State secession is a scenario if Biden wins

Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explains why the possibility of division after the US presidential election is no longer inconceivable

State secession is a scenario if Biden wins

state-secession-is-a-scenario-if-biden-wins0He was born in Athens, the son of Donald Kagan, a prominent classicist and expert in the history of the Peloponnesian War. However, Robert Kagan did not follow his father’s academic path, but instead worked at the State Department under the Ronald Reagan administration, as a speechwriter for the then secretary of state George P. Shultz, and a member of the United States Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff, before ending up at the Brookings Institution as a senior fellow and as a regular analyst for the Washington Post. A few days ago he participated in the Delphi Economic Forum and spoke about American democracy, the dilemmas of the West and the war in Ukraine. Part of the discussion at the forum follows below.

In your famous book, you argue that the jungle is growing back, posing a threat to the entire post-war liberal system. Are you really worried about this now, especially considering events like those in Ukraine and the rise of China?

The jungle is always growing back. We’ve lived through an exceptional era in human history where democracy and individual rights are respected, and we’ve had tremendous economic wealth extending from the 20th century to the present day. And the world has experienced a prolonged period of peace in terms of major conflicts among powerful nations. But it’s good to remember that this is a rare circumstance in history. In fact, I think it’s not a natural circumstance. In order to have that world, you have to be actively creating that world. Much like tending to a garden to prevent it from succumbing to nature’s control. And so the jungle is always pressuring this world, because human beings are divided in their impulses. While they cherish freedom, they also like other things, more than they care about being free. So these pressures are always there. And the jungle is growing back, but we’re not necessarily going to be overrun by it. The basic structure of the international system that we’ve been living in for the past several decades remains intact. But a lot will depend on developments in Ukraine, on what choices are made in East Asia. But right now, I think it is feasible to preserve the garden we’ve created. But it requires real work and real solidarity, and, unfortunately, it requires fighting, because this world was created by war and it will be changed by war.

So do you think war is inevitable, with China for example?

I don’t think it’s inevitable. Inevitable is a strong word. Obviously, there’s going to be continuing pressure and tension depending on what course China decides to take, but also, the United States as well. I believe that China can be successfully deterred if the people who need to deter it are determined to do so. And I also believe China can be encouraged to move in the direction of increasing its wealth, increasing the well-being of its people, and perhaps discouraged from a kind of atavistic desire for territory, even territory that they think is theirs.

When we examine the situation in Ukraine, it’s really hard to see how Ukraine can win this war. With the latest developments – they’re running out of electricity, USAID is held up on the Hill – can you see a positive endgame from Zelenskyy’s point of view?

Wars are unpredictable. As are the politics of wars. Ukraine, now, does not have what it needs to continue its fight, to hold on to what it already has. This is a failure on the part of the United States, and to some extent, all those who have tried to help Ukraine. But should Ukraine hold on, Putin has turned Russia into a military state. But I wonder how long that’s sustainable. And it’s very unfortunate, because there were real questions about the sustainability of it in the first year. But for a variety of reasons, and certainly because we were slow in getting the kind of weaponry Ukraine needed, we gave Russia a chance to get back in the game, which is where they are right now. But I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion. And what does victory mean? I won’t speculate on whether Ukraine should concede the Donbas. That is not where Ukraine is right now. We could talk about endgames, but how about we just do what needs to be done right now? Let’s start with that. So, let’s do what’s necessary and give Ukraine a chance to hold on. Because at a certain point, Russia also has to take into account the cost that it’s bearing, the countless lives affected by it. I don’t know that they can go on indefinitely.

Do you think the deadlock on the Hill will last until November?

I honestly don’t know. And I think a lot of people don’t know. If I were to make a guess, I would lean towards the notion that they won’t pass legislation supporting Ukraine, although it pains me to admit that. I think it’s tragic. Interestingly, if a vote were held in the United States, particularly in Congress or the House, it would likely pass with a majority. However, the obstacle lies with a minority of Republicans who, with Donald Trump behind them, have basically stymied the operation. Mike Johnson says he wants to do it, but he has to choose between helping Ukraine and losing his job and unfortunately, selfish ambition has been a major factor in American politics.

If Trump wins, do you anticipate a significant shift in terms of policy towards Russia and Ukraine?

Yes, I do. Trump’s intentions are quite clear: He’s laid out his secret peace plan, which is no secret. Essentially, Ukraine complies with Russia’s demands. I don’t know whether he realizes that with Russia, with Putin, any agreement is only a pause. It’s not the end of the story. It’s where Putin consolidates before he makes his next move. I think that’s very clear. I don’t know if Trump understands that. The thing about Trump is he doesn’t have any beliefs. There’s nothing that he’s absolutely committed to. Everything is transactional for him. Everything is about particularly money for him. If I were advising governments on how to deal with Trump, if he’s elected, I would say give him lots of money. Not to America, to him personally or his family, as this seems to influence his foreign policy decisions. But what he lacks, is what every president until him has had since World War II, which is a sense of America’s role in the system, a sense of responsibility, a sense of closeness to allies. Trump has no closeness to anyone in his personal life and certainly not in his diplomatic life.

Now, I’ve heard two theories. One is that this time Trump is going to be unhinged and he’ll have the Michael Flynns of the world around him. There’s the other theory that good old establishment figures like Mike Pompeo will come back, and that you’ll have more of a predictable foreign policy. Which one you would you buy?

I definitely believe the first. Trump is well aware, as are his potential cabinet members, that during his previous term as president, his agenda was often thwarted by internal opposition. While I may not hold Mike Pompeo in high regard, there were individuals within the government who actively impeded Trump’s initiatives – chief of staff, national security advisers. However, they will not be there this time. Trump will likely surround himself with individuals who not only carry out his directives but also pre-emptively anticipate his desires. These advisers will have their own agendas to advance, reminiscent of figures like Michael Flynn. Therefore, a second Trump term would be characterized by the dominance of such individuals, rather than the return of establishment figures like Pompeo. While some may attempt to paint a more reassuring picture by highlighting Pompeo’s potential role, because they want to justify their support for Trump, the reality is likely to be far more threatening.

What happened to the old enlightened Republican Party? Even Dick Cheney looks very enlightened to me.

They’ve headed for the hills. The dominance and aggressiveness of the Trump movement within the party have instilled fear, causing individuals to toe the line. This conformity extends even to thinkers, think tanks, and intellectuals, who find themselves justifying and rationalizing the current state of affairs. Interestingly, there’s a mini-rebellion brewing within the House of Representatives concerning the Ukraine and Russia issue. Some of the very influential Republicans are talking about the fact that Russian disinformation is coming out of the mouths of Republican congressmen these days. That’s quite a little fight in that crowd. And I’m curious to see how that turns out. This is the one thing that is encouraging. I’m pretty sure a majority of Republicans have a positive view of Ronald Reagan. That’s why people are now writing articles about how Trump and Reagan are actually very similar, which is nonsense. But the reason they’re saying that is because the Reaganites want to feel better about supporting Trump. I think if Trump were to disappear tomorrow, a strong Reaganite faction would persist within the party, whether we like it or not. But that party is still there. But it is now being actively oppressed and frightened.

Let’s delve into Trump as a phenomenon because even if he’s defeated, this influence is likely to persist. How much does white anxiety have to do with the Trump phenomenon?

‘The thing about Trump is he doesn’t have any beliefs. If I were advising governments on how to deal with Trump, if he’s elected, I would say give him lots of money. Not to America, to him personally’

It has everything to do with the Trump phenomenon. I think that Trump has tapped into it. Everybody knows it’s there. It’s been there throughout American history, by the way. White status anxiety has been a major feature of American politics from the very beginning, even during the period of slavery. And now I think it’s back. But Trump has both benefited from it, but he’s also spurred it. He’s also made it acceptable. He’s made it legitimate. Let’s not forget that he ran in his first campaign in 2012 as a white supremacist. He ran on the Obama birther conspiracy, which is to say the first American black president is not really an American. And everybody knew what that meant. And all the people who have this white status anxiety immediately glommed onto him. He’s the avatar of Christian nationalism in America. The evangelicals are completely in with him, despite potential disagreements on issues like abortion.

Do you believe that the rise of woke culture acted as a multiplier or amplifier for Trump’s appeal?

It’s always woke culture in America. It isn’t a new phenomenon. Similar sentiments of white anxiety have surfaced throughout history, notably following significant events like the Brown vs Board of Education ruling in 1954 and desegregation efforts. The same white anxiety existed in the post-Civil War period. This is an ongoing phenomenon. I don’t like the word wokeism. It has all kinds of connotations. But there was a time, for instance, in the late 19th century, when Irish Americans were depicted in national cartoons as ape-like creatures with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a club in the other. There was a time when Italian Americans were treated like dirt. And all of these groups used the American system first to demand their rights and then to demand respect. And a lot of what woke is about is asking for respect. Now, can it go too far? Yes. Can it turn into language control? Is cancel culture ridiculous? Yes. But I think those things are also self-correcting. And I wouldn’t get overly concerned about the fact that African Americans want to be treated not only equally under the law, but they also desire equal treatment in society, much like Jewish Americans, Irish Americans, and Italian Americans. It’s not about “wokeness”; it’s about how people react to it. And once again, it’s the same old response driven by white status anxiety. What they’re really upset about, is that, as they would put it, it doesn’t look like their country anymore.

Do you believe that woke culture undermines meritocracy or freedom of expression – i.e. within academic environments?

Certainly, and that’s a bad thing when that happens. And by the way, it’s not just liberalism versus anti-liberalism. There’s also an anti-liberalism on the left, which is very strong, and is very much in the academy and things are out of control. So, there’s been a lot of reining back of the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion). But, I don’t accept the argument “the left made me do it, the left made me support a fascist dictator.”

There’s been a lot of self-criticism about the elite in the US looking down on the average person and failing to listen to them. Do you believe that?

No. For one thing, a lot of this fight is elite versus elite. Those intellectuals leading the Trump movement are themselves part of the elite. Consider Trump, purportedly a billionaire – in what sense is he not part of the elite? The same goes for figures like Josh Hawley. And it’s always been the case. But it’s typically the case that one elite claims to speak for the common man. But the true division in America lies not between elites and non-elites, but rather among whites, white Christians, and those they perceive as non-American.

Now, who’s going to win?

If pressed, I’d lean towards Biden winning. However, I’m far from comfortable because I see significant chances for a Trump victory. And I think it’s an apocalyptic event, if Trump is elected.

Can you see any unforeseen development, like the Democrats changing a candidate?

That’s not an unforeseen development. That’s a development that was hoped for and has not happened and is not going to happen. Unless it’s a health issue, it’s too late to change. Moreover, I’m one of those who question whether there’s a single individual out there whom the entire Democratic Party will unequivocally support. I hear names. And the next minute, there are objections and criticism. The candidate that doesn’t exist is always the most attractive candidate.

If Trump wins, do you see any potential for civil strife? And if Biden wins by a very small majority, do you see the potential for civil war?

I think if Biden wins by any margin, even by three or four points, Trump will declare the vote fraudulent, as he has done in past elections, including the one he won in 2016. And then the question is, what does the Republican Party do? Given Trump’s control over the Republican Party, they would likely support his claims of election fraud. This could lead to various scenarios, one of which is state secession or nullification, especially in overwhelmingly Republican states like Texas, where there’s already some degree of independent policy-making. It’s not inconceivable that governors and legislators in these states may refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the federal government. Now, what does that mean? The federal government could respond by cutting off funding or taking other measures, but it’s uncertain how Biden would handle such a situation. This could lead to a very uncertain and potentially volatile situation, including the possibility of a confederation of Republican states that reject federal authority.

But I think that the US has been there before.

Of course. In the 19th century, repeatedly there were either threats or actual attempts of secession, many of which were only countered by the threat or use of force. For instance, Andrew Jackson threatened to send force into South Carolina when it engaged in nullification. And Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, the 82nd Airborne. It was very frequent. Americans need to remember that the 19th century is not irrelevant to American history, because the federal system hasn’t changed, and these options are still on the table. If you poll Americans, a significant number, from both parties, are open to the idea of secession. So, depending on how Trump behaves if he wins, Democratic states might also consider challenging his actions if they perceive them as extra-constitutional. So what constitution are we in? States like California and New York could react if Trump adopts authoritarian policies.

You seem to think that the US will go through another January 6.

I’m not sure about another attack on the Capitol, per se. The United States is a heavily armed country, and instances of political violence have been increasing. There are individuals and groups eager to engage in such acts. Those who participated in the January 6 attack, especially ex-military personnel, saw themselves as fighting for their country. The Trump movement has co-opted patriotism. A lot of these militia groups see themselves as part of a tradition dating back to the revolution. And I don’t think anybody doubts that there’ll be violence. The uncertainty lies in whether such violence will have significant consequences or lead to tangible outcomes.

What happens if Trump is convicted before the election or right after?

He’s not going to be convicted after the election. That’s why the Supreme Court is punting. The Supreme Court doesn’t want to have to make a decision. They’re hoping that it’ll be taken care of for them. But this issue wasn’t meant to be addressed in court. In fact, I love being here in Greece, because the Greeks had a method for dealing with people who were presumed to be threats to Athenian democracy, which was ostracism. But in America, they have the impeachment process, which is similar in a way, because it’s not a question of law. So, we had a method for dealing with a person like Trump and, the Republican senators, particularly those like Mitch McConnell and other respectable establishment Republicans, had a chance to prevent Donald Trump from being able to run again. And they failed because they were cowardly.

Observing global public opinion reveals significant skepticism directed towards the US and the West, from the global South. Is this new? Is this justified? And how can the US respond to it?

Obviously it’s not a new thing. What was the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War? Many countries in the global South have their own needs and interests that may not align with the agendas of major geopolitical players. They often feel marginalized or overlooked in the existing global order. During the Cold War, for instance, the US hasn’t been particularly popular in the global South. But today it is better than during the Nixon era. So, I don’t expect every country to line up with the United States and Europe. That’s not their interest. On the other hand, I also feel like every country in the world has the same question, which is, “What’s in it for me?” And so when you have a world that’s divided like this, among the great powers, it’s an opportunity also for the global South to say, there’s a bidding war going on, and clearly there is a bidding war going on.

Is the US and the West in decline? You were born in Greece, so, considering your father’s legacy, if you asked him whether the US and the West is where Athens was in 322 BC, how would he respond to that?

I believe he would respond by disagreeing with the notion of decline. From my perspective, the issues the United States faces today are long-standing and not indicative of a decline, but rather of an ongoing illness within the American system. As I mentioned earlier, the international structure continues to favor democracies. As long as the United States is still playing the game, it’s still in the game. Transatlantic relations are currently at a high point, and America’s relationship with its Asian allies is very good these days. Ultimately, that collective power of Europe, East Asia, the United States, is a greater collective power than China and Russia. Especially since China and Russia, despite what everybody may think, are not partners like this, and will never be. And so they’re each fighting their own little battle. My basic view is that the West is underachieving now. In part because we’re having internal turmoil. But the latent strength of this system I think is still there.

You mentioned before this the momentary unipolar world that lasted a couple of decades at most. Do you think the West showed some arrogance? Was there some hubris in its handling of situations like Iraq, post-9/11, the defeated of the Cold War etc?

I’ll speak up for the United States, not the West. I’m a historian of American foreign policy. Mistakes are what we do. The United States is not a perfect country. Although, as I look at other countries and their histories, I don’t think they’re perfect either. So, the United States has made mistakes. It has fallen into traps, like Iraq, or Vietnam. This stems from a sense of global responsibility that can lead to either bad or good decisions. But it’s the same sense of global responsibility that has also kept the United States defending allies and sending troops, in unprecedented ways throughout history. So, you have to take both sides of it. In terms of the way the Cold War ended, I don’t blame the West. Of course, some Russians are unhappy in the same way that some Germans were unhappy after World War I. That’s the impact of defeat. What we’re witnessing is Russia’s attempt to regain a traditional hegemonic status in Eastern and Central Europe. But, if you really look at it, it doesn’t really have the power, at least at the moment, to achieve that. So, it is trying to accomplish it by basically hoping for, and if possible sowing, division in the West, which allows its relatively weak position to be successful in Ukraine.

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