Has the US Lost its Way?


Harlan Ullman

Hobbes asserted that without government, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But, ironically, even with the government, similar terms still might apply today. That is sadly true in America. About three-quarters of Americans see the country headed in the wrong direction. And an equal proportion report they are “dissatisfied” with their lives.
This bleakness is reflected in how many foreign capitals view America. With the war in Ukraine, NATO and other European allies are, for the moment, in agreement in reversing Russian aggression. However, that same favorability and support are far from global. In terms of population, a significant majority tends to side with Russia and China over the West.
Anecdotal analysis is telling. South Africa’s navy is exercising with Russia’s and China’s off its coasts. North African states from Algeria to Egypt are buying Russian oil despite the boycotts and sanctions. And history also counts.
Perhaps the Vietnam War has been forgotten. However, US interventions in Iraq twice; Afghanistan; Libya; and even Ukraine along with European colonialism have not. Too often America is seen as arrogant, aloof and unwilling to listen.
These criticisms beyond America’s borders are reflected in the unprecedented political, social, cultural, ideological and economic divisions from within. Virtually every issue is deeply politicized between Democrats and Republicans. This past weekend, one of the Department of Energy labs released a report that concluded the Covid-19 virus likely came from China’s biological research facility in Wuhan.
The origins of Covid have two possible sources. The first is from nature and animal-to-human zoonotic transmission. The second is a man-made virus created in a laboratory such as in Wuhan that could be part of a biological warfare program. Initially, many disregarded the conspiracy theory because far more Chinese succumbed to Covid than in any other country.
Less well advertised was that the DoE report expressed “low confidence” in the source as being from a laboratory. The White House has no firm conclusion as to the origins of Covid as the U.S. intelligence remains divided. However, the political divisions have magnified the intensity and passion on both sides of the debate.
For the moment, the question of whether the US is at a transformational inflexion point or what has been called a hinge of history is interesting. Such points after World War II were 1947 and the partition of India into Pakistan; 1948 and the establishment of Israel; 1949 and the formation of NATO; 1972 and Nixon’s trip to China; 1989 and 1991 that led to the end of the Cold War and the implosion of the Soviet Union; and the al Qaeda attacks of 2001. One could argue that Vladimir Putin’s incursions into Georgia in 2008; Crimea in 2014; and Ukraine last year are also critical dates.
The reason that 2023 could be one such inflexion point is that for the first time in its history, the US faces both a nuclear-armed economic superpower and a nuclear-armed energy-rich adversary that launched the first major war in Europe since 1945.
If this assessment is correct, the US strategy has not anticipated these conditions and does not fit this new paradigm. And much as nuclear and thermonuclear weapons forever changed strategy because in war there could be no winners, only losers eviscerated under huge mushroom-shaped clouds, this dual challenge from China and Russia could have equally profound consequences.
But where are these matters being addressed? And part of any assessment is the traditional definitions of containment, deterrence and defence still applicable or does each need revision for this era? For over a decade, neither China nor Russia has been contained or deterred. China has made its military one of the largest and most modern on earth; fortified tiny islands in its contiguous seas; and strengthened its rhetoric on returning Taiwan to China.
The same freedom of action applies to Russia. Russia has intervened in Syria and Moldova as well as Ukraine. It has threatened the use of nuclear weapons. And it has suspended New START. So what can be done?
In many ways, the US seems to have lost its way at home and abroad. But administrations generally have greater flexibility regarding foreign and defence than domestic policy. With less than two years remaining in office, a major strategic review is unlikely to be undertaken by this White House. Yet that is what is needed now.
That returns to a common refrain of who will listen and who will lead.