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Polarization and U.S. Foreign Policy
Henderson Field, Honiara, Solomon Islands (photo by the author)

Polarization and U.S. Foreign Policy

A strange transformation has taken place in the United States in recent years. Francis Fukuyama's latest.

Francis Fukuyama

In the recent past, the United States and China have been scrambling for influence in the South Pacific. China last year signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, leading to fears that Beijing would acquire a military base there.  To counter this, U.S. President Joe Biden was to have visited Port Moresby following the G7 summit in Hiroshima, to sign his own defense agreement that would give the United States access to military facilities in that nation. The trip never happened, however, because Biden had to return urgently to Washington to negotiate with Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy over raising the debt ceiling and avoiding a U.S. default on its massive debt.

An agreement was ultimately reached by the end of May and default was avoided, but the entire incident is a good illustration of the way that political polarization in the United States is weakening U.S. foreign policy. No U.S. president had ever visited Papua New Guinea before, and there was a huge degree of expectation there with other regional leaders coming to Port Moresby for the event. While the security agreement was ultimately signed by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, there was a palpable sense of disappointment in the region that the U.S. president could not fulfill his promise and pay attention to this increasingly strategic part of the world.

While relations with Papua New Guinea were not irretrievably damaged, there are other much more important foreign policy issues at stake. The largest ongoing crisis today is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where a long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive to liberate parts of its country occupied by Russia began in earnest in early June. Despite recent domestic troubles over the abortive uprising led by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a theory of victory in this struggle. He wants to hold on to his gains in Ukraine for long enough for Donald Trump to return to the White House in 2024.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Trump has presided over a reversal in conservative Republican attitudes towards Russia. Republicans fiercely criticized former President Obama for being too soft on Russia and for trying to negotiate a “reset” of relations between Washington and Moscow. Since then, Trump’s MAGA wing of the party has in effect switched sides, and today regards Moscow as a friend. Trump likes the fact that Putin is a “strong” leader, and many Christian evangelical voters consider Putin to be a fellow Christian President. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by contrast is accused of espousing a “woke” liberal agenda by pushing gay marriage and transgender rights in his country. This charge is of course nonsense; Putin is hardly a devout or peaceful Christian. But American conservatives today live in a separate information world in which their premises are shaped by alternative and untrue facts. Ukraine will indeed be in trouble if Trump returns to the presidency next year.

There is ostensibly more partisan agreement on policy towards China. Biden has continued many of Trump’s initiatives and has gone further in many ways. The United States is in the process of decoupling itself from China in certain areas like semiconductors, batteries, rare earths, and other goods which Washington policymakers believe have strategic importance. Biden has also kept in place many of the trade barriers first erected by Trump, and has promoted an “America-first” industrial policy to keep manufacturing in the United States. Democrats are in many respects competing with Republicans as to who can be the most hawkish on China. One of the grounds on which Republicans have criticized aid to Ukraine is that it is depleting U.S. weapons stocks that would be needed in the event of a conflict with China.

This apparent foreign policy convergence can be deceiving, however. The single most important focal point for strategic conflict with China is Taiwan, and it is by no means clear that conservative Republicans will support U.S. military defense of the island. Up through the Second World War, the party was strongly isolationist, not wanting the United States to be involved in foreign conflicts of any sort. That strand of thought has returned in the contemporary party; Trump’s “America First” rhetoric echoes that of pre-World War II isolationists like Charles Lindbergh who opposed U.S. entry into the war. In any event, polarization runs so deep today that many Republicans will instinctively criticize virtually any action towards China taken by a Democratic administration.

Policy towards China will be very complex in the future. It is already the case that anti-Chinese rhetoric is spinning out of control in Washington, leading to a very dangerous situation in which overt conflict between the two countries may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The United States needs to keep open lines of communication with Beijing while being firm and united at the same time. This will not be easy if the two parties are constantly outbidding one another for who can be the most anti-Chinese.

A strange transformation has taken place in the United States in recent years. There used to be a broad consensus on what was called “American exceptionalism,” that is, the belief that American democracy represented a force for good in the world that should serve as a model for other countries. In the past, it was the far Left that dissented from this view, seeing the United States as an aggressive, imperialist country. That view has now drifted over to the far Right, where many conservatives now believe that America is a dangerous country responsible for spreading “woke” liberal values around the world. (In my book Liberalism and Its Discontents, I noted how distrust of modern natural science which began with postmodernist thinkers like Michel Foucault has also drifted over to the right during the Covid pandemic.) Many believe that America faces an existential crisis and that their liberal opponents at home represent a graver threat than does any foreign power. Next year’s presidential election, which Donald Trump has a real chance of winning, will determine whether these views become embedded in U.S. foreign policy. This is a contest in which every American ally will have a deep stake.

While polarization constitutes a grave vulnerability, in other respects America is doing quite well. Its economy has recovered smartly from the Covid recession, when compared with fellow democracies in Europe and Asia, but also in comparison to China which has faced significantly slower growth. America continues to lead technologically, with its startling new innovations in artificial intelligence. What is a proper overall evaluation of American power? That will be the subject of a subsequent post.

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

A version of this article appeared in the Yomiuri Shimbun in June 2023.

ChinaDemocracyEconomicsPolitical PhilosophyRussiaU.S. Foreign PolicyUkraine