America from afar – (XI) Fear

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

The past decade has seen the introduction of fear into the American psyche, a new phenomenon largely alien to the country’s collective history, writes Tarek Osman

 

America typically grabs opportunities and confronts challenges.

In the period after World War I, America saw the growing difference between its wealth and that of the old European colonial empires and sensed the difference in vigour between its youthful spirit and the tiredness that was seeping into the British and French Empires in the 1920s and 1930s.

 It therefore emerged on the world scene, primarily in Europe, but also selectively in parts of Asia and the Middle East, exploring the world it had shunned for the previous two centuries. This was also the period in which the world came to know American wealth.

In the period during and immediately after World War II, the world came to know American might. Whereas the two decades after World War I presented America with an opportunity to explore the rest of the world and learn more about it, World War II presented America with the challenge of either acquiescing to the rise of fascism in Europe or confronting it.

America chose war, even though it took the Japanese attack on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbour to summon America’s heart and not only its mind to the call of duty.

Even in the Cold War after World War II, America was far from willing to divide the world into spheres of influence and be content with its primacy over the Americas, Western Europe, and large parts of the Middle East and Africa. As the name of the period signifies, America saw that it was at war with the former Soviet Union. Its strategies from the earliest days of the war revolved round containment and the encirclement of the Soviet Union as a prelude to and stage in the process towards the latter’s implosion from within.

With this continuous drive towards success that America consistently exhibited in the last century, it has not been a surprise to see it summoning its will and enhancing its resources to confront the rise of China over recent years, concerned that it is becoming a superpower that will inevitably extend its political and not only economic presence beyond East Asia.

However, America today is different from what it was in the 20th century. As this series has argued over the past ten articles, elements in the American experience over the past century have altered the American way of looking at the world and at itself and reconfigured how it operates.

The past decade or so has seen the introduction of fear into the American spirit, a new phenomenon that is alien to the country’s collective psyche.

This fear stems from three factors.

The first is a weakening of cohesion. Except at moments in which it has itself been under threat, America has never been a fully united country behind any one set of values. But as it became the sole global superpower with unrivalled reach, influence, and might, and as it has seen its will effectively go unchecked over the past three decades, a sense of invincibility has characterised how America has thought of herself.

However, over time such invincibility makes societies drift away from the objectives and desires they had earlier put forward as national goals. Gradually, differences come to the surface. In America, those differences – in values, frames of reference, worldviews, and ways of living – are not only colossal but also conflicting. This is why as American might has been repeatedly on show on the global scene over the past few decades, its internal politics have been becoming increasingly confrontational, not only in terms of different political-economy frameworks and policies, but also in opposing societal perspectives.   

This has given rise to reflections inside and outside America about whether American society might slide into internal conflict. Bestselling books have imagined scenarios of civil war or the outbreak of anarchy. However, the most likely scenario is not that bleak. It is one that sees internal bickering about the basic notions of American socio-politics producing indifference among the vast majority of Americans towards their country’s future.  

Indifference is poisonous, however. It opens up spaces for crudeness and mediocrity to claim centre-stage, and it drives true talent and refinement away from the public domain.

This gives rise to the second factor behind the fear now seeping into the American psyche: the noticeable dilution of a common agreement on the meaning of America within the country. As basic definitions of American society’s values clash, and as America grows more and more divided, often extremely so, over frames of reference, what constitutes the good, and what are appropriate ways of living, the idea of America itself becomes fragmented into what different sections of society believe.  

This leads to the third factor. Divided societies are not able to summon up the resources needed for grand strategic confrontations. This is the essence of the fear that many thoughtful Americans have at the moment. They recognise that the distance many Americans are creating between themselves and other parts of the country will inevitably weaken the national collective will at a time when America is entering by far the most important strategic confrontation it has witnessed in over a half century.  

History today seems to be moving faster than humanity has experienced it over the past few centuries. Social and cultural trends that traditionally took decades to evolve and manifest themselves in a nation’s politics seem to be unfolding at a much quicker pace. Perhaps the technological innovations that have shrunk the global public space and connected disparate groups in ways humanity has never known before play a role in this.

What is relevant here is that the separation, distancing, and social divides in America today might well result in a dilution of power and meaning and a wasting away of resources at a much faster pace than observers think. This is why the 2024 presidential elections have a special importance, as they will shape American leadership in the years to come in ways that may well prove decisive to the evolution of American politics and society.

The next and final article in this series will explore some of the scenarios that might come to pass in this future.

 

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 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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