Six reasons why what’s un-American may become a campaign issue in 2016

Every culture has its idiosyncrasies. One unique feature of America’s is periodic episodes of hysteria over foreign influence, a remarkable trait considering the country is a nation of immigrants. The issue of what is essentially American or un-American crops ups from time to time. It can be mingled with xenophobia and racism, like some of the crude mania about US President Barack Obama’s supposed Muslim foreignness. Part of the political backlash over Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign speech delivered to the US congress (with no consultation with the White House) has sparked this mini-debate about who American Jews should be supporting, the President of the United States, or the Prime Minister of Not the United States, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Within that debate, there are shades of the age-old issue of loyalty and Americanism. The US, as an open society, has been receptive to the range of ideas and influences from around the world. This is part of its strength. But when those ideas and figures from abroad sow fears among the population, like during the Cold War, a backlash is possible.

The trend since the end of the Cold War has been for the more right-wing pundits to see the left in the US as the Other, who are deserving of cynicism and scorn and scrutiny. This goes right back to the generational psychodrama of the Republicans versus the Administration of Bill Clinton.

Since then, the effects of globalization have dug deeper into the US. Long-term geopolitical rivals have resurfaced, such as Russia, and new ones have emerged, such as China, which has never been so strong in the time of the US’s existence. Their quiet but pervasive influence may suddenly emerge as a political issue in the US in surprising ways.

The list below details possible motives for another period in which the concept of American loyalty rises to prominence and becomes part of the of the US political vocabulary.

1. US-Israel relations

A petition on the progressive organizing website MoveOn is pursuing treason charges against the 47 Republican senators who signed the letter to Iran’s leaders suggesting a deal on Iran’s nuclear program could be nullified in the next Congress.

“By his inviting a foreign leader to address Congress, John Boehner deliberately dealt in foreign policy and thus violated the “Logan Act”, thus usurping the powers of the presidency of the United States,” the petition reads.

On a related note, there is continued fallout of the Netanyahu-Republican axis to undermine the President of the United States. Both of these issues are important, because they speak to an area of the world where the US has sacrificed much blood and treasure for little gain. And the Middle East is an area many Americans have a general view and awareness of.

2. Basic technology

American culture, like its government, was forged in a time of the printed word. We are now in the time of electronic media and the internet, where vastly different locations are linked side-by-side online. People online can organize themselves along single issues much easier, in the process, reinforcing the depth of their own commitment to and identification with a cause. It has engendered excess ideological division and polarization – this is happening in many democracies (in Britain, small parties have replaced the large as the building blocks in coalitions, in Australia, social media has made successive ruling governments structurally unstable). The topic of loyalty – framed as ‘does this view or action benefit this nation?’ could be the first step in the political adjustment to this online reality.

3. Hillary Clinton’s finances

Another possible factor that could propel loyalty forward as a campaign issue would be Hillary Clinton’s finances. In a globalized world voters would want to be assured her financial advantage is not supplemented by foreign money. That’s why Republicans and Democrats have questioned the relationship between foreign donors to the Clinton-run charity and the politics of Hillary Clinton. As the WSJ notes: “The foundation’s efforts in health care, economic development and opportunity for women and girls are being touted by Mrs. Clinton as she prepares to embark on a campaign for the presidency.”

And what’s true for Hillary would likely be true for all. Junkets from foreign nations for candidates, funds from foreign governments flowing to influential American thinktanks, any hint of favors to foreign leaders. It brings the issue of globalization, and the role of the elites, front and centre in a campaign that is going to be focus on economic justice.

4. #CalgaryCruz

cruzThe Texas Senator was not born in the US and is running for the presidency. Setting aside the actually legalities of Cruz’s case, it will drag the issue of a foreign-born politician, and thus foreign-influence, onto the national radar.

5. Russian propaganda

Kremlin-centric networks such as Sputnik and RT offer an endless supply of news pointing out division and shortcomings in the US. Their cynicism is in fact the common denominator in much of the news choice. Should it dawn on Americans that the point of these networks is to weaken the US and exacerbate divisions, it could sharpen the domestic suspicion of outsiders seeking to change opinion at home.

6. China’s soft-power outreach

China, too, is coordinating with US media to push a soft-power message to mid-America, through a co-production with the Discovery Channel. This even as the crackdown on dissent and the undisguised challenge to American power abroad continues apace. “What is quite funny is that Discovery Channel is saying it’s a documentary,” Jeremy Goldkorn, of Beijing-based Danwei was quoted by AFP. “If Discovery Channel think there’s no politics involved in this, they are kidding themselves.” It’s clear both the US government and business have nowhere near the access to China’s citizens as China’s government will get through this Discovery Channel deal, or the CCTV programming in the US.

The upshot? If this scenario played out – and that’s a big if – it could mark the end of the Great Diffusion in American politics that coincided with the years of dominance of free market globalization and the introduction of the internet. In the US, a newfound priority (or low-level hysteria, more likely) concerning US loyalty could have a galvanizing effect. It could mark the moment when the political reality within the US begins to catch up with the political reality outside the US, the one in which the US is no longer the hyper-power at the world’s center. It would be the reality where the subtle means of the media are used against the US – and the US political class may begin to have to look outward rather than inward for enemies.

US China cyberwar: Did Obama flag a cyber conflict with China in his foreign policy speech?

Not quite. But Obama certainly offered clues on the future direction of a cyber conflict with a country like China.

As the US methodically ratchets up the pressure on China’s cyber-trade secret theft, the recent indictments, handled by the FBI and the Department of Justice, are just one step in a likely series of actions. If China’s intellectual property theft is the threat to US economic well-being that the White House claims it is, then Obama just left the door open to cyberattacks to counter the Chinese actions.

In describing his vision for how the US and the military “should lead in the years to come” Obama explains:

The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger. In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life.

Later in the speech, discussing the behavior of states, Obama lays it out: “We have a serious problem with cyber-attacks, which is why we’re working to shape and enforce rules of the road to secure our networks and our citizens.”

The key phrases here are “core interests” and “when our livelihoods are at stake”. The issue of online trade secret theft is critical for the US, especially for its economy relative to China’s. For years, China the emerging industrial giant has used foreign technology acquired through trade agreements or otherwise to build its industries and lift millions out of poverty. Now, the US in weak-growth mode and facing years of competition from across the Pacific, has to shore up its competitive economic advantages. One of the biggest US economic advantages is in the area of innovation, technology and design. The ability to ensure US inventions benefit US businesses – and not foreign ones – is critical to the US’s long-term economic prospects. My bet is that this would qualify as a core American interest.

The reference to a “serious problem with cyber-attacks” is all about China. Plainly. And working to shape and enforce rules brings to mind the recent sharing of the US cyber policy with the Chinese themselves. Despite the laudable gesture, which speaks volumes about the policy-making apparatus in the US and China, China is probably too internally divided for it to make a difference.

To give a sense of the growing centrality of cyber-defense to the US, West Point soldiers are increasingly being educated in the sphere – which means the US is thinking long-term about the cyber defense, with generals likening the cyber realm to what the sky is for the air force, or what the sea is for the navy.

More broadly, Obama’s use of the “core interests” is interesting, too. Rather than a Kennedyesque speech of “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,” the core interests argument now reflects the new age we’re in. The US’s biggest rival, China, has expanded its use of the “core interest” justification in recent years in explaining its actions. I read this as an American response. Regarding foreign policy in general, but cyber defense it particular, core interests gives the US a lot of latitude in act, another reason to watch this area in the future.

US quick response to Philippines typhoon undoes damage of Obama’s East Asia Summit no-show

Or at least, that’s the take from one Asia-watcher, Rory Medcalf, who, writing in the WSJ, calls the international response to the disaster a “potential inflection point in the contest for influence” in the region.

“The rapid and large-scale response already underway by US military forces is sending a signal that will be noticed across the region. It will give new meaning to the rebalance to Asia, at a time when some were starting to question Washington’s commitment. This will more than compensate for President Barack Obama’s absence from the East Asia Summit in Brunei last month.”


Medcalf observes that even the Communist Party-leaning Global Times has warned the Chinese government to be more generous and active in relief for the disaster. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese reverse course.

The Japanese are using it as an opportunity to generate goodwill. The Australians have been uncharacteristically generous. The British have sent a ship. Even Israel has sent 148 search and rescue people. In a region where perceptions matter so much, many countries are going out of their way to make gestures, to be seen, to be perceived as active and welcome.

Why Obama sent the Syria question to congress

Obama doesn’t want to launch a missile strike on Syria – he just can’t say so. But there is the Party of No in full bloom over in Congress. Send the issue to them, let them say no, then Obama has political cover to turn to the world and say ruefully, “The people have spoken and I must respect their wish.”

Besides, the Republicans who have had a field-day with Bengazi (or at least tried to) need to start wear a little of the bad PR linked to Syria.

Further, if it divides the Republicans, exposing the chasm behind the interventionists and the isolationists, all the better. This is part of the identity crisis that the Republicans face. And Rand, while he will score short-term points, will still look too radical come 2016. People know the rise of libertarian right has coincided with more misery for the middle-class, and that includes middle-class Republicans and independents.

On the surface, if Obama accepts a congressional ‘no’ on Syria, this will make Obama look weak. But as time moves on, he’ll be able to re-route the blame over to the GOP which is already in a much more dire state of disarray than the the Dems going into 2014. We’ll see. Moreover, avoiding another US military disaster is a greater feather in his cap (and a better legacy and direction for the US) than driving the country into another ditch so he can look like a strongman to the world for a few hours.

If I am right about Obama’s motives, it would be one of the most politically savvy moves of modern politics.