subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

While ongoing tensions between China and the US captivate the global political debate, an equally troublesome trend has long been under way within the US itself.  

The term “Thucydides Trap” was popularised by American political scientist Graham T Allison to describe a tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as a regional or international hegemon.

That a Thucydides Trap is playing out in the competition between the world’s two great powers is no surprise. What has been unexpected, though, is the extent of the deterioration in the social and political fabric in the US.

The tensions between the two major political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, as well as within US society, seem to have reached a level of perniciousness that is usually reserved for enemies.

The country is deeply divided into two almost equal camps across a broad spectrum of issues. These range from traditional hot button issues such as gun rights, abortion and taxation, to fundamental questions for any nation’s future (such as generating equitable economic growth, addressing climate change and gender inequality, and modernising the country’s physical infrastructure).  

On many, if not most, of these topics the search for compromise is met with hostility in the current political climate. Those who try are often cast as traitors to their own camp’s cause. In society at large, both the left and the right have embraced “cancel culture”, which has become a primary way of dealing with anyone who dares challenge popular opinions on either side. Recrimina­tions are levelled even at those within their own party who fail to adhere to the preferred political orthodoxy. Given that the willingness to search for common ground ultimately constitutes a functioning society, this is worrisome.

The divide in the US is exacerbated by media entities bent on sowing ever-greater distrust by giving voice to extremists at the poles. Fox News and MSNBC, which occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum, have been found to have the most ideologically bent viewers. 

Most disconcerting are the anti-democratic tactics being deployed in the US’s winner-takes-all political duopoly. Gerrymandering, voter suppression and, when all else fails, contesting election results in the courts have all become common practice. In Georgia, for example, long lines at the few polling stations that remain — particularly in neighbourhoods populated primarily by people of colour — are made worse by laws that impose fines on people who give water to those waiting for hours in line to vote.

With autocracy on the rise in democracies across the world, it has become abundantly clear that even democracy’s historically most ardent defender is not immune. Outside the US, this infighting is viewed with great concern. There are ever louder questions across the globe as to whether a nation so divided at home can be relied on as a responsible leader on the world stage. 

We live in a time when the world faces significant structural challenges. These include climate change, the re-emergence of autocracy, digital disruption of our economies and societies, and a shifting global power balance. These challenges call for collaboration in designing solutions and co-ordination in deploying them. But who is going to lead? 

While the US flounders internally and flip-flops on foreign policy with each handoff of the Oval Office, China is operating with a steadfastness and internal cohesion that is compelling. As a result, its power and influence is expanding as much through competence as through will.  But its approach is often antithetical to the values of liberal democracy.  

Unless we want a very different future, liberal democracies must develop an aligned, cohesive and competent response to the global challenges we face. To do that, the US must overcome the polarisation tearing the country apart. Otherwise, it will be in a weak position to lead. 

It is instructive to recall George F Kennan’s famous maxim, formulated in 1947. The US would be well advised, he wrote, to “create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time”.

The fact that the US domestic political scene is marred by corrosion plays into China’s hands. Unless the US gets its act together and manages to live up to Kennan’s maxim once again, more countries can be expected to fall under China’s influence. However, since the values propagated by autocratic powers do not present a constructive alternative, the world may rue the day it no longer has the US to kick around. 

• Nakagawa is executive vice-president at the Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles. 

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.