February 6, 2023 - 10:05am

As a Brit, sharing a language and a plethora of social media platforms with the United States sometimes feels like hearing a couple who have forgotten they’re miked up while having a vicious argument in public.

But the warring Red and Blue enjoyed a rare moment of unity, of sorts, over the weekend, as all converged with fascination on the “Chinese spy balloon”. This unmanned high-altitude balloon, which the Chinese claimed was for “mainly metereological” purposes, followed a route across North American airspace beginning in Alaska. It then passed over Canada and re-entered the United States in Idaho, before traversing sensitive military bases in Montana — at which point it was visible enough that ordinary people began to notice, and the shouting started in earnest.

For conservatives, the fact that the balloon wasn’t promptly shot down was merely the latest proof of (variously) American emasculation, Joe Biden’s complicity with the Chinese government, a manipulative government deploying distractions to ward off other scandals, or Pentagon decadence — to name but a few. The other side retaliated with claims that three such incidents occurred during the Trump administration, but no one said or did anything.

But beneath the bickering was, paradoxically, a clear sense of unity. Despite vigorous disagreement about the meaning or proportionality of the US government’s reaction to the balloon, which fell out along familiar lines, Americans on all sides appear to share essentially the same sense of outrage at its presence in US airspace.

There were plenty of photos of people brandishing weapons at the sky, and headlines warning US civilians not to shoot at the balloon (on the basis that the bullets wouldn’t hit it, and would just fall out the sky potentially hitting other Americans). But there were no headlines calling on the military not to shoot down a foreign nation’s surveillance balloon — which finally happened off the coast of South Carolina, seven days after the balloon first entered US airspace.

My takeaway from the whole spectacle, other than that everyone loves a ‘flying object’ story, is firstly that the world’s pre-eminent superpower is less disunited than sometimes appears. And secondly, that such American political polarisation as it exists may be less a product of decline than of America’s historical and geographical position as an empire in all but name — but one with no recent history of meaningful domestic military challenge from a rival nation.

Yes, there are some historical border skirmishes with Mexico, but that’s it really. Geography is, as they say, destiny: the North American continent is a considerable stretch of ocean away from any serious potential challenger. On the other side of the ledger, depending on your definition of ‘invaded’, the list is considerably longer. Indeed, the United States has been ‘militarily involved’ with every other nation on the planet, apart from Andorra, Bhutan and Liechtenstein.

In other words: America is much more used to being the invader than the invadee. And this has, perhaps, produced a superpower that enjoys the luxury of internal bickering because its citizens have set aside any collective sense that serious external threats exist.

Whether this is objectively true or not is another matter, of course. For its part, meanwhile, the People’s Republic may be keen to accentuate American internal conflict and contradictions. Some allege they’re already doing this by, for example, using TikTok to corrupt American phones with spyware and American brains with toxic memes, or mimicking ‘woke’ terminology to fan the flames of culture war. But given the collective outrage triggered by one spy balloon, my sense is that America’s apparent disunity is less structural than it sometimes seems as an outsider.

Meme warfare is one thing. Yet I think it’d take very little material boundary-pushing for marital conflicts to be set aside, in favour of univocal belligerence at a common enemy.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.