Will the American Ruling Class Use Conflict with China to Unite the Country?

With America becominging disillusioned with the never-ending wars of the Bush and Obama era, foreign policy has largely been placed on the back-burner by the foreign policy elite. 

The wars were, and still remain, incredibly unpopular. In addition, they’ve taken a massive financial toll on the United States. However, the foreign policy ruling class is still intact and chugging along just fine. For the last decade or so, they’ve been recharging from the failed foreign policy of yore and are now preparing for new foreign policy conflicts as demonstrated by the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which placed more of an emphasis on great power competition between emerging rivals such as China and Russia.

There’s a particular focus on the former thanks to its meteoric rise in the last four decades. China is often viewed as an aspiring superpower, which has made the American defense community rather nervous. Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times raised an interesting point in a post titled “America’s best hope of hanging together is China”. He alluded to the concept of metus hostilis (fear of the enemy) which keeps polities together during times of division.

Ganesh observed that “without an ethnic basis, a nation can need something outside to define itself against.” The Financial Times writer offered several examples of this dynamic at play during American history. First, he noted some of America’s early struggles occurred after defeating an external foe in Mexico:

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The civil war happened after the US trounced the closest thing it had to a local threat in Mexico.

A similar dynamic occurred during the interwar period of the 20th century, which Ganesh outlined:

Urban strife grew between the world wars: it was armed mobilisation, not just the New Deal, that bound ethnic Italians, Poles and Irish into a civic whole. As for the cold war, note the surge in partisanship after its end.

In many respects, the Cold War was able to unite America by having a common rival in the Soviet Union. However, that began to end as the Cold War drew to a close. From there, the country began to polarize along class and cultural lines. The polarization has reached unprecedented heights with the rise of wokism in the 2020s, which has taken political correctness to new levels. What’s more, wokism threatens the very integrity of the American project through its overarching narrative that America is a fundamentally racist society. 

 As a result, the ruling class will have to find a new big bad to unite the country around. Wokism is incredibly divisive. In addition, a dying working class and rapidly changing demographics in the country, brought in large part due to mass migration, are putting the country over the edge. 

In light of all of this, there’s likely a number of devious members of the ruling class who recognize how the current political climate is unsustainable. To foster internal cohesion, opposing an emerging power like China will do the trick.

Ganesh explained several characters that the ideal enemy needs for it to stoke fear among the American public and make it seem like a credible threat:

The US requires two things of an enemy: vast scale (to induce fear) and a different model of government (for a sense of otherness). The absence of the first is why al-Qaeda turned out to be such a fleeting adhesive on US society after the September 11 2001 atrocities. As lethal as it is, terror — even the word is an abstract noun — is too diffuse and de-territorialised a thing. As to the second condition, boom-era Japan, a fellow democracy, lacked it and so never crossed from daunting commercial rival to nation-binding enemy.  

Indeed, the U.S-China rivalry will be the biggest geopolitical story of the 21st century. Although China is a strategic competitor, the U.S. would be wise to exercise restraint. There are plenty of developed allies who can shoulder the burden of checking China in East Asia. Additionally, the U.S. should focus on decoupling from China and restricting migration from said country, which often weaponizes its migrants for espionage and surveillance purposes. In doing so, the U.S. would not have to embark on a costly Cold War 2.0 project that gets the U.S. looped into a quagmire that it’s allies are more than capable of solving on their own.

As tempting as a great power conflict with China sounds, the U.S. should not be, paraphrasing John Quincy Adams, be looking abroad for monsters to destroy. It should be focusing exclusively on its volatile domestic situation and get its house in order.