U.S. Foreign Policy: Driven by Fear?
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U.S. Foreign Policy: Driven by Fear?

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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.

Comments
18
Mouloud Hayoun
December 10, 2012 at 09:02

You are learning world to use your politics perceptions, fears, spiral dilemma, balance of power, so one day the world will be a great ground of doubt and ready of assault.

December 9, 2012 at 11:57

Honour, interes and fear; all are real word, not material; if you put it on world stage, you’ll receives billions of definitions and every other will be different. Like fear for a kid is black-shadows; for a young unemployment; for a mature a healthy conjugal life. Honor is also geographical, like gf is West is usual, but in my society the girl is considered prost who even dare to talk to a guy other than Muhrim. And same is the case with interest. May be I’ve interest in weapons and you’ve in medicines

Glen Fan
December 9, 2012 at 09:12

The US is a big tall intelligent full-grown high school kid.  China is an under-developed elementary kid.  A high school kid says that he is afraid of an elementary kid.  Isn't that funny?
 
 
James is right that the elementary kid does have a lot of fears for the high school kid.  The best strategy for peace is for the bigger kid to alleviate the fear and build relationship with the weaker kid. The worst strategy for the bigger kid is to feed the fear with even more reasons of fears.  If the high school kid keeps showing fists to the elementary kid, it will only backfire.  The fear will grow even bigger.  Eventually, both kids will become irrational, probably.
 
 
If you have traded stocks, you probably know that the fear and the greed are your two worst enemies.  If you have fears and/or greed, you will certainly not make rational decisions in stock trading and you will lose money big time.
 
 
So, don't let fears or greed control you. Make rational judgment and justified decisions all the time. 
 
 
By the way, all Chinese leaders have sent or are sending their kids to US schools.  All the riche people in China are hoping to immigrate to the U.S.  China has a million reasons to fear about US, instead of the other way.

Glen Fan
December 9, 2012 at 08:57

US is a big tall intelligent full-grown high school student.  China is an under-developed elementary student.  A high school student says that he is afriad of an elementary student.  Isn't that funny?
 
James is right that the elementary student does have a lot of fears on the high school student.  The best strategy is to alliviate it, instead of to feed it with even more reasons of fears.  If the high school student keeps showing fists to the elementary kid, it will only backfire.  The fear will grow even bigger.  Eventually, both kids will become irrational, probably.
 
If you have traded stocks, you probably know that the fear and the greed are your two worest enemies.  If you have fears and/or greed, you will certainly not make rational decisions in stock trading and you will lose money big time.
 
So, don't let fears or greed control you. Make rational judgement and justified decisions all the time. 
 
By the way, all Chinese leaders have sent or are sending their kids to US schools.  All the riche people in China are hoping to immigrate to the U.S.  China has a million reasons to fear about US, instead of the other way.
 

Reason
November 28, 2012 at 11:10

@applesauce – Anyone who descibes the Third Front as being rational loses a certain degree of credibiltiy.
But then you push the bouandaries of 'rationality' with;
The US  "is spending billions to counter a chinese asbm that may or may not exist"
I do not know of a single program that is designed to counter China's ficticious ASBM.  As far as I'm aware, the ASBM is just business as usual for the US Navy and a multitude of 7th Fleet commanders have gone on record to say so.
So…. what program is the Pentagon pouring billions of dollars into to counter China's weapons of mass deception?
Do tell?

Dylan Marshall
November 28, 2012 at 10:06

Interesting article. I only wish I'd seen it a few days earlier when writing my dissertation proposal on Identity and fear in U.S Foreign policy! 

The US Perpetual Scam Of A Threat
November 23, 2012 at 19:24

The threat is imaginary.  It is a US scam to frighten all those little brown and yellow Asian countries into buying arms and weapons from the US.
 
Of course the side benefits is that they will become polarized and run to the US for comfort and protection.  Unfortunately, that is Washington's wishful thinking.  East Asians are too smart to fall for that save the corrupt Filipino generals and politicians.
 
Oh, don't forget the 10% commission ad kickbacks to the shamelessly opportunistic policiticains bred and reared under the US's so-called open free voting democracy.  How easy it is to get these politicians in the US's pockets.  No problem at all builing up a file or database to smear these politicians and finish off their careers in double quick time if they don't do Washington's bidding.
 
Get the picture now?  The US ain't no saint.  A devil more like it.

Misleading Argument
November 22, 2012 at 22:44

The question, Mr James Holmes is – What is the US doing in East Asia?  China, on the other hand, is threatened by the US.  It has every right to do what is necessary to defend its homeland – its seas, skies and land.  Does the US suffer such threat from China?  The answer is no. Thus all your one sided arguments against Professor Gao is irrelevant and off tangent.  Your lengthy argument is, I am afraid, very misleading.

davida is back
November 22, 2012 at 14:48

peter, i cant agree more. this author and his lackey like matt are racists and definitely have some ulterior motive behind their baseless and wonton attack on that poor chinese professor, why the hell does us need to rearm? it spends as much as next 26 nations combined on defense and they still think they are being threatened. and if you let this irrational fear take control of your foreign policy, good luck, mate, you bet your hairy stinky white ass that your neighbours would do exactly the same .
the fact speaks louder than fictions and screw those ancient greek philosophies. china spends less than 2% on military whereas us spends more than 4%. and you are telling me that us is afraid of china. if thats true, then double down on that amount if you can afford it or like this racist professor suggested it, withdraw from middle east and put your money where your mouth is- pivoting to asia-pacific. muslims there would sigh in relief that those yank wonkers are finally gone except for red eyed israelis, obviously.
 

peter mantello
November 21, 2012 at 18:37

What are the legitimate threats posed by China? US foreign policy peddles threat as a way to position itself in what he considers to be areas of geopolitical interest. If a mirror was put up the US, they could easily see that if we weighed rhetoric over threat, the US would be the most serious concern…having ravaged and pillaged several countries in the Middle East and Central Asia as well as glorifying its targeted assassination program which inevitably kills more innocents then it does bad guys. But then again, vampires do not have reflections in mirrors.
The cruel truth is that the US is addicted to its militaristic alter ego, funneling a little over half of public taxes on oiling and enhancing its war machine and 900 bases of empire around the world. Of course, the United States of Hypocrisy does not see itself with such issues. But then again most addicts never do. 
Instead of feeding and housing its poor, educating its illiterate population and providing hospitals for its sick – it launders its revenue on making sure it is the biggest, toughest and most cruel nation on the block. 
So why would fear, ever play a part in the US concerns. In a warped way it should but only because it has spent so much time, effort and money making the rest of the world hate them so much.

Lnrds
November 21, 2012 at 09:54

Most policies from any country I believe are concocted from fear. In this case US does fear China and vice versa. US is pivoting to Asia and China is building up their military as any nation has the right to do.
Here you have China claiming much of the sea but at the same time does not want this issue to be have an international audience this means they'd rather approach each nation that have disputes with China's claim to bully and manipulate.When that happens it causes fear for everyone.
The important question does China fears the US or anyone? If not then we will have the answers why Asia is getting worse. You just have to think about Japan in WW2. Did they fear the western powers? No? and look what happened.

Asia does not need another war

Leonard R.
November 21, 2012 at 09:04

@Pro. Holmes:  "Thucydides famously designated fear, honor, and interest three of the prime movers for human actions…"
 
—–
 
Alas of those three motives, only two seem to remain, fear and self-interest. Honor seems to have vanished. But maybe Thucydides was incorrect. Maybe honor was just a form of self-interest, even back in his day.
 
 

Peter
November 21, 2012 at 08:59

Don't confuse US foreign polcy motivations driven by fear with what is more accurately true – paranoia, greed, and illusions of empire. 

talking points
November 21, 2012 at 07:50

China fears for its exitence, US fears for losing dominance. these are two different levels of fear. US is less justified to build up because it is still holding big advantage.
in my view, China's military power is not up to 1/4 of US's. US might be justified to fear when China is half as strong as US military power.
 

applesauce
November 21, 2012 at 05:13

i think its more about whether the fear is rational or not, for instance china removing its industries away from the soviet boarder was rational, the soviets were supirior in all matters military and actually battles happened. the shock after the first gulf war was rational as the US was supirior in all matters military and had an active interest and has interveened in the chinese civil war. the US responce to china is debatable, for instance, is spending billions to counter a chinese asbm that may or may not exist worth it especially when military spending is already a large percentage of gdp and largest by many times in absolute number and all this udring a global slowdown and exploding debt. is baseing thousands of troops in europe worth it when the europeans have no threat and could/should pay for their own defence?

Cyrus
November 21, 2012 at 02:08

The Problem with this is that the US cannot afford not to respond especially with increasing Chinese Agression in the West Philippine Sea and its double digit increases on the defense budget.

To not think this is a threat, would be a folly.

Matt
November 20, 2012 at 23:25

I've always been interested in how the micro human characteristics we all know well translate into the history books. Fear is real and present in all of us at some level. In addition we seem to need to constantly re-learn the basic lessons on the macro level.
Today we can watch China as it attempts to manipulate the fear level in the rest of the world in order to conquer new territories. The effect is we have people like this professor reacting to their liking. Maybe he is just being loyal to his native land thus honor takes center stage but the process of intimidation is real and it works. That's why China has not changed their strategy. North Korea's two attacks in attemting to redraw the map in their neighborhood had a complimentary benefit to China's strategy. Essenstially let the dog bite someone so you know the owner is to be feared. China played that role wisely and then directly pushed its own land and sea ambitions with added weight of fear. The US talks about pivoting but has actually only stepped up some training and diplomatic moves which were much needed. The US will have to be willing to bite or let an ally bite before long or China will be more inclined to believe we are fearful and unwilling to confront them.
Great article.

Bankotsu
November 20, 2012 at 22:58

But what threat does China pose to the U.S? There are no Chinese military bases encircling the U.S.
At most China poses a threat to the U.S unipolar hegemonic order, but military threat? Come on.

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