The United States has a long history of internal cultural struggles. As a melting pot nation that spans across thousands of miles and encompasses hundreds of millions of individuals, our permissive form of government allows our culture to create itself through the conjoining of seemingly disparate belief systems and ideologies. This process is invariably contentious, as the tribes within the greater state of America fight among themselves for influence with conversations that are often carried out in public by only those with the most extreme of views. This process, though sometimes violent, has proven to be a point of strength for America in many ways, as the nation has grown from a hodgepodge of colonies to a collection of almost independent nation-states joined through a loose confederation, to its role as the globe’s only superpower in a fraction of the time some European powers have existed.
However, while America’s cultural alchemy is good for marrying the beliefs, principles, and values of different groups of people into something greater than its individual parts, there is a downside. Within the borders of the United States, debate and discussion often give way to open contempt, and we begin to see our own neighbors as a threat to our ideals, often at the expense of paying attention to the greater threats looming just beyond the horizon.
Other nations with more oppressive regimes and no systemic allowances for differences of opinion have taken note of America’s unique brand of self-flagellation, often resulting in a somewhat regular exchange of power between conservative and progressive movements. Every four to eight years, the political figurehead of the United States steps down in favor of a newly elected executive, and from that single change springs a slew of shifts in policy and rhetoric. One president will focus on defense, perhaps to the chagrin of those championing social reform. The next president will focus on those social efforts while allowing economics to slide. Our cultural combat and reactionary politics mandate that the president (and all elected officials) address the pressing topics of the day — as decided by the largest, or loudest, sects of the population.
Meanwhile, in China, where President Xi Jinping recently had the term limits eliminated from his position, the national government plays an active role in censoring not only national culture but also foreign cultures that are permitted for consumption within their borders. Dissidents disappear, criticism of the government or its leadership is banned from online discussion, and amid this environment of cultural control, things like defense initiatives can move more quickly and with greater effect thanks to their mandated universal acceptance. While America sees foreign policy as just another topic for discussion and debate among ourselves, China’s international efforts enjoy a level of consistency in strategy that’s made nearly impossible by the ebb and flow of American democracy. While we change tracks, tactics, and funding models under each new administration, China capitalizes on our self-inflicted shortsightedness.
In America, the focus is almost always on the next election. In China, where there’s no need to pander to the public, the focus can be placed elsewhere.
“I would argue … that what they’re waging against us is fundamentally a cold war — a cold war not like we saw during THE Cold War (between the U.S. and the Soviet Union) but a cold war by definition,” said Michael Collins, the deputy assistant director of the CIA’s East Asia mission center. He’s not the only prominent official warning the nation about the threat China represents as the American public keeps its focus squarely (and often appropriately) on Russia.
“I think China, from a counterintelligence perspective, in many ways, represents the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said recently. “The volume of it. The pervasiveness of it. The significance of it is something that I think this country cannot underestimate.”
“China is not just a footnote to what we’re dealing with Russia,” Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs told reporters in recent weeks while discussing the staggering number of Chinese intelligence operatives already in place throughout many American universities.
Within the United States, we tend to focus on all things through the lens of how it pertains to our trending discussions. Russia, for instance, represents a threat to American national security, but the conversation regarding that threat is almost entirely funneled through political perceptions of the American president, rather than the strategies being employed by the inferior economic and military force of Russia — and one could argue that America’s reluctance to acknowledge China as a greater threat is born, in part, out of this habit. There is no political value in acknowledging the threat China poses: it doesn’t help to discredit the sitting president, nor does it serve to bolster his standing, and because those two ambitions characterize the vast majority of political endeavors in our country as of late, China gets moved deeper into the newspaper in favor of more inflammatory headlines about Twitter.
That’s not to argue that the Russian threat is any less significant, that the presidency should be above skeptical analysis or that America’s democracy is the lesser form of government from a strategic standpoint. What these points hope to illustrate is how our single-mindedness, our tunnel vision, creates weakness. As we focus on finding ways to tear one another apart in the short term, nations like Russia and China, with no concerns about farming popular opinion, gain the advantage not just in the form of military strength (where America finds itself playing catch up in a number of technologies), but in terms of diplomatic and economic efforts as well.
The solution to this problem is complicated, and in the current social climate, extremely difficult: we need to stop making every issue a political one. We need to embrace the idea that Republicans and Democrats have the same ultimate goals regarding universally accepted national requirements like defense. Initiatives in these realms need to be debated on their merit, their potential outcomes, and their value to the nation as a whole, instead of voting based on the party of the politician that proposes them. Among the populous, we need to demand that our policymakers begin thinking about their country, rather than their party. As the voters, we need to demand that same seemingly impossible mindset from ourselves.
Is it possible to eventually come to a point where we no longer see the opposing party as a greater threat to our nation than the despots and dictators of the world? It’s hard to say, but then, there was a time when it might have seemed impossible that we’d ever get to this point at all. While our cultural melting pot of a democracy can, at some points, create weaknesses, it is also America’s greatest strength: in America, anything’s possible.
Featured image: Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Qingdao in eastern China’s Shandong Province Sunday, June 10, 2018. | Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP