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.
The Trump administration’s alarmist rhetoric about China offers a case in point. The 2018 National Defense Strategy asserts that Chinese leaders seek the “displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence.” Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have each issued panicky public assessments of the China threat designed to prepare the American public for the demands of renewed great power confrontation.
Echoing Lowi, Aaron Friedberg, former national security aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, recently advised that if the Trump administration is serious about mobilizing domestic support for a Cold War with China, then it must “cast the challenge … in ideological terms” since “what has moved and motivated the American people is a recognition that the principles on which their system is founded are under threat.”
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.
Following Vandenberg’s advice, the Truman Doctrine offered a sweeping vision of America’s new world role: “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
It worked. Congress not only approved aid packages to Greece and Turkey, but also the far more ambitious Marshall Plan, pitched as a Cold War necessity.
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.
The most storied among these has been the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD). Established in December 1950, the original CPD consisted of a group of high-level national security professionals who sought congressional support for the recommendations of NSC-68, a strategic planning document that called for a tripling of U.S. defense spending. Following a campaign of editorials, lectures, congressional testimony, and expert reports by CPD members, Congress responded with major increases in defense spending.
Whereas the first CPD’s aims were in sync with those of the Truman administration, a second CPD launched in 1976 arose in opposition to the perceived dovishness of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The revived CPD sought to undercut détente with the Soviet Union and reverse the military drawdown that followed the Vietnam War. The group cultivated press contacts, sent members on speaking tours and prepared a series of statements on defense, arms control and U.S.-Soviet relations.
The first such statement declared: “The principal threat to our nation, to world peace, and to the cause of human freedom is the Soviet drive for dominance based upon an unparalleled military buildup.”
The committee enjoyed a coup soon after its founding. CPD members asserted that the National Intelligence Estimates prepared annually by the CIA understated the Soviet danger. Stung by these criticisms, outgoing President Ford took the extraordinary step of appointing a “Team B” of conservative defense experts from outside government to prepare a report paralleling the CIA’s normal efforts. Dominated by CPD members, Team B produced an assessment of Soviet capabilities and intentions considerably more pessimistic than that prepared by the CIA’s regular “Team A.” CIA Director George Bush subsequently ordered Team A to “substantially revise its draft” to produce “an estimate that in all its essential points agreed with Team B’s position.” This episode paved the way for a series of alarmist intelligence reports that overstated the Soviet threat, according to a 1983 CIA reappraisal.
Similarly, Carter sought to co-opt hawkish critics by inviting CPD members to participate in a global strategic review labeled PRM 10. Carter also summoned top CPD members to the White House, where he pleaded with them to tone down their attacks on his administration’s arms control efforts. In return, Carter promised the group private access to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown.
Yet conservative criticisms persisted as the CPD warned: “Pursuing a policy built on illusion, we have been adrift and uncertain while the Soviet Union expanded its power and empire.”
A bruising battle over the SALT II Treaty ensued. CPD members testified against SALT II before Senate committees and participated in 479 television and radio programs, press conferences, public debates, briefings of influential citizens, and speeches. The committee distributed 200,000 pamphlets. As hopes for ratification dimmed, Carter withdrew the treaty from Senate consideration. According to former Secretary of States Cyrus Vance: “There is no doubt that the Committee on the Present Danger had a great deal to do with undermining SALT.”
A third iteration of the CPD emerged in 2004 with the mission of rallying the American people against “radical Islamists” who “threaten the safety of the American people and millions of others who prize liberty.” Many of the group’s more than 100 members were closely aligned with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which played a major role in building the case for the war in Iraq.
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.C. 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 CPDC claims that Chinese leaders seek to “weaken and ultimately defeat America” and “subvert Western democracies” in order to clear China’s path to “global hegemony.” After “decades of American miscalculation, inaction and appeasement,” the group calls on the United States to meet this challenge by “mobiliz[ing] all instruments of national power.” To those who might seek accommodation with Chinese leaders, the CPDC warns that there exists “no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country.”
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 United States down the path of an unrestrained effort to weaken and contain China.
In political terms, however, such efforts to once again “scare hell out of the country” make perfect sense. Hawkish advocates of increased military spending win domestic support by amplifying public perceptions of external threat.
Yet these periodic scare campaigns pose real dangers. Most obviously, they unnecessarily exacerbate international conflict. The rhetoric of threat inflation, even when intended for a domestic audience, can raise fears on the part of rival states. Moreover, rhetoric that demonizes another great power shifts the terms of rivalry from concrete conflicts of interest over which compromise may be possible toward ideological contests that are far less amenable to resolution.
Once the public is fully mobilized, moreover, it can be difficult to dial down the fear once a president finds it expedient to do so. Having defined the Cold War as a struggle between good and evil, Truman suffered accusations of treason once he pragmatically concluded that the United States could not stop communist victory in the Chinese civil war. Likewise, the CPD’s heated rhetoric set the stage for Senator Joseph McCarthy to gain political influence by mounting a Red Scare that eventually targeted even the Eisenhower administration.
At present, there is little indication that the American public is ready to sign up for a Manichean struggle with China. Yet, as the history of the CPD suggests, alarmism often works. The recent chill in U.S.-China relations could thus give way to a deep freeze that works to the detriment of the peoples of both countries.
David Skidmore is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, United States.