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Great Power Competition Comes Home to America

Our leaders’ efforts to heal divisions among our fellow citizens are key to national defense.

When the results of today’s elections are finally known, American leaders will have a choice whether to heal or deepen political divides between fellow citizens of good faith. These decisions will shape both the state of American politics and our national security for years to come. That is because our adversaries seek to pit us against one another and tear our democracy apart. And Americans should not help them do it.

As former and current officers, we have spent our professional lives defending the United States from military threats. But the most capable military in the world may not be sufficient if Americans permit our vitriolic domestic discourse to deteriorate further. 

In the military, we have a concept called center of gravity, which describes “a source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.”

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf identified Iraqi centers of gravity that included, for example, its leadership, command-and-control nodes, and the elite Republican Guard Forces. Targeting these crucial resources made the United States and its partners successful on the battlefield.

As the most important source of strength, a center of gravity must either be attacked to achieve victory or defended to avoid defeat. This concept is useful in understanding the current domestic political situation in the United States and its national security consequences. 

Americans understand that we confront serious challenges abroad, including the growing nation-state threats from Beijing and Moscow. But many of us may incorrectly view these foreign threats as disconnected from our politics here at home.

The September 11 terror attacks made clear that our homeland is not a sanctuary from terrorism.

Unfortunately, our homeland is no longer a sanctuary from great power competition either. And much of this competition with Russia and China has little to do with the Army helicopters and Air Force planes we have flown and much to do with the American politics that one of us taught at West Point and the other is studying as a Ph.D student. 

Our authoritarian adversaries understand that a leading American center of gravity is our domestic political unity and the credibility of our electoral process.

We see our diverse and rambunctious democracy as a source of vitality and strength, but our authoritarian adversaries see our racial, political, and economic differences as an opportunity to attack our American center of gravity. 

It makes it easier for Moscow to attack this center of gravity when we treat fellow citizens of good faith as enemies or suggest that political adversaries can only win an election by rigging it. 

Indeed, political scientists across the spectrum fear that polarization in America is worse today than it has been at any point since the Civil War.

Domestic political partisans often view the other party—more than Russia and China—as the real enemy. This visceral hatred, known in academic circles as affective polarization, is dangerous.

According to a June 2020 study by scholars from Stanford and Brown Universities, the United States saw the largest rise in affective polarization over the last four decades of any of the nine Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries considered.

The study cites two explanations as most likely. One is the increasing alignment of party identification, political ideology, and “social identities such as race and religion.”

They also cite “24-hour partisan cable news” as another possible explanation. To be sure, many Americans consume a steady diet of social media and cable news curated to feed the worst possible caricatures of one’s political opponents. 

Whether these dynamics are causes or symptoms of affective polarization remains open for debate.

Regardless, when American public discourse becomes so acerbic, this creates opportunities for adversaries to incapacitate American power abroad by busying us with division at home. Eager to appease the increasingly strident extremes of their respective political bases, this deteriorating discourse could also make it more difficult for American political leaders to make objective national security decisions that may clash with ill-informed populist opinions.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that Russia has created this domestic division. The Kremlin, however, is clearly trying to take advantage of it.

By employing information warfare against Americans, stoking the fires of domestic hatred and division, and undermining the credibility of America's elections, Moscow seeks to discredit democracy and foster a United States that is so distracted and dysfunctional that it cannot muster the political will necessary to stop Russian aggression overseas. Moscow, in other words, is sowing division here at home to gain a freer hand for aggression abroad.

If Russia finds success with this strategy, we should expect that Beijing will increasingly employ it against us, too—with more resources and perhaps with even more sophisticated techniques. 

Admittedly, concerns about domestic division here at home are certainly not new. In his farewell address, President George Washington warned that "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism."

Rather than feeding a “spirit of revenge” and providing the Kremlin and others fissures to exploit, we should be working to secure our democracy and frustrate the efforts of authoritarians to pit Americans against one another. 

More specifically, if national unity is a center of gravity, steps must be taken to protect it.

There is no shortage of ideas to combat polarization, but national leaders must be willing to seriously examine structural changes that are meant to encourage compromise. Ranked-choice voting, which has proven successful in areas as different as San Francisco and Maine, may offer one path forward.  

No matter the outcome of this election, it may make sense to establish a bipartisan task force that examines national unity as a center of gravity and identifies reforms to protect our venerable democracy.  

Regardless, America's service members will continue to focus on protecting fellow citizens from military threats, but that will not be enough to secure our country's future.

We must also recognize that America’s authoritarian adversaries are attempting to destroy our democracy by sowing domestic discord.

We should not let them succeed. 

Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Department, or any other government agency.

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