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The Internationalized Culture War Is a Gift to China and Russia

Polarized politics based on cultural tribalism, both in the U.S. and the broader free world, is exactly what Putin and Xi need to make the world safe for authoritarianism.
October 21, 2020
Security guard walk past the Chinese national flag at the Military Museum of Chinese People's Revolution on March 1, 2008 in Beijing, China. From March 1, the Military Museum of Chinese People's Revolution becomes the first national level museum which opens to the public for free in Beijing. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

Now Roman is to Roman
     More hateful than a foe,
And the tribunes beard the high,
     And the fathers grind the low.
As we wax hot in faction,
     In battle we wax cold;
Wherefore men fight not as they fought
     In the brave days of old

–Macaulay, “Horatius at the Bridge

“Democracy and pluralism are under assault,” reports Freedom House. “2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” This alarming trend is partially thanks to the preeminent challengers to the liberal international order, Russia and China, exporting their models of authoritarianism. But it also owes much to deteriorating politics within the free world, especially the United States, which makes it harder to confront foreign threats to democracy.

The cultural-political polarization in America, as in much of the West, extends to mirror-imaged tolerance of one or the other of the United States’ greatest great-power challengers, making it more difficult—if not impossible—for the democratic world to defend itself. China and Russia each have claim to a faction of the democratic world that crosses borders—ensuring that whoever wins any given election, freedom loses globally.

In the United States, Republicans consistently view China as a major security threat, but frequently admire Russia to a greater degree than ever before, and have become willing to tolerate it given its ties to President Trump. Conversely, at least until the Obama administration, and to some extent through it, Democrats regarded China in more neutral terms, seeking to integrate it into a shared world order and even hoping for a durable climate deal. Though this attitude has shifted massively since the outbreak of COVID-19, positive attitudes toward China and defenses of its actions tend to cluster among the Democratic base and dovetail with its ideology. On the other hand, Democrats now regard Russia as a major national security threat.

This polarization connects to a similar, parallel polarization within and among America’s allies, hamstringing the democratic world.

The EU’s European Identity Problem

To see how this operates, it helps to examine linkages and divides that cut across national boundaries. Where Europe is concerned, Russia may be the most relevant outside power, but Europe’s polarization links to America’s on this issue.

Broadly speaking, most European states have a pro-EU faction and a Euroskeptic faction. Both groups are pushing a European identity agenda, but from opposite perspectives. This factional divide corresponds to America’s pro- and anti-Russian divide.

While there is significant divergence about the future of the EU, the pro-EU vision of Europe is of an continent that is mostly secularized, stripped of major cultural differences, and admiring of the postwar (and post-Cold War) vision of a Europe united by a desire to overcome its historical divisions and the nationalist ideologies that drove them. The EU proponents tend also to be free-trading (at least within Europe), relatively pro-immigration and prointra-European free movement, and relatively cosmopolitan (at least in their more left-wing variant). With some exceptions, this faction’s prominent members include most of parties under the tents of the European People’s Party, the Party of European Socialists, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, among others.

It should be noted: There are also disconcerting connections and sympathies between the European far-left and the Kremlin, but these groups and parties should be considered distinct from the mainstream European center-left. A consideration of links between Russian outreach to far-left factions in both Europe and the United States is less relevant due to their failure to capture a major faction, although Bernie Sanders’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s insurgencies may be portents.

Euroskeptic parties, meanwhile, tend to be immigration-skeptic (indeed, this is often their founding issue), willing or even eager to cut back on the free movement provisions of the Schengen Agreement, and fundamentally nationalist, this last feature being perhaps their common denominator. While they are not uniformly protectionist (and mainstream pro-EU parties often are), Euroskeptic parties often profess some sort of nationalist protectionism. Critically, they are generally friendlier to Russia: Their nationalism tends more toward fear of Muslim immigrants crossing borders than Russian soldiers. The gradual adoption by Putin’s government of the self-appointed role of protector of traditional Christianity—not to mention generous financial arrangements—have endeared Russia to the European far right.

Exceptions do occur. Division over how to handle Finland’s historic national enemy was a contributing factor to the split within the populist Finns Party. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party is an interesting case study in ambiguity on this issue, having both improved Poland’s defenses and regurgitated Putinist anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT talking points. (The nationalist model for Finland has historically been a combination of appeasement and military readiness; in this, eastern European Euroskeptics are following an old playbook.) In general, however, the Euroskeptic parties are, if not Putinist or pro-Putin, then Putin-tolerant.

Though the Euroskeptic parties are often cast as opponents of European unity by virtue of being nationalists, this is not entirely the case. They often subscribe to a European identity narrative based on a mythology of Western civilization (in its historical, rather than current, form), some form of white supremacism, Christian or ethnic identitarianism, and/or hostility to or suspicion of non-European outsiders. In other words, the Euroskeptic right, while possibly driving European atomism and separatism, not infrequently adopts a European-identity driven politics of an anti-liberal nature. In fact, it remains to be seen whether nationalist separatism or illiberal Western supremacism will be the dominant political force among the European Euroskeptic right in the coming years.

Meanwhile, in America . . .

These fissures transcend the Atlantic. Partisanship on each side not only mirrors the other, but political partisans are connected to their opposite numbers abroad and embrace a grand strategy or policy that mobilizes like-minded outside parties against domestic opponents doing the same.

At the moment, Democrats in the United States tend to have a positive view of the EU and often regard it as a model for the United States’s domestic policy, notably admiring European healthcare, environmental, and firearms policies. Some Republicans, particularly Trump-skeptics, are also supportive of the EU, even if they are less enthusiastic about copying European domestic policies at home. Taken together, these groups form a faction that is broadly pro-NATO and pro-EU, embraces conventional models of trade and institutionalism, regards Russia as a major national security problem, and seeks to solve that problem by whatever means possible.

By contrast, the American far right is linked to the Euroskeptic European right. This is most easily recognized on the fringes. The American alt-right and similar far-right elements regard Russia as a friend against Islam, non-white immigration, Islamic terrorism, or other essentially cultural opponents.

However, this alignment is not unique to the far right. It is found among the Republican base and especially among Republican social and cultural conservatives. Among Republicans, approval of Russia has spiked since 2016, but outreach to conservatives by Putin’s United Russia Party began several election cycles earlier. Qualitatively, while Republicans still appear in surveys to have a net negative view of Putin, the substantial minority who view him positively are likely to be the most vocal and committed members of the Republican base.

Longstanding cultural issues in the United States have been internationalized and turned into reasons for American rightists to support Putinism. A major Republican criticism of the EU that mirrors Republican admiration for Putin is the EU’s subreplacement fertility rate and indifference to traditional family structures, as contrasted with Putin’s pro-reproduction policies, support for traditional religion, and hostility to LGBT concerns. Perhaps the largest instance of soft cooperation, in terms of numbers involved, involves gun rights. Gun ownership is historically one of the most reliable predictors of voting patterns in U.S. elections and a major motivator for Republicans. It is therefore significant that the nation’s principal Second Amendment advocacy organization, the National Rifle Association, is heavily subject to Russian aid and influence, and yet remains the movement leader and, for Second Amendment advocates, almost the only game in town. (More absolutist startup Second Amendment advocacy groups are also at the very least targets for Russian influence.)

Cultural conservatism, in short, has been internationalized, and not just on the far-right fringe, but among relatively mainstream cultural conservatives—in exactly the same way that admiration for Western Europe is a cultural-political delineator for cultural progressives. Anecdotes exist of Trump rally attendees wearing shirts expressing a cultural preference for Russia over the American left.

Nor is right-wing tolerance or favoritism for Putin limited to cultural issues. Even American economic rightists were for a time (and some still are) impressed by what they saw as a Russian economic miracle and business opportunity. So, too, have been opponents of the United States’s post-9/11 foreign policy, many of whom are skeptical of American continued participation in NATO. Some also (perhaps not entirely without justification) regard American Middle East policy as a series of own-goals in which Russia has saved the day by suppressing Salafist jihadism. American rightists often admire Putin’s unapologetic nationalism and subscribe without reservation to the image Putin has constructed of Russia as a bulwark against militant Islam (and are willing to overlook the Russian Air Force’s creation of mass refugee flows and instability by brutality, as well as Putin’s cooption of Islamic militants in Chechnya and Afghanistan).

Many critics of American foreign policy avoid endorsing Putin’s agenda. Nevertheless, the tribal politics of American discourse tends to push all but the most independent into one camp or the other, and the result is a subtribe of the right that is both pro-Putin and highly influential.

On China

The American right is more uniformly hostile to China than it is friendly to Russia. Its rhetoric—especially in informal online fora—has tended to be hyperbolically Sinophobic, a posture hardened by President Trump’s blaming of Xi Jinping for the coronavirus and willing to overlook Trump’s own inconsistencies on the subject. A leading indicator of one’s allegiance to Democrats or Republicans is the tendency to believe or disregard allegations that the coronavirus is the product of a Chinese laboratory and not a naturally occurring phenomenon. As of now, criticisms of China are unremarkable in American right-wing discourse but frequently regarded as racist on the left. American China hawks, in general, tend to be Russia doves, and vice versa. It is noteworthy that, while Trump’s actual record on confronting China is mixed at best, his rhetoric on China has been well-received by his base.

The American left and center, meanwhile, have historically been more willing to give China the benefit of the doubt on many questions related to internal humanitarianism and outward intentions, going back at least to China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. In particular, the hope has been that a free-trading China would not only be agreeable to the rules of the system (instead of committed to reshaping them), but would internally liberalize economically and in humanitarian terms, would not be unduly militarily aggressive (or at any rate would not pose an unacceptable risk to U.S. allies), and would be an honest collaborator on a durable future climate deal. These were not exclusively left-wing views, and they are fast becoming obsolete across the board, but they persisted longest on the center-left. Recent experience has cast doubt on all of these propositions. It is no longer the case that Democrats regard China in favorable terms—in fact, though more dovish on average than Republicans, Democrats now tend to be China skeptics.

However, as assuredly as Russophilia exerts heavy influence on the American right, tolerance of China clusters on the American left. Defenses of China’s handling of the coronavirus were standard in center-left media in the early weeks of the pandemic, and were exploited by Chinese online trolls. Hollywood and Silicon Valley are reliable Democratic constituencies (and donors) and continue to search for market access in China. Something similar obtains in American academia, a reliable Democratic stronghold, where criticism of China is disincentivized. Although the College Democrats joined the College Republicans in opposing the Confucius Institutes on U.S. campuses as PRC propaganda outlets, opposition to them initially came from Republicans. Most recently, while it may be said that the New York Times is well justified in publishing a variety of viewpoints, it has been noted that an op-ed justifying the Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong was much more gently received on the American left than a similar one by Republican Senator Tom Cotton calling for force majeure against demonstrations in New York.

This cultural partisanship also drives Americans’ attitudes toward allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. A noteworthy case involves balancing concerns about Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism against the imperative for Indian cooperation to counterbalance China. Members of the American center-left have condemned Modi and regarded him as another specimen of out-of-control nationalism, a view echoed by the transatlantic center-left and the EU itself. Trump has courted him.

It’s the Culture Wars, Stupid!

This is not to say that all politicians on either side in the United States adopt these views. Just for example, Pete Buttigieg was fairly hawkish on both Russia and China in the Democratic presidential debates; he is mirrored on the right by the likes of Mitt Romney. Joe Biden appears to be cutting across this divide. Nor do all (or even most) Democratic or Republican voters share these biases. It is merely the case that views of foreign policy tend to follow predictable and opposite patterns, particularly among the most committed members of both factions, and the cultures of both right and left—or, more specifically, what the cultures of right and left consider their paramount threats—are major driving forces behind these views. Republicans and Democrats, in their domestic factionalism, have oriented themselves toward their preferred cultural outcomes in the rest of the world, dismissing each other’s concerns as invalid and adopting “enemy of my enemy” logic towards each other’s perceived threats. They have found friends as well as enemies in doing so.

In fact, the divide between internationalist/liberal and nationalist/authoritarian factions is found in voting patterns and broader cultural attitudes across the developed world. Residents of the economically depressed former East Germany are portrayed in press reporting as perhaps having more in common with Trump voters in dysfunctional communities than with Germany’s political class or even that in Brussels. Within England, if not Britain as a whole, voting patterns for Brexit followed an urban-rural divide that would be instantaneously recognizable to an upstate New Yorker. American liberals often express greater ease traveling in western Europe than in Trump country. Support for Brexit was a reliable predictor of support for Trump.

Thus, opposing American factions have found their allies and adversaries across borders and oceans. The result is not merely a case of domestic political paralysis, but of transnational political paralysis brought on by identity and cultural politics and the resulting effective partisanship of opposing political bases. This is hugely relevant in an era when, especially since the Iran deal, it is now normal for American political parties to negate each other’s foreign policy decisions, making coherent strategy impossible.

(Not) Putting It All Together

All of this is a major problem if one regards both Russia and China to be geopolitical competitors. The American strategy for the Cold War was (usually) to establish that partisan politics stopped at the water’s edge, to mobilize the public behind addressing the challenge, and to work on building consensus among American allies. All of this was not perfect—the rift with France over NATO and Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik are two major examples (and there are others) of Western allies not being on the same page with American policy. In general, however, in past decades there was an ability at least to point the allies in the same direction. The United States acted simultaneously as a leader and, if need be, a file closer. It was not paralyzed by indecision and an inability to address one problem without reversing course on another. Nor were its allies. It is useless to speak of European inaction on Russia and China, as much of a problem as that is, when the United States itself cannot make up its mind.

The security of the free world depends first on reconstructing it. Although that may be one or several election cycles away, an attempt to end mindless identity politics and put the culture wars on pause will be required if the United States is to build the consensus that liberal democracy is worth protecting, even to the point of sacrificing partisan advantages.

Putting First Things First: Agreeing (Temporarily) to Disagree

A possible way forward may lie not in trying to eliminate the U.S. culture war but in limiting it. Cultural differences and their intersection with politics are too near to the hearts of citizens of democracies to be cast aside. It is unreasonable to expect voters not to be animated by issues that are foundational to their cultural traditions. What might work instead would be to acknowledge them and reduce their impact on grand strategy.

At the moment, the culture war has descended into actual violence, and a real solution to America’s political divide will have to wait for the violence to subside. Supposing this could be done, however, addressing the deeper cultural rift might be possible. In effect, Americans could try to acknowledge their cultural differences while committing to preventing them from getting out of hand.

As with any other truce, there would be a tacit agreement among politically influential figures (including some not normally considered political figures) to play defense rather than offense on culture war issues. Existing Supreme Court precedents would largely be left to stand for the time being (a key understanding, because cultural issues do not allow for a permanent settlement), with as few major alterations as possible. Chief Justice John Roberts has, in recent years, signaled his endorsement of exactly this kind of jurisprudence. National legislation on sensitive matters would be limited in scope and brought up only when events drew attention. Parties would be free to maintain their stances on issues they consider too important to ignore while accepting détente with their opponents in the national interest. Members of Congress could decide not to insert cultural issues into emergency legislation. Political candidates could also make an effort to campaign outside their strongholds and avoid using language demonizing their opponents. (Because of President Trump’s direct incitement of violence and countless breaches of democratic norms, he belongs in a special category, and remedies for this assume his absence from positions of power, if not public life entirely.)

The usage of foreign policy topics as wedge issues—a common occurrence since the intense politicization of the Iraq War—could be reduced or avoided. And a future U.S. president with a less inflammatory character could use the bully pulpit to call the country’s attention to the fact that it has multiple adversaries who would like nothing better than to see it tear itself apart.

The truly divisive and toxic aspects of the far right need not be appeased in order to build consensus; neither should left-wing looting and vandalism or mutual street violence. But by reducing the intensity of the more mainstream culture war, the United States could begin to rebuild strategy.

All of this would require more patriotism and leadership than leaders of either party have thus far shown—but the United States has a proud history of responding successfully at the last minute, and may yet do so again. Part of doing so must be to acknowledge that, where the United States is concerned, a big country based on freedom of conscience will always have at least some cultural dissonance. Arguments about values are signs of freedom; free countries must manage them when full agreement cannot be reached. The key is to keep them from being a crippling liability.

The consequences of not doing so will democracies voting against democracy. As long as opposite factions within the liberal world are played off each other by its adversaries, freedom and America will lose.

Martin Skold

Martin Skold holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and has served in the executive and legislative branches of government. These are his own views, and not those of anybody he has ever worked for.