Dangerous Coexistence at Home and Abroad

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Harlan Ullman

The upsurge in crime, mass shootings, domestic violence and the disappearance of civility across American society are shocking symptoms of a nation’s failing political health.

How best to define the state of America at home and abroad other than bad? For the first time since 1861, about half of America believes a civil war is likely. At no time in America’s history has the last and current president and Congress all been held in such contempt and low regard reinforcing this grim outlook. Many around the world harbour similar negative attitudes towards America.
Both parties have adopted “scorched earth” policies toward the other. Despite feeble attempts at bipartisanship, the nation remains dangerously polarized and politically divided. On the current trajectory and without a fundamental course correction, polarization could become irreversible for years if not longer.
Conditions abroad are no better. War rages in Ukraine. Russia threatens to use nuclear weapons if the conflict spreads beyond Ukraine’s borders. Unless safe passage of grain and wheat from Odessa is assured, a global humanitarian food crisis cannot be avoided.
China’s rhetoric and actions towards Taiwan have become increasingly belligerent, especially with a visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Some American experts assert a Chinese amphibious assault and attack on Taiwan is inevitable. Given that the US defence strategy is based on containing, deterring and if war comes defeating China and Russia, would such an invasion result in a superpower conflict?
Is this period unique? The US and China fought each other in Korea. During the Cold War, the US and USSR came frighteningly close to nuclear war. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was one such instance. In 1983, the Kremlin mistakenly assessed that Exercise Able Archer presaged a preemptive US attack on the USSR and made preparations to retaliate until cooler heads prevailed.
Life in America was never without strife. Race and the Vietnam War through the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman sparked fierce domestic protests, riots, violence and looting But the storming of the Capitol on January 6 was an unprecedented inflexion point in the nation’s history. Yet, many American refused to accept that an insurgency that could have been prevented by the president actually took place.
Attempting to overturn an election threatened the Constitution and the peaceful transfer of power. Meanwhile, flaws in the 1887 Electoral Count Act and the 12th Amendment in presidential selection remain ticking political IEDs.
Eras are often defined by slogans from “The Roaring Twenties,” to the “Great Society.” The “Cold War” encapsulated the ideological battle between East and West until the Soviet Union’s 1991 implosion. MAD meant “Mutual Assured Destruction” and nuclear annihilation. But slogans can be dangerous.
Since the Obama administration assumed office in January 2009, a “Great Power Competition (GPC)” with China and Russia has shaped America’s national security thinking. Because GPC was never sufficiently well defined by any administration, the ensuing strategy and policy aims have been too vague and diaphanous to be effective.
Following Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, some observers have already declared a Cold War 2.0. But none of the critical assumptions in place during the Cold War is present today. The USSR was only a military superpower. Today, Russia is both an energy and military superpower with about half the population of the old USSR.
China was a developing state and a lever in establishing detente between Moscow and Washington. Today, China is an economic and military superpower. And neither has been contained or deterred from aggressive actions inimical to Western interests.
Both GPC and Cold War 2.0 do not fit today’s world. A more appropriate phrase is “dangerous coexistence.” In such times, coexistence is vital. Dangers lurk almost everywhere. War among these powers would be catastrophic. While coexistence remained peaceful during the Cold War, few of the old guard rails are in places such as a healthy and ongoing dialogue between Moscow and Washington.
Dangerous coexistence also describes America at home. The upsurge in crime, mass shootings, domestic violence and the disappearance of civility across American society are shocking symptoms of a nation’s failing political health. Regardless, Americans must coexist with each other irrespective of party affiliation.
Dangerous coexistence, at home and abroad, is intensified by another threatening and potentially existential reality-a new MAD for Massive Attacks of Disruption. The new MAD, whether caused by man or nature, ranges from the failed government to natural disasters of climate change and pandemics with much in between. All threaten society. Because governments do not recognize the enormity of MAD, none is prepared to contain or prevent them.
Dangerous coexistence must be contained and reversed. But will it? That is the greatest, still unrecognized dangerous condition confronting the nation today.

The writer is a senior advisor at Washington, DC’s Atlantic Council and a published author.