Exaggerating the Present Danger — Then and Now

A marker of mature statecraft is the ability to assess international challenges and devise appropriate responses with prudence, dispassion and proportionality. Despite decades of global leadership, however, American diplomacy remains given to bouts of adolescent hysteria. These fevered crusades have produced some of the costliest mistakes in American foreign policy, such as the vast overkill of the Cold War nuclear arms buildup and the disastrous wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

This reflex has more to do with domestic politics than the realities of international competition. As political scientist Theodore Lowi observed, U.S. leaders routinely exaggerate foreign threats and oversell proposed solutions as means to free themselves from the shackles of democratic government.

Threat Inflation and the Truman Doctrine

President Harry Truman established the model for such “sky is falling” rhetoric when, on March 12 1947, he sounded the opening bell of the emerging Cold War in a speech to a joint session of Congress. As he wrestled with the speech, Truman worried over how to rally the public behind a grand struggle against the Soviet Union. After all, Americans yearned for a respite from international conflict and a return to the isolationism of the pre-war years. Truman consulted with Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who offered a clear answer — Truman must “scare the hell out of the country” by underlining the communist threat to American values.

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Committees on the (Ever) Present Danger

Yet the task of whipping up public support for a confrontational foreign policy has never fallen solely to the White House. A bipartisan foreign policy establishment — what President Dwight Eisenhower once referred to as the “military-industrial complex” — has mobilized at critical moments to rally support for higher military spending. These groups often work in coordination with like-minded presidents, but have also at times challenged the foreign policies of presidents perceived as overly dovish.

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Seeking a New Cold War

The most recent iteration of this group — now called the Committee on the Present Danger: China (CPDC) — was unveiled at a press event in Washington, D.D. on April 9, 2019, featuring remarks by Senator Ted Cruz, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Trump White House advisor Steve Bannon. The CPDC seeks to build political support for assertive policies toward China and a sustained military buildup following a period of flat defense budgets between 2011 and 2017.

The Danger of Overselling Threats

Notwithstanding the difficult challenges China’s rise presents, the anti-China campaign emanating from the White House and the CPDP remains vastly exaggerated even set alongside previous bouts of fear-mongering. The military and ideological threats posed by China today pale in comparison with those presented by the former Soviet Union, while China is far more deeply integrated into the global economy and international institutions than the USSR ever was. Far from seeking to export revolution or overturn the existing international order, China seeks reform of and greater status and influence within that order. China’s rise in power has been inflated while its internal and external challenges are too little appreciated. Meanwhile, America’s own continuing strengths are too often underestimated. Finally, in contrast with the Cold War, America’s allies are unlikely to follow the U.S. down the path of an unrestrained effort to weaken and contain China.

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