Economics / Politics

National Identity is Destiny – America in Eurasia

Rhoads R. Cannon comments on the concept of identity in inter-state relations between America, Eastern Europe and East Asia, providing policy prescriptions for the US and its allies. He argues that in order for America to lead in an emerging Sino-Russian world, the US must re-discover its identity and formulate sound strategy at home and abroad.

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Red Square, Moscow (2004)

Why does identity matter in politics, and how does identity manifest in inter-state relations? Although scholars diverge over requisite definitions, as well as the application of theoretical prescripts, there is little doubt that a rising China, an emboldened Russia, an unhinged Middle East, and a weakened Europe, are collectively degrading Pax-Americana. Iran, the People’s Republic of China, and the Russian Federation loom large upon the world stage as the world redefines power. Observers as disparate as Fareed Zakaria, Samuel P. Huntington, and Niall Ferguson, etc., have all explored the transition from a unipolar American-dominated world (a-la Fukuyama)[1] to the emergence of a bipolar or even a multipolar world paradigm. While this transition may be due largely to world demographic shifts, capital flight, and the transformative power of transatlantic markets, an underlying reality remains: norms, beliefs, and ideas matter in politics. Scholar Oswald Spengler’s theory of history thus haunts the modern world. According to Spengler, “history is a cyclical pattern based on the organic growth and decay of separate cultures through time.”[2] It is in this context that one must inquire what role the United States should play in a post-Cold War political arena, as well as how it should engage with its own domestic challenges. Dwight D. Eisenhower fittingly contends that, “whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world, must first come to pass in the heart of America.”[3] The world is a battlefield over the contestation of values, and it is imperative that America’s leaders grapple with this truth. To continue its influence in Eastern Europe and East Asia, the US must first build an overarching stratagem at home. Undoubtedly, if America does not have a recognizable identity or a clear purpose, it cannot adequately address budding international and domestic challenges.

Domestic debate regarding America’s role in post-Soviet and post-911 affairs endures. This trend in tandem with an increasingly polarized electorate, a broken educational system, and a stifling degree of political correctness within America’s higher institutions, are collectively occluding public perceptions and muddling America’s national direction. President Barack Obama may contend that there is, “not a liberal America and a conservative America—only the United States of America,”[4] but the reality is much more complex. Alexis de Tocqueville opined that, “there are countries so vast [like the US] that the different populations that inhabit them, although united under the same sovereignty, have contradictory interests from which a permanent opposition arises between them.”[5] While debate is a critical component of a liberal democracy, partisan discord between US citizens and their growing mistrust of government is most unwelcome. In an increasingly complex world, the US must be more united than divided, and more resilient than obstinate. Equally significant, the US has yet to fully address its accelerating immigration challenges. Immigration matters because the values immigrants bring directly influence the makeup and character of the wider nation. Although Samuel P. Huntington in his The Hispanic Challenge contends that, “Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream US culture,”[6] a bigger challenge concerns American’s lack of knowledge of its base values and its foundational documents. Worse still, the US has cut funding for international studies.[7] The US must address its immigration and educational realities and, “it ignores these challenges at its peril [sic].”[8] Abraham Lincoln’s warning remains pertinent today: a house divided, cannot stand.

A more immediate challenge affecting America’s identity and world standing; however, concerns relations between states and the value systems of rising powers. Battle-lines are being drawn between world reserve currencies, national languages, and democratic versus authoritarian norms. For example, by challenging American exceptionalism as a dangerous fallacy, Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to challenge American self-confidence and soft-power via a New York Times Op Ed in 2013.[9] Whilst Putin argues that, “it’s extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,”[10] it is equally perilous for a nation to disregard its history and guiding tenets. American soft power i.e. values, culture, and entertainment dominate the globe. By prizing individualism, by expanding free markets, and by promoting free people(s), the US represents both a symbolic and real challenge to authoritarian norms. Rather than accepting Putin’s words; however, the US should instead share its foundational principles within a world fraught by Islamism and Sino-Russian statist authoritarianism. Values cannot exist in a secure vacuum; they are formulated, challenged, and transformed by states and disparate actors.

America’s challenges in Eastern Europe and East Asia are many. To illustrate, and according to Russian commentator Vyacheslav Nikonov, Moscow has recently pivoted towards Asia in light of a rising China and tumultuous Ukraine.[11] Rosneft’s export deals to China, Sino-Russian military exercises, and collective revulsion for American unipolarity unite both camps. President Obama comprehends the emerging opportunities and/or threats posed by a rising China. However, US leaders should not wholly embrace the PRC’s foul-play out of a desire to foster economic and/or environmental dealings. Mid-East nuclear proliferation and ISIS [ISIL] both represent strategic trials for the US and its allies,[12] but the century long political struggle will likely involve Russia and China. By pilfering American intellectual property, by hacking American computer networks,[13] and by challenging American dominance in Eastern Europe and the Pacific, the Sino-Russian bloc seeks to sidestep America as the world’s preeminent pole.[14] This can be either a peaceful or a bellicose development, but the US will remain a preeminent power. Whether one analyzes the spread of ISIS, China’s push into the Pacific, and/or Russia’s refutation of the West in Eastern Ukraine, it is clear that there is a sore lack of American leadership in the world. America must rediscover and promote its core values in order to be united at home and to capably lead abroad.”[15]

Perhaps observers will never fully agree regarding what America’s role will constitute in the 21st and 22nd Centuries. Regardless, a number of policy prescriptions can be tested. Domestically, the US must secure its borders, improve its infrastructure, strengthen its military, better educate its denizens, and adequately manage its pocketbooks. Abroad, the US must continue its dominance within NATO by backing vulnerable East European states. A move to possibly install American military assets in Poland is a necessary step.[16] Western European nations, under NATO’s umbrella, must also try to contribute 2% of GDP for stability of the European continent. To complicate matters further, the US should foster freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as well as to uphold the interests of its closest allies. Budget cuts and Americans’ growing distaste for foreign conflicts may complicate such geopolitical obligations. Lastly, the US must not discount its unique influences in the world, its singular history, or its constitutional precepts. Lincoln’s words remain salient, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”[17]

Rhoads R. Cannon

London School of Economics

Lincoln College, Oxford

[1] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992).

[2] Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West: Form and Actuality, Vol. 1 (Vintage, 2006), 45.

[3] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Presidential Library Archives

[4] Barack Obama, Keynote Speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, July 27, 2004.

[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[6] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Hispanic Challenge,” Foreign Policy, October 28, 2009.

[7] Charles King, “The Decline of International Studies: Why Flying Blind is Dangerous,” Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2015.

[8] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Hispanic Challenge,” Foreign Policy, October 28, 2009.

[9] Vladimir Putin, “A Plea for Caution From Russia” New York Times, September 11, 2013.

[10] Vladimir Putin, “A Plea for Caution From Russia” New York Times, September 11, 2013.

[11] Bobo Lo, F. Hill, “Putin’s Pivot: Why Russia is Looking East” Foreign Affairs, July 31, 2013

[12] Bennett Ramberg, “Nuclear Power to the People: The Middle East’s New Gold Rush,” Foreign Affairs

[13] http://www.economist.com/news/china/21653722-massive-cyber-intrusion-may-prove-be-latest-glitch-us-china-relations-hacked?fsrc=scn/li/cp/bl/st/oncemoreabreach

[14] Bobo Lo, F. Hill, “Putin’s Pivot: Why Russia is Looking East” Foreign Affairs, July 31, 2013

[15] “A War for America’s Soul?” In Rhys Williams, ed., Cultural Wars in American Politics (New York, 1997), 39.

[16] http://www.wsj.com/articles/poland-u-s-in-talks-on-prepositioning-weapons-says-defense-minister-1434286597?mod=e2fb

[17] Jaime L. Napier and John T. Jost, “The Anti-Democratic personality” revisited: A Cross-National Investigation of Working Class authoritarianism” Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 64, no. 3, 2008, pp. 595-617.

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