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The Fruits of Threat Inflation and Warnings About “Decline”

Robert Golan-Vilella draws attention [1] to the recent Gallup survey [2] showing that 47% of Americans don’t know that the U.S. is the leading military power in the world:

Do you think the United States is number one in the world militarily, or that it is only one of several leading military powers?

There is not much of a partisan gap here, nor is there that much of a difference between partisans and independents. Substantial minorities in both parties and a majority of independents believe something about the state of U.S. military power relative to the rest of the world that is just breathtakingly wrong. It is startling that 47% of Americans don’t know that the U.S. is far and away the world’s leading military power, especially when the U.S. military has been engaged in so many wars during the last twelve years and national politicians refer to U.S. military predominance all the time. One might simply bemoan the degree of public ignorance that this poll result reflects, but that isn’t sufficient. In this case, a faulty, exaggerated view of other states’ military power probably accounts for most to the respondents’ error.

Golan-Vilella notes that the error keeps cropping up each time Gallup asks this question:

After all, as Gallup has asked that question over the past twenty years, at least 34 percent in every survey have denied that America has the world’s strongest military. The number may have increased over the past three years, but the misperception it represents is not a new one.

Indeed, looking at Gallup’s results over the last twenty years, it is not immediately obvious why the respondents’ error changes one way or the other:

Trend: Do you think the United States is number one in the world militarily, or that it is only one of several leading military powers?

I agree that threat inflation [3] must have some role in giving Americans the wrong idea that there are other states equal to to the United States in military power, since it’s doubtful that nearly half the population could come to such a seriously mistaken conclusion without some significant help from alarmist hawks. But hyping and inflating threats from other states can’t be the whole story. The last time that so many Americans misjudged the extent of American military power this badly was in 1999, which followed six years of fairly frequent, uncontested uses of U.S. military power in various parts of the world. By that point, the U.S. was already being criticized by French Foreign Minister Vedrine as a “hyperpower,” so it’s odd that there are any Americans that would be under the impression that other states were military equals with the U.S. By comparison, the belief that the “U.S. is number one” rose throughout the Bush years (the period when hawkish threat inflation was arguably the worst it has ever been since the Cold War) and reached its highest point halfway through Obama’s first term. It then dropped quite quickly over the last few years.

This suggests two possible additional explanations. When the U.S. fights major foreign wars, the well-publicized exercise of U.S. military power–no matter how unnecessary or self-defeating–drives the public perception that the “U.S. is number one” up and drives the other result down. When the U.S. concludes these wars or is perceived to be in the process of bringing them to a conclusion, we seem to see the reverse. A related explanation is that concluding wars, withdrawing forces from other countries, and considering the possibility of reduced military spending provoke hawkish warnings of American “decline.” That leads to a different sort of alarmism about the dangers to the world that could result from this so-called “decline.” Hegemonists don’t seem mind encouraging the public to believe that other states are near parity with the U.S. in military strength so long as it achieves the goal of frightening them into support for all-time post-WWII high levels of military spending, which is why we sometimes hear nonsensical hegemonist warnings about the dangers of Russia or China taking America’s place as hegemon.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "The Fruits of Threat Inflation and Warnings About “Decline”"

#1 Comment By CharleyCarp On March 4, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

Harping about ‘weakness’ during Democratic administrations, maybe?

#2 Comment By James Canning On March 4, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

I think the American people need to comprehend that foolish squandering of huge sums on unnecessary weapons, actually weakens the US.

Conversely, China grows in strength, relatively, because it spends less money on “defence”.

#3 Comment By Victory over Eurasia On March 4, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

Interestingly, even though Americans apparently believe we are not number 1, they also support cuts to defense versus cuts to social programs. What would they say if they all correctly understood the startling dominance of US defense spending??

#4 Comment By Rob in CT On March 4, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

It’s possible (I’ve no idea, really) that this is the result of Iraq, The Sequel and Afghanistan: two wars that dragged on for what feels like forever, without actual victory.

So maybe the average Joe/Joan looks at that and thinks “huh, maybe we’re not so powerful after all.”

Just a thought, probably half-baked.

#5 Comment By Pioneer Days On March 4, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

“it’s odd that there are any Americans that would be under the impression that other states were military equals with the U.S.”

Not really. Ever since it was discovered that the typical citizen has grown so weak and pathetic that he’ll pay real money to anyone with a shaven head and wraparound sunglasses for sham security, we have been barraged with reports, arguments and images calculated to make us feel we are under constant and growing threat. It’s a profitable and apparently legal variation on the traditional organized crime protection racket.

#6 Comment By Mightypeon On March 4, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

Dear Mr. Larison,

this may be the first of your posts I disagree with.

What does “number one in the world military” mean? This is not a precise question!

If you define it as “has the greatest military capacities on the the planet”, and this is a valid definition, then yes it is number one.

If you define it as “can easily defeat any other nation on the plant”, and some may say that is a good definition of military superiority, than the awnser is a clear no.

The USA cannot defeat Russia. In the event of an outright war between the USA and Russia, everyone dies.

It is to an extent possible that the difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans remember more about Russias nuclear arsenal, although the actual graph (a spike in confidence when Russia curbstomped Nato ally Georgia? although I guess nobody in the US actually cared much about that) is not really conclusive.

It could be that the “several leading powers” thing could be in respect to different possible competitors, with the decrease before 1999 due to the possible emergence of the EU as a military power (reversed after Epic EU failures in Yugoslavia), while, at different times, the other leading powers could have been Russia or more recently China.

#7 Comment By scottinnj On March 4, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

I wonder if to some extent this is correlated with the usual polling of ‘right track/wrong track’. If you think the country is on the wrong track, you are less likely to then say “Team American Rules! (fist pump)”.

#8 Comment By tbraton On March 4, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

“Harping about ‘weakness’ during Democratic administrations, maybe?”

Yes, it all started with that famous Republican JFK criticizing theDemocratic Eisenhower Administration about the so-called “missile gap.”

#9 Comment By cka2nd On March 4, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

CharleyCarp says: “Harping about ‘weakness’ during Democratic administrations, maybe?”

To which tbraton replied: “Yes, it all started with that famous Republican JFK criticizing the Democratic Eisenhower Administration about the so-called ‘missile gap.'”

We’ve only got the data here for the last 20 years, so it’s not really fair to reach back more than five decades for a Democratic counter-charge of Republican weakness. Heck, you needn’t have gone so far back, anyway, since hawkish Dems were critical of Nixon, Ford and Kissinger’s detente with the USSR. The fact is, though, that Democrats have been beaten up by Republicans and conservatives over defense spending and military weakness at least since the Carter Administration, and the most obvious and glaring conclusion one can reach from the chart above is that under first Clinton and then Obama a significant number of people became convinced that the U.S. was no longer the top military power in the world. And the obvious reason for this is conservatives and Republicans claimed this was the case, and the mainstream media allowed them to do so without correcting them.

#10 Comment By Charlie On March 4, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

GOP charges that Democrats are weak, and Democratic counter-charges that Republicans are over-aggressive, go back to about the Nixon Administration. Both parties changes a lot over the course of the 1960s, so I don’t think that going back to the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations is necessarily relevant to modern political dynamics.

Just looking at how those lines have moved over the past couple of decades, my best guess is:

1. The baseline is that Americans, in general, severely underestimate how powerful their country is.

2. The change from year to year may have to do with the fact that, when Democrats are in power they talk about cooperating with other powers, and get criticized by Republicans for being too weak; when Republicans are in power they talk about the need to act alone, and get criticized by Democrats for being reckless.

3. This has a lot more to do with how rhetoric influences low-information voters than it does with the reality of American power or the policies of particular administrations.

#11 Comment By sglover On March 4, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

If you define it as “can easily defeat any other nation on the plant”, and some may say that is a good definition of military superiority, than the awnser is a clear no.

A “good” definition should also be a sane definition. Yours is not.

If we’re at all serious about the deterrent value of having a huge military (we aren’t, really; we’re an empire), forces significantly smaller than what we now have would **still** be sufficient to dissuade any state from warring with us. Consider the tremendous economic damage we inflicted in Vietnam and Serbia and Iraq, and then try to imagine any nation that would court that.

Talk of “defeating” an (imagined) enemy, reliving,say, Eisenhower in Germany in ’45, is bizarre. You say that we couldn’t “defeat” Russia, and that’s certainly true. But what kind of lunatic foreign policy would we be indulging in to even get to that point? I mean, if we ever find ourselves in a spot where we are actually contemplating war with Russia (or China), it could only happen after a run of self-inflicted strategic idiocies that would make Bush the Lesser look like a savant. American society would have wrecked itself in the interim, by letting such stupidity run its course. Whatever tension and hostility exist between us and those powers, they’re not so intense that they must result in war — in the absence of major stupidity.

This notion of “easily defeating” anyone and everyone is just as wrong-headed as the MIC fad term, “full spectrum dominance”. It has nothing to do with world as it is, and everything to do with a brain-stem lust for more: More imaginary “security” for uninformed Americans, more dollars for Lockheed Martin and their ilk.

#12 Comment By Noah172 On March 4, 2013 @ 3:55 pm


The graph shows that the gap between “number one” and “one of many” was narrowest during the late 90s, when national self-confidence was relatively high, and widest right after the end of the Cold War and then again 2007-10 — both of these latter two moments times of national malaise (especially the last).

I think it just goes to show that many people are ignorant and confused about foreign and defense affairs.

#13 Comment By Mightypeon On March 4, 2013 @ 5:04 pm


Being able to militarily defeat the next competitor (or the next 2 competitors allied together, as in the case of the Royal Navy) has been a possible definition of “military superiority” for propably longer than the USA existed.

Most historic Empires could, even if they ultimatively and in some cases fatally failed in doing so, plan wars of aggression against their “strongest competitors” with a justfied assumption of propable winning.

The USA cannot do even that, definitly not with Russia, very very likely not with any nuclear power, and while ruining a medium non-nuclear power (propably anything from Venzuela to Germany) would be easy for the USA, but the US would have significant odds of ruining itself too.

This leaves intervening in weak (Iraq) or very weak (Lybia) nations, and those nations may very well be very weak because they arent very productive, and thus not worth a whole lot for a potential conqueror.

Of course the US military in its current shape does not suit US interests (as opposed to US-elite interests) very well, deterence today is so cheap that even North Korea can somewhat afford it, and the options that a powerfull military allows today actually arent very good, or rather, not worth the price tag.

Furthermore, the considerable decentralisation of the armaments industry (with India, China, Brazil and others entering the market, and with Russias share increasing), the emergence of new asymetric warfare doctrines (f.e. Hybrid Warfare, worked great in 2006 and Hezbollah) will make deterence even more effective, attainable and even cheaper in the future. In terms of tangible benefits, even with a very prudent and wise policy of “who to attack”, the US will see increasingly less benefit from its extraordinary military expenditure.

You will get no argument for “We Need to further increase defence spending!!!” from me, but saying “The US is one/the first of several leading powers” is not as incorrect as Mr. Larison makes out to be, since, as with many polls, the question was not very precise.

Lets use a Boxing Analogy: You have 2 boxers, Boxer A and Boxer B.

If Boxer A and Boxer B fight each other, both would end up very messy, and a double KO is the assured outcome.

Statistics wise, Boxer A is first in a lot of metrics, like height, weight, muscle mass, hours of exercise etc., especially in how much he pays for his training, for his training assistants, for the guy that writes his entry music and for his public relations comitee.

Boxer A claims that he can efficiently KO people, especially if they are much much lighter than him. He has attempted a considerable amount of such “below weight class KOs”, which sometimes work but sometimes dont.
When these KOs dont work he complains that the “leightweight boxers” “cheated” by kicking, wresting or chocking him, to which these “leightweight boxers” usually awnser that they have been Mixed Martial artists for their entire life, never fought in a single Boxing competition and in fact wondered what that big guy with Boxing gloves on was doing in an octagon.

Is Boxer A the world number one of boxing?

#14 Comment By FL Transplant On March 4, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

I’ve seen similar polls where US citizens greatly underestimated our economic strength/greatly overestimated others (ie believe that China’s economy is as large/larger than ours, overestimate the material wealth of various European countries, etc). The conclusion I draw is that many to most of us don’t recognize how dominant the US is militarily, economically, and culturally around the world; we think everyone else in the world is at about the same level as we are.

#15 Comment By spite On March 4, 2013 @ 5:27 pm

I assume that this survey is based on the amount that is spent on the military compared to other countries. War with China or Russia will go nuclear, so what is the point of being “number one” exactly ?

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 4, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

I am left with the same fundamental question that others expressed as to ” . . .number one militarily . . .” It would have been interesting to have had the respondents describe how they understood the phrase.

Or to have provided muliple questions with each codifying the prase differently.

But Gallup is geared for objective output, as opposed to contextual depth.

#17 Comment By Archon On March 4, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

As sglover says there really isn’t a rational metric that can be used where the United States wouldn’t be #1 in military power.

Nuclear power is an effective deterrent against American intervention but that’s really a political cost/benefit problem then one of military power.

#18 Comment By AZ Joe On March 4, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

The lesson to be learned from polls like the Gallup poll is whether our children is learning anything meaningful in school. In basic training in 1968 I made the statement that we were fighting locals in South Vietnam called the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars who were in the South that were receiving support and supplies from the Soviet Union and China but that we were not fighting Soviet and Chinese troops in South Vietnam. They thought I was nuts. I would have loved to see a poll asking Americans who we were fighting after years of war in Vietnam.

About 15 years later high school kids across the country were shown a map of Brazil and asked, “what country is this”? One out three said “the United States.”

In our rush to catch up with the rest of the world in math and science our schools have neglected the humanities and social sciences, to our detriment. Too few of us have the tools to understand that we spend as much on our military as the next 13 nations combined and that we should question how we got here and what should we do about it. Math and science won’t teach that.

#19 Comment By Mightypeon On March 6, 2013 @ 5:51 am

@AZ Joe, the other interesting question is how much overlapp is there between “what the US public is believing to be fighting against” and what the “enemies of the US” are actually “fighting for”.

It could also be interesting to see if there is a correllation between military success and ones people actually knowing what the fight is about, both for them and for the enemy.