of the U.S. political system. When the country was under internal construction during the 19th century, it had no foreign policy. 

The issues at that time were territorial expansion from the thirteen independent colonies, the structure of new territories and states and the layout of their boundaries. Only since the early 20th century, when the United States established fixed continental borders and became internally organized as a more stable federation, has it been able to pursue an independent foreign policy. 

However, American foreign policy is heavily clouded by the ineffectiveness of the domestic political system. The constitutional formula for the separation of powers between a legislative Congress and an executive President with only two political parties tends to produce deadlocks. They often lead to legislative paralysis, frequent government shutdowns and presidential impeachments. 

Only existential threats make bipartisan cooperation possible. Only then do the White House and Capitol Hill work together. This proved to be the case during both World War II and the Cold War. The call for war in the 1940s, the “Red Scare” in the 1950s and its second edition in the 1980s were accompanied by popular feelings of fear and national unity, as well as low electoral participation and widespread political apathy. 

In contrast, during the last thirty years of relative peace, unresolved internal political issues and new demands have emerged on all sorts of issues: health, climate, immigration, race, religion, gender, sex, family, education, gun control and voting rights. These  have caused mass mobilizations, protests, confrontations and partisan polarization. External fear has been replaced by internal anger. 

An external enemy helps political leaders

When President Bill Clinton was under siege from Republicans on all sides, he confessed, “I would have preferred to be president during World War II” and “I was envious that Kennedy had an enemy.” President George W. Bush also longed for such a past when he launched the fight against a new “axis of evil” and Islamist terrorism that, according to his nonsensical logic, “followed the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism.” 

President Barack Obama was paralyzed by the suspicion that ending those wars might open up too many divisive domestic issues. It was President Donald Trump who started the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East and the first president in many years who did not start a new war; as a result, he faced an inner hell. 

President Joe Biden and the Democrats know that the Republicans will block any initiative on economic, social and cultural issues in the House of Representatives. To attract their cooperation in this context of yet another divided government, the Democrats may adopt a belligerent foreign policy. A bipartisan foreign policy could satisfy the geopolitical interest of expanding NATO, containing Russia and making money for the American defense industry. 

The US faces a constant dilemma between internal anger and external fear. This constantly creates political tension. This tension is resolved when faced by a transparently bad foreign enemy. Russia plays this role perfectly today. In the past, the Soviet Union, its earlier avatar, played the same role.

Yet, we are not living the nationalist hysteria of the Cold War, but a flimsy bad copy of it. Security and military chiefs, including William Burns, the former ambassador to Russia and current CIA director, and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, remember Eisenhower’s warning. They are more aware of the human costs of war than politicians who are worrying about the next election. Hence, both Burns and Milley have no overriding interest in another long-running conflict and are pushing for peace negotiations. It remains to be seen if the politicians let them succeed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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