July 30, 2009 11:45AM

Is America About to Be Overrun by the Chinese/​Russians/​Anybody?

One of the frequent tropes of recent years is the notion that the United States is in decline, and America is plunging from being the only great power in the system to a status merely as first among equals.  A veritable slew of books have come out in recent years making this argument.  You also get this rhetoric when folks are arguing that we need more F-22s than we actually do, or for various other military-industrial-congressional boondoggles that the MIC complex and its supporters don't want to give up.

One rhetorical tactic these folks have used is the "defense spending as a share of GDP" approach, which implicitly argues that defense needs should not be based on threat assessment, but rather on economic growth.  The more economic growth, the more defense needs we have.  (By this ramshackle logic, an uncharitable critic like me could note, economic growth is deleterious to national security.  By contrast, if we went into a serious and enduring economic downturn, we'd get much more secure.)

A couple of useful data points have recently emerged that could help lower our pulse a little.  The folks over at the U.S. Naval Institute blog point to the sixth failure of the latest Russian SLBM technology, snarkily observing that "generally speaking, the preferred direction for a ballistic missile, especially a sub-launched one is UP."

In addition, Tom Donnelly offers a sensible take on the "Russia is going to reassemble the USSR" argument, noting

Moscow's ability to enforce its writ in the hinterlands has fallen far down. And even Putin isn't spending the rubles required to rebuild the Red Army. Second, the collapse of the Soviet Union cost the Russian empire about 400 years worth of conquests. Retaking Abkhazia [sic] might seem like a first step, but the road to great power status -- as measured by something more than nuclear weapons and commodity prices -- is very long.

Still, recognizing that Russia is not capable of reassembling the Soviet empire does not mean that we ought to be sending Joe "Ukrainian Chicks Are Hot" Biden over to Georgia and Ukraine to plump for NATO expansion and dance on the Soviet grave.

But the new panic we're supposed to take up is the latest discernment of the glacial Chinese move toward developing their first aircraft carrier.  The USNI blog points to an op-ed by the Brookings Institute's Peter Singer throwing cold water (sorry) over the bow of said carrier:

In trying to justify Cold War-era structures, people often point to the danger presented by the rise of another “peer” state that is building a blue-water fleet just like our own. This is Pentagonese for China as a “rising sea dragon,” with their desire to match our aircraft carriers perhaps the most widely cited manifestation of their menace.


But a little reality check may be in order. First, their “new” carrier is not all that new. Actually, the Varyag was first laid down back in 1985. Originally planned for the Soviet fleet, it was never completed. Instead, at the Cold War’s end, it was scrapped of all its electronics and engines and sold off to be a floating casino. Even if the Chinese can refurbish it, at best they will be getting an old, untested ship that carries only a third as many planes as a U.S. carrier.

Similarly, the idea that the Chinese can build four new carriers over the next decade is less than realistic. It takes approximately six years to build one of our aircraft carriers, and we have been doing this for more than eight decades. By comparison, the biggest warship the Chinese have yet to build on their own is 17,000 tons, a quarter the size. More importantly, building a ship is not the same as operating it successfully.

Maybe we're all going to survive after all.  My colleague Ted Carpenter has described our tendency to overrate our threat environment as "strategic hypochondria."  We should get over it.  It's unbecoming in a country, as Sen. J. William Fulbright noted, "whose modern history has been an almost uninterrupted chronicle of success."  Such a country, wrote Fulbright, "should be so sure of its own power as to be capable of magnanimity."  Meanwhile, some of the most serious problems the country faces, as has become evident, come from within.  It's going to be much harder to fix them while we're simultaneously trying to run the planet.