America from afar ­— (XII) Choices

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 11 Jun 2024

America has been experiencing a new type of fear over recent decades, leading it to confront some difficult choices, writes Tarek Osman in the last in a series of articles

 

As discussed in the previous article in this series, America has been experiencing a particular type of fear for over a decade. Fear can often make a person, or a dominant group within a society, obsessed with an object, a desired outcome, or with a way a society has identified with an image of itself.

America’s unchecked operations across the globe over the past three decades, which have been reflected in ways of managing its internal affairs, could well be such a desired outcome or view of itself. Its victory in the Cold War and the three decades since then in which it has become used to achieving whatever desire or objective it has had has given rise to unrestrained behaviour in its internal politics.

We have seen various examples of this over the past two decades when America’s internal politics have appeared for many observers to be driven not only by partisan bickering, but also primarily by imperial hubris. At the core of its internal politics, for at least two decades there has been the vague but powerful conception that America can abandon many of the ideas upon which it was founded with limited, if any, consequences.    

Being able to do what one wants, irrespective of the costs, including to one’s own resources, can nurture acute forms of indulgence. That person – or that society – risks gradually losing the ability to control himself or itself. Self-control is the golden mean of success; it is the secret ingredient without which many endeavours go to waste. When a society loses the ability to control itself, it loses its compass of what is right and beneficial and what is wrong and destructive, primarily for itself.

The result is often a fixation on the status quo. In such cases, the society internalises the idea that the privileges, and often also the joys, of abandoning self-control are too precious to let go, and so there emerges an insistence on retaining the right to unrestrained behaviour.

Such a fixation could lead to choosing a political leadership that embodies that loss of restraint. In the case of America, the idea becomes attractive that at moments of looming changes inside and outside the country that threaten to shatter the status quo, a highly assertive leadership is needed and one that is not only mindful of these changes but is also able to reverse them.

Bravado, abrasiveness, and the disregard of subtle calculation, and often even an ignorance of the changes taking place in the rest of the world, become for many the needed qualities to steer a society in the unchartered waters it is entering towards the safety of the known. In this case, that known is what has been experienced over the past three decades in America since it won the Cold War and ruled supreme over the world.

Fixation can turn into identification. Groups that feel threatened by changes inside and outside the country identify with the ideas of assertive leaders who promise to crush those threats and steer the society towards the safety of the familiar. This identification can become so strong that the leaders seem unstoppable, because the underlying fears that propel their ideas forward and fuel their narratives are so powerful.

However, this fixation brings major costs. Wisdom gets lost. The society narrows its vision to only the experience of the recent past – in this case, the last three decades in which America was able to act as the world’s sole superpower – and becomes intentionally ignorant of the accumulated lessons of its long history. These lessons come from America’s rich experiences since it began to engage with the rest of the world at the end of the 19th century.

Decision-making becomes impaired. The society indulges itself in selective, and often delusional, interpretations of its own experiences. Almost unconsciously, this is done to reinforce narratives that feed abandoning restraint and seek to maintain the status quo without any serious assessment of the likely consequences.

Self-righteousness replaces self-control. Those who need a narrative of rejecting the changes going on around them see the voices calling for restraint and for serious assessments of the reality of the internal situation and the subtleties of the circumstances abroad as enemies. It is for this reason that simplistic ideas about restoring a society’s greatness or associating a political choice with some sort of destiny or even divine intervention gain currency.

In some circumstances, this leads to fractures. Societies become divided along clashing lines about not only their desired objectives, but also, as discussed in the previous article, about their frames of reference and their conceptions of the good. With time, and as societies come to make important choices about their future, these divisions can grow into splits. Societal cohesion goes up in flames.  

This affects the society’s international relations. As this series has shown, the current moment presents many challenges to America’s relationships across the world, but the gravest relates to its relationship with China. In this regard, fear and the fixation on a desired and unrealistic outcome can lead to rigidity and self-assertion. As a result of calculations clouded by fear and fixation, the desired outcome acquires an immense value, while the associated costs and consequences, to oneself and others, are diluted.

This can lead to wars. The American-Chinese strategic confrontation will likely remain political, economic, and technological. But if America’s desire to retain its status as the world’s sole superpower and one that is able to achieve whatever it desires anywhere in the world without being mindful of the consequences turns into a fixation, its stance in the strategic confrontation with China will become more assertive and more inclined to take risks.

Arguably, its thinking will become increasingly anchored on the idea of being inherently right and morally superior. Self-assertion will become rationalised as an inevitable course of action dictated by being on the right side of history. There could well emerge a dynamic between the two countries in which opposing fixations and clashing desired objectives feed on each other.

However, there is another possible course. Societies, like individuals, can emerge from fear and fixation and can heal the splits and bridge the gaps between their clashing components. Energy that would otherwise have gone towards feeding internal antagonisms and international assertiveness, can be channelled towards more mature understandings of the different views of society internally and of different conceptions of its role internationally. As a result, tensions are eased, and fear is transmuted into a desire for growth both for oneself and others.

In taking such a course America would be reconnecting with the greatness inherent in the ideas upon which it was founded. As this series has shown, at the core of the idea of the American Republic was the expectation that the nation would rise to become a major power. However, there was also the belief at the core of that expectation among America’s founding fathers that the nation’s greatness was not a divinely granted right.

It was a summit that could be reached, and that America could remain at, if the society continuously endeavoured to retain and sustain the ideals that had formed its desired greatness and subsequent supremacy.

 

The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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