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Columnists

Diverse Democracies Need an Enemy

The late Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger once described the Cold War years as ”characterized by a remarkably stable and predictable set of relations among the great powers” and predicted that the end of the Cold War would create destabilizing threats to world order. “We’ll miss the Soviet Union.” At roughly the same time, Francis Fukuyama, commenting on his own then-famous book, ‘The End of History’, said that the end of the East-West ideological conflict will be ”a very sad time.” He said ”I can feel in myself a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed.” In other words, he felt that the end of an ideological struggle would bring to an end “daring, courage, imagination, and idealism” and reduce us to fighting over petty goals.

Both Eagleburger and Fukuyama feared that the end of the Cold War would destabilize the world. There is now ample, if circumstantial, evidence that they were right; the elimination of the Soviet Union as an existential threat, has frittered away much of the glue that holds countries together, especially the glue that holds together diverse democratic societies.

The late Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, once remarked that Israel is a state that needs another generation of war to become a nation. He meant that modern Israel, although nominally a Jewish state, had a population drawn from half the countries in the world, identifying with cultures from several continents, and speaking a score or more of languages that agreed on little else except defense against enemies bent on its destruction. A common religion divides Israel’s people. Several types of Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews deny the Jewishness of the large Conservative and Reformed communities, not to speak of the hundreds of thousands of secular Israelis and fervent Russian Orthodox Christians of Jewish heritage who also found refuge in the Jewish state. (For those who doubt that the latter exist, I recommend attending Liturgy any Sunday at the Holy Sepulcher and wondering why the Basilica is packed with Israeli settlers.)

Since the late 1980s Israel has not faced an existential threat. It has the power to easily defeat any plausible combination of foreign enemies. Once Egypt, the largest and most powerful Arab state, signed its peace treaty with Israel, Israeli leaders have sought to conjure up new existential threats further afield such as Iraq. Once the United States effectively defanged Iraq, Israeli politicians and especially the current Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu have made herculean efforts to paint Iran as the latest existential threat; a role Tehran’s mullahs have happily embraced in order to strengthen their own domestic rule.

If the American commitment to Israel and Israel’s (unacknowledged) arsenal of up to 250 nuclear warheads count for anything, Iran is not now nor will it ever become a nuclear power.

At worst Iran and a rag-tag bunch of terrorist organizations – Islamist and nationalist – can conduct a few limited attacks before the Israel Defense Forces pulverize them. Innocents will suffer and we should not minimize the potential loss of life to terrorist or rocket attack, but Hezbollah is not an existential threat.

Israel domestically now suffers the consequences of the loss of an existential foreign threat. Israeli has turned on Israeli. Secular Israelis have abandoned Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, to the Ultra-Orthodox. Orthodox politicians, under the guise of upholding their own narrow view of Judaism, seek to deny the Jewish identity of secular Israelis, or Israelis with a gentile mother, or Israelis who do not want to observe a strict Sabbath. Secular Israelis have turned out in the tens of thousands to protest a reactionary right-wing government that seeks to bring the judiciary under its control. The political atmosphere in Israel has been well and truly poisoned, almost beyond repair. Sharon’s comments ring truer today than when he first made them three decades past.

Authoritarian leaders of even partially democratic but diverse countries need foreign enemies to retain legitimacy. Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities, including the Laz, the Alevis, and the Kurds, probably constitute a majority of the population. Although Turkish governments have a long history of suppressing any manifestation of linguistic and religious diversity, they still find value in stirring up hatred against an old enemy, Greece. It works; a Turkish opposition leader told me that 80% of his constituents would approve of war with Greece!

One wonders if the present deep political and cultural divides in the United States might also have reared their ugly head, in part, because of the end of the Cold War. The disintegration of the Soviet Union removed the only existential threat facing the United States. Russia, one of several surviving rump states of the old USSR, does not represent much of an existential threat. If Russia’s attack on a much smaller and poorer neighbor right next door failed so dismally, how could it even remotely threaten the United States and NATO? Moscow’s enormous stock of nuclear weapons serve only as a deterrent against an invasion of the homeland by threatening to destroy the world. Such use would destroy Russia as well; we used to call it MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction.

One can argue as to whether or not China represents the same sort of existential threat once posed by an aggressively expansionist USSR – it may only be an adversarial competitor. However, perhaps recreating a new Cold War with China might be the antidote to the existential threat to American unity and democracy posed by our domestic divisions.

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