For 50 years, the cold war provided the US with a moral purpose. Now American conservatives are looking for a new enemy. Owen Harries argues that they are wrong to pick on China. Although increasingly a competitor, China is not an enemyby Owen Harries / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Since the end of the cold war, many Americans have been suffering from an enemy-deprivation syndrome. This is not surprising. After all, for 50 years they had experienced a clearly identified, formidable, and agreed upon enemy. That enemy provided a simple organising principle for foreign policy, and imbued it with a sense of heroic moral purpose.
As soon as the initial euphoria over the Soviet Union’s collapse had passed, most of the US foreign policy cognoscenti-and especially a large section of its conservative component-began to search for a substitute enemy. For a short while Japan was favoured. Scores of books and articles were written about the impending “clash” between it and the US. But then a Japan that had been presented as an irresistible juggernaut suddenly faltered. Its economy lost momentum, its politics became a shambles; it was no longer a credible enemy.
Temporarily at a loss, some tried to fill the gap by a process of aggregation. If a single enemy was not available, then perhaps several small ones added together might do-North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Serbia. But it soon became clear that a lizard, a hyena and a couple of skunks did not add up to a dragon. Nor did Islamic fundamentalism really work: its multiple, divided agents lacked the heft and presence to be convincing rivals.
At this point some turned back to Russia as a dependable candidate for the role of principal enemy. True, its economy was in a pitiful state, its military performance in Chechnya was abysmal and its social fabric was in tatters; but it certainly resonated, and if one was prepared to take the long view it still had adversarial potential. That, at least, seemed to be the view of those who took up the cause of the eastward expansion of Nato with enthusiasm. As Peter Rodman put it: “The only potential great power security problem in central Europe is the lengthening shadow of Russian strength… Russia is a force of nature.”
But although Russia needs careful handling, a declining former superpower making a serious stab at becoming a democracy is not really well suited to play the role of a principal enemy. Certainly it does not capture a combative imagination with the same conviction as a coming superpower that is performing spectacularly economically, that is still governed by an obnoxious regime, that frequently says nasty things about the US, and…