America typically grabs opportunities and confronts challenges. In the period after World War I, America saw the, at the time, growing difference between its wealth and that of the old colonial empires, and sensed the difference in vigour, between its youthful spirit, and the tiredness that was, in the 1920s and 1930s, seeping into the British and French empires. And so, America emerged on the world scene, primarily in Europe, but also selectively in parts of Asia and the Middle East, exploring the world it had shunned for the two centuries prior. This was the period in which the world came to know American wealth.

In the period during and immediately after World War II, the world came to know American might. And whereas the two decades after World War I presented America with an opportunity to explore the world and learn about it, World War II presented America with the challenge of either acquiescing to the rise of fascism in Europe or confronting it. America chose war, albeit it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour to summon America’s heart and not only its mind to the call of duty.

Even in the Cold War, as the name of that period signifies, America was far from willing to divide the world into spheres of influence, and be content with its primacy over the Americas, Western Europe, and large parts of the Middle East and Africa. America, indeed, saw that it was at war with the former Soviet Union. And its strategies from the earliest days of that war revolved round containment and encirclement of the Soviet Union as a prelude to, and a stage in the long process towards, its own implosion from within.

With this continuous drive towards success that America consistently exhibited in the past century, it was not a surprise that America has been, in the past few years, summoning its will and enhancing its resources to confront the rise of China as a superpower that will inevitably extend its political and not only economic presence, beyond East Asia.

But America today is different from that of the twentieth century. As this series has presented over the past ten articles, elements in the American experience in the past century have altered the American way of looking at the world and at herself, and have reconfigured how America operates.

The past decade or so has also seeped fear into the American spirit. This is a new phenomenon that is alien to America’s collective psyche.

The fear stems from three factors.

The first is weakening of cohesion. Except in moment in which it was under threat, America has never been a fully united country behind any one set of values. But as America became the sole global power with unrivalled reach, influence, and might, and as it has experienced three decades in which its will has gone effectively unchecked in international politics, a sense of invincibility came to pass in how America thought of herself.

But with time, invincibility makes societies drift away from the objectives and desires they had avowedly put forward as national goals. Gradually, differences come to the surface. And within America, the differences – in values, frames of reference, worldviews, and ways of living – are not only colossal, but also conflicting. This is why, in the past two decades, as American might was repeatedly on display on the global scene, its internal politics were increasingly confrontations not only on different political-economy frameworks and policies, but on opposing societal perspectives.

This gave rise to reflections, in and outside America, about how the American society might slide into internal conflict. Bestselling books imagined scenarios of civil wars or breakouts of anarchy. The most likely scenario, however, is not that bleak. It is one in which internal bickering on the basic notions of American socio-politics make indifference the prevailing feeling of the vast majority of Americans towards their country’s future.

Indifference is poisonous. It opens spaces for crudeness and mediocrity to claim centre-stage and it drives true talent and refinement away from the public domain.

This gives rise to the second factor behind the fear seeping into the American psyche. That is, there is a noticeable dilution of the meaning of America within the country. As basic definitions of the American society’s values clash, and as America grows more divided, often extremely so, over frames of reference, what constitutes goodness, and over ways of living, the notion of America becomes fragmented into what different social sections believe.

This leads to the third factor. Divided societies are not able to summon resources needed for grand, strategic confrontations. This is the essence of the fear that many insightful Americans have at the moment. They recognise that the distancing many Americans are creating between themselves and other parts of the country, inevitably weakens the national collective, at a time America is entering by far the most important strategic confrontation it has witnessed in over a half century.

History seems to be moving faster than humanity has experienced it in the past few centuries. Social and cultural trends that, traditionally, took decades to evolve and manifest in a nation’s politics seem to be unfolding at much quicker paces than we have been sued to. Perhaps technological innovations which have shrunk the global public space and connected disparate groups in ways humanity has never known in recorded history, play a role in this. What is relevant here is that the separation, distancing, and social divides in America might well result in the dilution of power and meaning and dithering of resources at a much faster pace that many observers think. This is why the 2024 presidential election carry a particularly special importance, as it will shape American leadership in years that may well prove decisive to the evolution of American society and politics in the foreseeable future.

The next and last article of this series will explore some of the scenarios that might come to pass concerning this foreseeable future.