America at war within can't lead world
The extraordinary country that once touted itself and was seen by many as the "leader of the free world" is no longer so great. America, the fabled "city upon a hill" and beacon of freedom and democracy for the world, is unwell from within, wracked by nasty divisions and visceral polarisation.
This is not the first time that the United States has been divided from within but how the country has been unable to regain its footing at this stage may be unprecedented. As America's global leadership wanes, the world is likely to revert to a more disorderly past where states and governments end up competing more than cooperating in self-help fashion, undergirded by tensions and potential conflicts.
To be sure, America as a country with an illustrious history and a population of exceptional diversity and talent remains immense. This week, I had occasion to visit Boston and Atlanta, two large US cities from two states in the northeast and deep south which stand in stark contrast. Boston is traditionally more liberal, Atlanta more conservative, both having much to say where America stands going forward.
Boston, for example, is the residence of Massachusetts senator and presidential aspirant Elizabeth Warren of the Democratic Party, who is accused by opposing Republican Party stalwarts of being a "socialist". Atlanta in the state of Georgia is President Donald Trump's heartland, staunchly pro-Republican Party and anti-Democrat. Both cities are home to some of the finest universities in the world. Boston hosts Harvard and MIT along with a plethora of other liberal arts colleges in its vicinity, whereas Atlanta counts Emory University and Georgia Tech, along with a bunch of other smaller liberal arts programmes, not to mention the Centers for Disease Control, the US public health watchdog, which reinforces medical schools in the area.
These are universities that Thai students covet highly for their educational advancement if and when they can get their hands on it. In addition, the US offers a wide range of educational institutions that suit all kinds of conditions and aims. Community colleges offering two-year programmes can train students for a vocational career or subsequent undergraduate completion. State universities, operated by the 50 states in the country, also provide good value for money. It is fair to say that Americans can more or less get a tertiary education in some form if they so aspire, and so can international students if they can find a way to afford it.
But having some of the best education on offer in the world somehow does not foster and sustain social cohesion and consensus in America. Certainly, US society has gone through divisions throughout its political history, from a cathartic Civil War in the 1860s and the civil rights movement a century later to the Vietnam War. Because of its protection and promotion of basic freedoms and fundamental rights, the US is always beset with different sides going at each other on key issues and major social and political struggles of the day.
But at the end of the day, common sense and reason, with some decency, has somehow prevailed. During the Cold War, for example, communist expansionism was enough of an external enemy to keep Americans united in their worldview, notwithstanding an ephemeral domestic anti-communist witch hunt. A much less polarised and more reasoned America was a country I saw first-hand in the 1980s, when everyone tuned in to a clutch of similar news channels, namely ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS. CNN came along but it too was non-partisan back then.
Approaching the 2020s, American media is largely partisan. Being fed Fox News for one hour can only leave the viewer angry and agitated because of agreement or disagreement with what came across. In Atlanta, a lot of people watch Fox News. Their typical views are that, "Trump may have a foul mouth but he has done good for the country." The flipside is offered by other news networks whose message is that Mr Trump has brought America to new all-time lows at home and abroad, deserving of impeachment and overthrow.
The media divisions are clear-cut. Traditional news networks tend to be anti-Trump but not necessarily pro-Democratic Party, while the likes of Fox News are invariably anti-Democratic Party and absolutely pro-Trump. The current impeachment proceedings against Mr Trump on his dealings with Ukraine in view of Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden Jr and his son are a case in point. The Trump faithful insist he has broken no law, whereas the anti-Trump columns point to an abuse of power and conflict of interest sufficient to be impeached.
And so it goes on. The next presidential election is likely to be similar to the last few. It will be a see-saw, with a slim victory and a similar pattern. If the outcome is determined purely by the simple majority of the American people, the Democratic choice will have an edge. But if the outcome is measured by square kilometres, as in the American people divided into the 50 states they live in, the Republican candidate may win again, just as Mr Trump did and George W Bush before him, thanks to the rural heartlands. The US Electoral College system allows this pattern to become entrenched. Before all of that, the gruelling and grinding presidential campaign season that lasts some 18 months will testify to how broken and malfunctioning the US electoral system has become.
Just as Boston will likely vote Democratic and Atlanta Republican in November 2020, America is headed down a path of dysfunction and deepening polarisation, torn up inside and unable to provide the global leadership in an international system it was instrumental in constructing after 1945. As the US shirks its responsibilities to lead, world order as we know it will continue to unravel and unhinge. It is an inconvenient reality which we would like to deny but best confront and make the necessary adjustments.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.