What Do Chinese and Russians Think of the U.S. Military?


In the article “The Tragedy of the American Military,” author James Fallows posits that the U.S. military escapes external scrutiny due to a growing gap between those who have and those who have not served. The result of this gulf is that “outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions…” Fallows postulates that this results in the creation of a “Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously.”

Fallows appears to have re-ignited a new discussion on civil-military relations in the United States as illustrated by the many thoughtful responses by readers of the article. However, after reading the article and going over some of the comments, what appears to be missing so far in the discussion is the view of the genuine outsiders: How do people in countries such as China and Russia view the U.S. military?

The default answer to that question is simple: They view it as a threat.

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According to a Spring 2014 Attitudes Survey by the PEW Research Center, China sees the United States as its biggest threat. Another survey conducted in Russia showed that Russians are more afraid of the United States than the Islamic State. This should not come as a surprise. The one thing any foreigner cannot do is to refuse to take the U.S. military “seriously” – after all it is the most deadly force in the world and, given the history of U.S. civil-military relations, more likely to be used outside the United States than inside the country. So if, as Fallows postulates, there is a growing gap between the civilian and military worlds in the United States, and – most importantly – if the cost of war is only shared by a tiny percentage of the population, foreigners may be excused for assuming that this will perhaps lead to increased U.S. bellicosity.

While there is of course a difference in perceptions between U.S. allies and U.S. adversaries, I posit that the sensation of this latent fear holds true, in varying degrees, for a diverse range of countries (in 2013 another survey found that the United States was seen as the greatest threat to peace in the world). The United States is the indispensable military power, but this seldom translates into genuine gratitude and more often than not slides into open anti-Americanism, as history has illustrated time and again. Based on my own discussions with policymakers in Europe and Asia, the attitude of most U.S. allies is that the only thing worse than fighting with the United States is to fight without her.

No matter how much American pundits and scholars of U.S. civil-military relations point to the marginalization of the military within the United States, to outsiders, the perception is often that of a “New Prussia” – partially brought about by the everyday veneration of U.S. service personal, but more importantly by the sheer preponderance of U.S. military power. As I have pointed out elsewhere, a report by the Advisory Committee on Transformational Diplomacy illustrates how superior resources may cause a skewed perception:

DoD’s regional combatant commanders have come to be perceived by states and other actors as the most influential U.S. government regional representative. It is argued that the resources that combatant commanders control, their presence and frequent travel throughout the region, and even the symbolic impact of their aircraft and accompanying service members, all combine to place them in perceived position of preeminence.

This assertion is supported by a study of The Project on National Security Reform (PNSR), the most comprehensive effort to date to analyze the U.S. national security system and propose recommendations to alleviate many of its bureaucratic problems (disclaimer: I worked as a research analyst for PNSR). Its report conclusion emphasizes that an inequality of resources leads to an inequality in policy; i.e., the militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

True or not, this perception is also widespread outside the United States. Consequently, the alleged militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy paired with Fallows’ assertion of the United States as a “chickenhawk nation” should cause some consternation among security analysts – not only in Beijing and Moscow, but perhaps also in Western European capitals.

[Note: Please see a second accompanying article here.]

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