The Absurdity of Threat Inflation

The US faces very few serious threats from other states, and the United States is extraordinarily secure from physical attack. To make other states seem remotely threatening to US security, the government and cooperative media outlets have to exaggerate the power of other states and inflate their ability to threaten Americans. Because of the huge mismatch between the demands of propaganda and the less alarming reality, this often creates absurd results. The latest example of this appeared in a report in The Wall Street Journal, which dutifully relayed US intelligence findings that China might soon establish a permanent military base in Equatorial Guinea, a central African nation some six thousand nautical miles away from the US mainland.

The report treats this minor story as if it were extremely important and worrying: "The officials declined to describe details of the secret intelligence findings. But they said the reports raise the prospect that Chinese warships would be able to rearm and refit opposite the East Coast of the U.S. – a threat that is setting off alarm bells at the White House and Pentagon." The reporter who wrote the story then sent out an even more overwrought description on Twitter, referring to a "five-alarm scenario." Central Africa isn’t "opposite" the US East Coast, and one naval base poses no threat to anything in our hemisphere, much less one that warrants comparison to a five-alarm fire. If the report had acknowledged any of that, there wouldn’t have been much of a story. Making objectively false claims about the world is how threat inflation works.

The Journal’s geographical ignorance aside, the idea that a single Chinese base anywhere should worry American officials is laughable, but this is the sort of alarmism and fearmongering that fuel ruinous great power rivalries. The hyping of a Chinese base in Africa that does not yet even exist is obviously ridiculous, but it is also typical of the inflated claims about foreign threats that analysts make every day. When we hear politicians and policymakers make grand pronouncements about how China seeks global domination, we should recognize these claims to be just as unfounded as this one about the supposedly menacing base in Equatorial Guinea.

The alarmism about a possible Chinese base in Africa was reminiscent of the panicked hawkish reaction to reports that two Iranian ships were slowly making their way into the Atlantic Ocean. There was breathless speculation from senators and retired military officers that the Iranians were going to deliver speedboats to Venezuela, as if this would have mattered if it had happened. Politico tracked the ships’ movements as if they were reporting on the arrival of invasion force, and then just as suddenly they forgot all about it. As it turned out, the ships were never bound for Venezuela, and were instead heading to Russia to be part of a commemorative event in St. Petersburg. The possibility that Iranian ships might make a port call in our hemisphere had many of the usual suspects looking for another excuse to start a war.

There is also something inherently absurd about American objections to other states’ power projection. The US has 750 bases scattered around the globe, eleven aircraft carriers, and a network of formal alliances and other client relationships on almost every continent. The US reserves the right to conduct provocative "freedom of navigation operations" close to the coasts of other countries that it would portray as aggressive maneuvers if another state did the same off our coasts. US hegemony has led many American officials and analysts to think of the world’s oceans as if they are American lakes. That was always delusional, and it will be increasingly untenable as other states develop the capabilities to project power to other parts of the world.

China hawks will probably use any hint of Chinese military presence in Africa as a pretext for justifying an increased US military footprint throughout the continent. Relying on the bankrupt idea of "great power competition," they will see and treat African countries as pawns in a contest with Beijing. If China wants a base in a certain country, we can expect hawks to begin agitating for more US bases in the same region. It won’t matter that there is no discernible US security interest at stake in any of these places. Threat inflation is always a prelude to more military spending and the further militarization of our foreign policy.

Most of our government’s worst foreign policy failures over the last 70 years have been the result of overreacting to threats that were deliberately inflated beforehand. Exaggerated fear of Chinese power threatens to have the same distorting effect on our foreign policy in the coming decades that our previous exaggerated fears of monolithic communism and terrorism have had. If it is not checked, that fear will lead the US to chase after phantoms and to align itself with any number of horrid and abusive regimes in the name of "countering" China. Threat inflation about a base in Africa may be ridiculous, but it is part of a larger pathology of US foreign policy that is deadly serious in its consequences.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.