By Sigurd Neubauer and Eric Fraad
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a rude awakening for the United States and its European allies. The war, whose outcome is far from determined, is already reshaping the global balance of power between Russia, the US and China.
And the US is losing ground.
While many observers and commentators have rightly pointed out that the war erupted only days after the completion of the Beijing Winter Olympics, where President Vladimir Putin was a guest of Xi Jinping, both China and Russia consider the US to be a declining power whose political establishment and populace is bitterly divided over political ideology, the role of America in the world, the rights of individuals as granted by the constitution and a polymorphous aggregate of forms of expression, beliefs and practices that can be generalized as culture. In what is presently called the Culture Wars in America, culture is simultaneously the battleground, the weapon, and the prize to be won or vanquished.
These seemingly irreconcilable political and cultural differences whilst multivariant – hence diverse and complex – presently segregate into two opposing camps. Not since the American Civil War have politics, economics and culture issued such severe divisions which could not be diplomatically resolved by negotiation and compromise. The forms of political, governmental, and military organization of the North and South remained nearly identical despite the war – the intractable dividing factor was not an ideological dispute between democracy and monarchy or constitutional democracy and some other 19th century innovative political invention such as socialism, it was culture.
America’s internal divisions, which are amplified by identity politics and a general grievance culture embraced by both extremes of the political spectrum, stand in clear contrast to the Russian and Chinese dictatorships whose official interpretations of history glorify a heroic mythologized past administered through state-sanctioned media that brook no alternative versions of the official fiction.
Whereas authoritarian Russia and China have adopted nationalist approaches to the subject of history, in the US – which is the world’s oldest constitutional democracy – a large segment of society has adopted Marxist methodology, namely “intersectionality” as an organizing principle to transform the country into what they believe should be a more tolerant, just and equal one.
These dynamics have not only sharpened societal divisions where progressives and conservatives view each other with mistrust, to put it diplomatically. This present trajectory has effectively created a stalemate in which neither party is able to convince the other of its narrative. Mainstream and alternative media as well as many other cultural forms of expression from the arts to sports to fashion have been conscripted into this battle now fought by two deaf actors screaming at each other across a stage, both fooling themselves that the endgame will be anything but pyrrhic. America’s adversaries watch and gloat.
In the process, a common view of what America is, and what it stands for, has been lost.
Divisions over culture, history and heritage are directly impacting the nation’s political process, especially in Congress where gridlock and partisan strife have become the norm.
America’s cultural polarization has become an acute national security threat as paralysis in Congress is driving societal divisions which is further amplified by a partisan media. This, along with an increasingly politicized academia where higher education has become weaponized, come at a time when Moscow and Beijing are strategically aligning to reshape the international order through geopolitics.
This is what the war in Ukraine represents.
Americans must therefore be clear-eyed about what the war represents, namely: the beginning of a multipolar global order where Beijing and Moscow are catching up with Washington’s technological and military supremacy while the US is slowly but steadily losing ground to its strategic adversaries.
While the responsible American must refrain from the natural temptation to frame the war in Ukraine through the predictable partisan blame game, it is important to fully understand the sequencing leading up to the February 24 invasion.
On the basic level, the war exemplifies President Joe Biden’s strategic failure to achieve detente with Putin during their June 16 meeting in Geneva last year. Ahead of the high stakes meeting in neutral Switzerland, Biden had hoped to repair the fraught relationship with Russia as part of a strategy to counter China, which Washington considers its principal strategic adversary.
Instead of accepting Biden’s olive branch, Putin turned the table on him by partnering with Jinping who tacitly provided the Russian leader with his support for the war during the Winter Olympics.
Prior to the Olympics, the Biden Administration had also boycotted the sporting event by publicly criticizing and shaming China over its human right abuses towards its Uyghur minority.
China, which considers itself a great civilization, was naturally infuriated.
With the benefit of hindsight, the US official boycott of the Olympics clearly created an opening for Putin, which he took.
Biden’s failure to predict the Russia-China strategic alignment should not be framed in partisan terms but must serve as wakeup call for all Americans as their way of life is fundamentally threatened by the new alliance.
The age of innocence, at least from an American perspective, is over.
With crisis comes opportunity
While the Russia-China strategic realignment serves as an opportunity for Americans to unify at home, a first step would be to return to the ideals of the Enlightenment which center around the following principals:
The pursuit of knowledge through reason and scientific evidence; the pursuit of liberty; societal progress; tolerance; fraternity, including among nations; constitutional government; and the separation of church and state.
The US was, of course, founded on the principles of the Enlightenment.
A stumbling block in contemporary America to organizing the country around the truly inclusive principles of the Enlightenment, of which most Americans can agree on – whether he is a progressive or conservative – is the issue of slavery.
Slavery and centuries of discrimination suffered by African Americans are unpleasant historical facts that cannot be ignored. But progress towards a more perfect union has nonetheless been achieved since Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963.
His speech was very much anchored in the ideals of the Enlightenment, namely, a person should be judged on the merit of his character.
The ideals of the Enlightenment focus on principles that unify people rather than what divides them. These are important ideals that most Americans can agree on, provided, of course, that they are framed properly.
In practice, this means finding common ground on how to organize a fairer society in the present while building a better future for all.
A space for Americans to unify is in the sphere of culture and sports.
The Man & Culture magazine was founded on what Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 represents: a statement on freedom and fraternity among nations.
Finding unity in culture does not necessarily mean forgoing strongly held views or principles, including on some of the most contentious issues of the day. But what it means is to respect each other’s differences as it is precisely the battle of ideas which has catapulted America to the most powerful and wealthiest nation the world has ever known.
Meanwhile, the lessons of men’s tennis serve as an opportunity for America: the competition between Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic has not only elevated the game but made each player stronger. Together, they have ushered in a golden era in men’s tennis while dramatically expanding the sport’s fan base.
This is an example of healthy competition.
In contrast, name calling, and the demonization of political opponents not only contribute to an unhealthy debate, but they also nullify discourse and collaboration fundamentally weakening America at a time of intensifying global competition with China and Russia.
The geopolitical threat America faces forces its people to return to one of its founding principles: E pluribus unum.