The double trap: Democracy and geopolitics

An incipient democracy and a decadent one have something in common: both are trapped by social and economic pressures that can paralyze them. The geopolitical effect is pandemonium in states’ foreign policy. It increases the probabilities of military conflicts between large and medium powers.

In the United States, President Joe Biden is convinced that he has to defend American democracy simultaneously on two fronts—domestic and foreign. On the external front, he is faced with the relative decline of his country’s world in the world, which until recently was undisputable. The country has lost wars and positions in the military, economic, and status fields—the so-called soft power. At the same time, new powers have emerged ready to dispute them those territories or even to interfere in them after the American retreat. Mostly, those challenges are opportunistic and are carried out by medium and authoritarian powers. Three examples are Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

The exception is China, whose demographic, economic, technological and military power has assumed such proportions that today it can pretend to be the world’s hegemonic power—but not yet and always with great difficulty.

In the United States, there is a bipartisan consensus regarding the Chinese challenge being existential and that it resembles the old Soviet Union’s challenge during the Cold War. In my opinion, such diagnosis is exaggerated for several compelling reasons. 1) The Chinese “empire” is fiscal and centripetal thus very different from the once economic and evangelical American expansionism as well as from the ideological and military expansionism of the old USSR. 2) The economic interrelation, particularly regarding production chains between China and the West is too dense to attempt a radical cut of those linkages. 3) China’s main geopolitical interest is regional even in its most aggressive expression (in front of Hong Kong and Taiwan). It tends to homogenize regions of the same ethnic and cultural group, without ideological crusades or attempts at social engineering (unlike the frustrated American “nation-building” in different cultures and societies).

Nevertheless, China has become the United States’ main enemy. Help in this sense is found in the quite adventurous and authoritarian behavior of current Chinese leadership.

In the domestic front, Biden’s administration tries unsuccessfully to stich up the various gaps that are now open in society, such as more inequality, disbelief in the State, social mobilization standstill, falling behind and demands of some minorities (racial, ethnic, sexual, among others) and a majority (women). There is also a generational gap and a very large cultural gap between diverse groups that are mobilized upwards (primary or “progressive” mobilization) and others that resent and resist losing their privileges (secondary or “reactionary” mobilization).

In front of these multifarious demands for social justice (some more legitimate than others), the government tries to reconcile democratic concerns (in particular the support of public institutions of republican democracy) and social concerns (many of them clashing with each other) of the population[1].

To fight against this polarization, any government is tempted to raise national awareness above factions and parties. Churchill could do so on the eve of the Nazi-fascist threat. However, the “Chinese threat” is not the best substitute; neither Biden has the charisma and prestige Churchill had to achieve national unity. His own party is divided[2].

          The biggest threat that haunts the government is domestic subversion, unfortunately led by the opposing republican party, which turns away from the democratic game and shows itself ready for authoritarian and antidemocratic adventures, with the well-stocked support of part of the population[3].

The geopolitical consequences are clear and not very encouraging: a governmental domestic deadlock that sets a bad example regarding the virtues of Anglo-North American democracy for a skeptical world. You cannot preach what you are incapable of doing. In front of the “world’s public opinion,” the USA has turned from a positive to a negative demonstration effect.

To break the impasse, the government joins forces with its opponents in a bellicose posture in front of the “main enemy,” a role assigned to China. This consensus is as spurious (the opposition anyhow insists on delegitimizing the government and even getting to the point of trying to overthrow it) as dangerous and can provoke a war whose outcome is unpredictable.

From this side of the geopolitical trenches, the United States errs on the side of both a perversion and an excess of politics (there is no one cultural or social dimension left that has not been politicized as shown by the quarrels regarding public health and vaccination). On the other side of the trenches, China is more and more subjected to the heavy hand of a single and ubiquitous party, a pyramidal rule that ends in the supreme figure of a new “emperor,” who is also ready to hoist the flag of bellicose nationalism opposed to the American, and by extension western, “harassment.”

With the obsession of controlling everything, even at a large price, the Chinese communist party considers every political game as destabilizing and intends to eliminate politics as it is known in the West. This is a utopian illusion. Human beings are inexorably  political animals (as written by Aristoteles,  we are a zoon politikon).  By chasing politics away from a single and central party, what happens is that politics moves inwards, adopting the form of intrigues, palace coups, and periodic purges. This “anti-politics” style of politics is dysfunctional for society (conflict goes underground) and the economy, especially for the very capitalist economic development that the party promotes[4]. This contradiction, which I have developed in a previous article, can also lead to an “escape route” under the form of an external bellicose conflict[5].

In summary, today the so-called new cold war is more likely a path of confrontation between two powers thriving to overcome their internal contradictions through an external escape valve. The relation between internal conflicts or contradictions leads to external confrontations, in an opposed but symmetrical game. What starts with rhetorical gestures and theatrical exhibitions (examples: the US agreement with Australia to grant it nuclear submarines, the deployment of 150 war planes by the Chinese People’s Republic over Taiwan’s airspace) without the overt purpose of “seriously” fighting can, however, end very badly, either by an accident or a miscalculation that leads to a conflagration. The scenario is similar to the geopolitical situation in Europe prior to WWI, where the main powers marched as if sleepwalking towards an abyss the size of which they did not imagine[6].


[1] Biden’s Administration dilemma resembles crossed pressures faced by Argentinean incipient democracy under Raul Alfonsin’s administration. This backstage is narrated masterfully by Juan Carlos Torre in his recent book Diario de una temporada en el quinto piso, Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2021. In the case of Biden, it is not about an incipient democracy but rather a decadent democracy, however, the fragility is similar regarding authoritarian traditions and tendencies, some old some new.

[2] . For a detailed analysis of this situation see the article by Elizabeth Drew https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/biden-trap-legislative-agenda-electoral-risks-by-elizabeth-drew-2021-10

[3] . See the opinion of Laura Reston: “Getting Trump Wrong,” The New York Times, 20 October 2021.

[4] . In my opinion, only an internal democratization of CCP can remove China from its contradiction.

[5] . See Thomas Friedman, Thomas L. Friedman China’s Bullying Is Becoming a Danger to the World and Itself”, The New York Times, October 19, 2021

[6] . Christopher Clark , The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, New York and London: Penguin Books 2013.

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