After decades of debate America is about to be forced to decide who we are
When the year 2020 is reviewed by future generations it will be seen as a pivotal year in American history. The next 12 months is going to force us to clearly announce to ourselves and the world who we are. For the last two decades we have struggled to balance being the benign leader of the world and a wounded superpower still fighting against the ghosts of 9/11. This has led to increasing polarization at home over the very definition of America itself. Whether it is couched in terms of isolationism versus globalism, or liberals versus conservatives, America will no longer be able to avoid answering a key question: who are we?
Before 9/11 America was committed to being ‘the leader of the free world’. Fresh off victory in the Cold War we sought to create a New World Order built on the promotion of democracy, human rights, and free trade. From Mogadishu to Baghdad there was uncertainty, argument, and miscalculation over what we were doing. But there was little disagreement within the country or around the world as to why we were doing it, who we were, and what our role was in the world. 9/11 was an earthquake that fractured that understanding at home and abroad. And America’s hurt and confusion were summed up by the question that echoed throughout the country in the weeks following the attack: “why do they hate us?”
Being attacked by ‘a world’ that we believed (rightly or otherwise) we were shepherding to a brighter future was as much a shock as the attacks on Pearl Harbor had been 65 years earlier. And just like Pearl Harbor, cultural hurt and political confusion quickly evolved into betrayal and anger that America has yet to fully come to grips with two decades later. For almost 20 years we have fought a war against terror without clearly understanding how the difference between seeking revenge and promoting justice affects our position in the world. And at home ‘Make America Great Again’ is chanted at rallies with the same sense of betrayal and anger, and the same confusion between revenge and justice.
There are a lot of reasons why 2020 is the year America will finally have to choose. The year will certainly be known for upheaval in American politics as impeachment is served up as the appetizer for presidential elections in the fall. Americans to a person are willing to tell you who they are and what they believe in. But this year we will be forced to decide just how much we want to fight for those things. Impeachment and the five-course meal that will be the presidential election will exhaust some Americans more than others. But by the end of the year we will all have to come to terms with just how much we can swallow as a society. And this of course assumes there are no major economic downturns, attacks on the homeland, or other significant events to divide Americans further.
We are not just picking a president, we are deciding who we want to be as a country for the foreseeable future. We are deciding whether immigration as a component of American society needs to be overhauled or removed from the equation altogether. We are choosing whether the stock market or the poverty line defines the economic success of America. We are building walls between environmentalism and entrepreneurship, the federal government and state power, liberty and order. And the irony is that our individual beliefs that these are ‘no-brainer’ choices (and thus, the people that don’t agree are idiots) is the primary reason why we haven’t been able to come up with answers and solutions as a society.
Pundits have been analyzing and predicting the importance of domestic politics in 2020 for the last few years. Less discussed however are the looming decisions America will have to make around the world. America may have the ability to decide its own fate domestically in this fall’s presidential election, but most of the world is indicating they are no longer going to wait for our decision. In fact, many of them seem to be committed to forcing our hand or even more troubling, pursuing their interests regardless of whether we decide to once again lead the world, or isolate ourselves further. It is extremely difficult to see improvements in US relations with Iran or North Korea over the next 12 months. And between North Korea’s continued escalation of their nuclear program, and Iran’s continued promotion of extremism in Iraq and Syria, it’s more than appropriate to assume that the relations could quickly get worse.
But there are even larger issues that America will be forced to address over the next 12 months, issues that will fundamentally shape the future of America and the world. China and Russia continue to expand their influence and power in regions pivotal to US foreign-policy. China’s massive “Belt and Road Initiative” is reshaping trade and diplomacy across Central Asia. Combined with their continued focus on development of military and trade relationships throughout the Indian Ocean basin they are outperforming the United States across Central and South Asia. Similarly, Russia has directly benefited from America’s bipolar paralysis by strengthening its hold on the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, as well as establishing an unprecedented level of influence in the Middle East. Venezuela continues to teeter on the brink of being a failed state, states like Nigeria, Libya, and Yemen represent a growing shadow war, and our allies in Europe have directly questioned the future of US leadership.
Domestic and international politics in the United States have been deeply intertwined since World War II. Before then America was isolationist and conservative because it could be. In the 75 years since the end of World War II a lot has changed, and America has had to become both more international and more liberal. From international trade and the promotion of human rights abroad, to the growth of civil rights and social democracy at home, the United States has embraced liberalism as the best strategy for dealing with globalization. But 9/11 revealed the fact that America still has significant questions about how much our future should look like our past. And whether it’s impeachment, the election, Iran, or China, there are a lot of reasons to believe that we will have to answer those questions in 2020 whether we like it or not.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.