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Fear, American-Style

What lies beneath the fear-mongering in the U.S. Presidential elections?

January 10, 2016

What lies beneath the fear-mongering in the U.S. Presidential elections?

Americans are fearless — except when it comes to China, Russia, ISIS, radical homegrown Islamist terrorists, right-wing homegrown Christian terrorists, the anti-religious elite, the government, the economy, climate change, undocumented immigrants and Syrian refugees.

The list above is long, but it all boils down to one thing: a fear that the global status the United States gained after the collapse of the Soviet Union just might not last forever.

In other words, a fear that the United States might be susceptible to the process of history, just like other nations.

The politics of fear

Fear sells. In particular, it sells politicians. Donald Trump’s campaign has reminded voters often that they should fear the threat from Syrian refugees and terrorists. Other GOP candidates have pointed to a resurgent Russia and an increasingly powerful China.

Of course, fear does not simply have a partisan face. Democrats have suggested Americans fear Trump’s fascism and the scourge of automatic weapons.

There have, of course, been efforts to reassure Americans that their fears about a growing China, a resurgent Russia and an expanding ISIS are illusory and that we are suffering from “security psychosis,” which can only change through a modification in the national mindset.

However, I would posit that the issue is not a national mindset that seeks out things to fear, but rather the context in which Americans now find themselves – and that they weren’t always so afraid.

The rise and fall of American fear

A Gallup Poll asked Americans, “How worried are you that someone in your family will become a victim of terrorism?” Comparing that poll to the number of terror acts in the United States per year reveals a very low correlation.

The number of terror acts spikes in 1999, but there is no increase in the Gallup poll numbers. Similarly, the spikes in 2008 and 2010 have no correlating increases in the fear of terrorism.

What is evident is an outsized spike in fear following the attack on the World Trade Center, which could be understood as evidence of people’s focus on low-probability, high-impact risks.

After seeing the devastation caused by the attacks on New York, Americans reacted by thinking that a terrorist attack was imminent in their own towns and cities.

Geopolitical threats

In 2012, Mitt Romney had said in an interview with Wolf Blitzer that Russia was our greatest geopolitical foe. He was ridiculed for it at the time.

But since then, Russia has begun to expand its activities in Ukraine, in the waters around Northern Europe and in Syria. The fear in the media and political speeches has increased. Romney’s pronouncement has come to be seen as incisive.

In the years since, the U.S. government’s (in)famous pivot to Asia reflects a concern about China’s increased ability to threaten U.S. partners in the South China Sea.

It is quite natural for Americans to register concern about further conflict with the two countries with the second- and third-highest defense spending in the world.

Falling, stalling and rising empires

However, if we look at the key numbers, China with a $216 billion defense budget and Russia with a $84 billion defense budget pose little substantial threat to the United States.

After the Soviet Union dissolved, U.S. defense spending was as much as the next sixteen countries combined. And now it is only as large as the next seven.

Enlarge Does this situation make us more vulnerable than ever? (Data: World Bank)

As the dust settled on the collapsed Soviet Union, the supposition was that “the West (read: the United States) had won.” And indeed, countries around the world began to accept elements of the winning ideology, but certainly not all aspects of it.

With the rise of China, some voices now argue in favor of the China Model. Russia meanwhile has been keen to make the case for what it labels as managed democracy.

And as markets opened up and economies began to globalize, economists increasingly discussed convergence, which envisioned that poorer economies would have higher growth rates than richer economies.

That vision has indeed materialized. For example, just over two decades ago, China was a mere 6% of the size of the U.S. economy, whereas now it has surpassed Japan and has reached 59% of the size of the U.S. GDP (at market prices in U.S. dollars).

And when allowing for purchasing power parity, China has overtaken U.S. GDP.

A constant refrain in the U.S. media is that politicians are creating fear in the electorate for political gains. But perhaps they are not creating fear, but rather directing it.

Channeling the people’s fear

The fear comes from something much deeper—the idea that Samuel Huntington expressed in his Clash of Civilizations: “the balance of power is shifting; the West is declining in relative influence…”

The United States is concerned that the victory after the fall of the Soviet Union was an illusion.

Americans imagine themselves as losing economic, military and political power and thus fear convergence, because it would mean making space for influences other than our own in the international sphere.

These processes create internal and external fears that find voice in and influence politicians.

What should most concern us about this fear is that it influences U.S. foreign policy. In 2013, Win/Gallup put out a survey that asked people around the world what country was the greatest threat to world peace. Overwhelmingly, respondents answered: the United States.

The others catch up

Convergence could indeed lead to the United States losing economic and political influence, but the actions the American government takes to hold on to power could influence the backlash and fear of the United States.

The United States is secure today, but as developing economies catch up and American economic and political influence diminishes, the United States needs to ensure that they adapt and not seek security simply through military might.

In the long run, the backlash will increase the more America seeks military solutions. Furthermore, although the U.S. fear is real, now is not the time to give in to it and pretend America’s lone superpower status came from time immemorial.

Rather, the United States needs to help build an international system that would diffuse responsibility and ensure more democratic participation. This would prepare for the inevitable—a world where economies and influence converge.


Americans are fearless -- except on China, Russia, ISIS, climate change, immigrants and refugees.

Americans imagine losing economic, military and political power and thus fear convergence.

In the long run, the backlash will increase the more America seeks military solutions.

Although the U.S. fear is real, America’s lone superpower status did not come from time immemorial.