One of my fellow panelists at last Wednesday’s panel at Duke University, Duke sociology professor Bei Gao, responded to the moderator’s question about whether America should fear Chinese strength or Chinese weakness by redefining the question. To wit, he declared that the United States should stop basing its foreign and defense policy on fear. Apparently the Obama administration should make no reply to China’s military buildup. As best I could make out, Professor Gao believes Washington has undergone periodic spasms of panic since World War II, boosting defense spending to counter illusory menaces. He apparently views ramping up U.S. armed might during the Korean War, to reverse the steep decline after World War II, or in the late Cold War, to rebuild the hollow force of the 1970s, as responses to nonexistent stimuli. The Soviet threat, it seems, was a chimera.
That’s an interesting perspective coming from a Chinese pundit. China fought a border war against the Soviets in the late 1960s, and undertook a monumental effort to relocate crucial industries away from the Sino-Soviet frontier, before cozying up to the United States for mutual protection. Fear coursed through its foreign policy. And, of course, Beijing has premised its recent buildup on offsetting a perceived American threat. China’s leadership came to dread U.S. military power following Desert Storm, and particularly after the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. In effect Beijing vowed never again to allow U.S. forces uncontested control of the waters and skies off East Asian shores. Double-digit increases have become a routine feature of Chinese policy. If that doesn’t bespeak fear, what does?
Unwarranted increases in U.S. defense spending, posited Gao, brought about all manner of ills, crowding out social programs while giving rise to structural budget deficits. He fretted that Republicans in Congress are poised for another spending spree, this time to counter China’s economic and military rise. He can rest easy. Bigger defense budgets are doubtful in the extreme in the age of the fiscal cliff. Just the opposite. Today’s strategic debates revolve around how to reapportion priorities within flat—at best—budgets, and around how to wring more bang from every buck. Nor is this a partisan matter. In all likelihood a Mitt Romney administration would have shifted resources around while keeping spending figures roughly constant. Such are today’s fiscal realities.
But Gao’s philosophical point is intriguing. Repeal fear as a basic human motive? Good luck with that. Thucydides famously designated fear, honor, and interest three of the prime movers for human actions. The Athenian historian named fear the true cause of the Peloponnesian War. These motives are elemental, encoded in our DNA. The fear factor is behind what international-relations specialists such as Robert Jervis call the “security dilemma.” When one competitor arms, its rivals feel compelled to follow suit lest they open themselves to aggression. Failing to arm, on the other hand, arouses predatory instincts in others—tempting them to indulge in aggression. Spirals into competition and conflict are a typical result as each country tries to provide for its own defense, amassing capabilities that inspire foreboding in prospective antagonists. Leaders hedge against the worst case.
Refusing to take counsel of exaggerated fears constitutes sound advice. But there are legitimate threats out there, competitors who combine capability with the intention to use that capability for hostile—or otherwise objectionable—purposes. Purging the policymaking process of fear of real threats would be a dangerous thing. It would needlessly expose America, its allies, and its friends to harm. We can’t escape the security dilemma through wishful thinking.