Even China's recent effort to modernize its military brings it to a mere fraction of what the United States spends on defense. And considering China's export-driven economic strategy -- and large reserves of U.S. debt -- Beijing has far more to gain from a strong America than a weak one.
This is not to suggest there are no reasons for concern. A potentially nuclear Iran, a "delusional North Korea," and an unstable Pakistan each represent significant regional dangers and even economic challenges to the United States. These are serious global security issues that require U.S. attention. Along the same lines, nuclear and biological terrorism are potentially grave challenges facing not just the United States, but the world -- even though either would be extremely difficult to pull off successfully. However, dealing with these issues -- and recognizing their potential threat to regional and even global security -- does not necessitate the sort of call to military arms we saw after September 11th, but rather cooperative, diplomatic efforts to ameliorate them. Hyping these challenges as existential threats has the potential to drive self-defeating policies that do more to weaken America than strengthen it.Ironically, given how many of the dire warnings about global peril seem to come from Republicans, it is strange that so many of them are relatively blase about what may be the one true existential threat facing the United States: global warming. Another reason for concern would be Russian nuclear weapons, many of which are still pointed at the United States. So why did so many Republicans, including Romney, oppose the New START nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia?
To be sure, overhyping foreign threats on the campaign trail is nothing new: candidates from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush established impressive track records in this area. The problem, of course, is when those expedient political proclamations end up driving national security policy. In 1947, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, advised President Harry Truman about how to most effectively sell the idea of foreign aid for anti-Communist rebels in Greece and Turkey: "Scare the hell out of the country.". Truman proceeded to do just that and to great success. His aid package passed Congress and, before long, over-inflated threats of Soviet/Communist aspirations and capabilities became the hallmark of Cold War politics. After September 11th, to build support for a global war on terror and for war with Iraq, President George W. Bush followed a similar course, playing up the possibility of nuclear, biological, and chemical terrorism in American cities if the United States didn't dislodge Saddam Hussein from power.
Warnings of a dangerous world might be effective politics, but they tend to make for rather poor foreign policy decision-making. As the ten years since September 11 have demonstrated, the greatest wounds inflicted on the United States are as liable to come from our own hands -- and our own misjudgments -- as they are from others. The created fear over the much-hyped imminent threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which the Bush Administration alleged might be given to terrorists, led the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003; 4474 American lost lives and hundreds of billions in national treasure later, there is virtually no evidence that the decision to go to war has improved American security or other interests. In Afghanistan, an initially reasonable response against the Taliban government that was harboring al-Qaeda has led to the longest war in U.S. history -- driven in part by the mistaken fear that once a safe haven, always a safe haven or that U.S. security from terrorism can only be guaranteed by a 100,000-troop presence. According to John Mueller and Mark Stewart the United States has spent more than $1 trillion, including direct expenditures and loss of economic and consumer activity, to battle a terrorist threat that has a 1 in 3.5 million chance of taking the life of a U.S. resident. By some estimates, the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have cost the United States between $3 and $5 trillion; when one considers the numbers of jobs that could have been created, health care provided, highways and schools built, it's hard not to view America's over-reaction to September 11 as one of the greatest self-inflicted wounds in our history.