LONDON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Many states and leaders need threats and dangers, foreign and domestic, to stir public opinion, through fear and worry, to follow their policies and maintain or increase power. The United States was never immune. Immigrants, regardless of origin, often were victims of fear mongering, including Germans, Irish and East Europeans to Japanese and Chinese.
Sen. "Tail Gunner Joe" McCarthy obsessed over "commies" in every branch of government, particularly at the State Department. Donald Trump railed against Mexican "rapists" and "carnage" in America. George W. Bush declared our enemies an "axis of evil."
From 1919 until 1941, America turned inward. But after winning World War II and believing that Joe Stalin and the Soviet Union betrayed the partnership that destroyed Hitler's Nazi Germany, old allies became new enemies. Part of becoming an American enemy meant overly exaggerating the dangers that were posed, often by significant levels.
John Kennedy won the 1960 election in part by running to the right of Richard Nixon, declaring a "huge missile gap" separated America and Russia. As a result, Kennedy began a massive rearmament. Unfortunately, that buildup was proven unnecessary because the alleged missile gap was decisively in our favor. And exaggerating the threat enabled the United States to slide into Vietnam to prevent "godless, monolithic communism" from global expansion.
It turned out the Soviet Union was not 10 feet tall. It was at best 5'8" or 5' 9." And not all its vital organs were fully developed as we discovered when it imploded in 1991.
Today, is the United States repeating this history of threat exaggeration regarding China and Russia? Or, put another way, is the United States missing perhaps greater dangers posed by each that may emerge from weakness not strength? And given that the National Defense Strategy calls for forces sufficient to deter and, if war comes, defeat Russia or China at an annual cost of about $750 billion, would re-examination of assumptions about enemies be wise?
In China, its 1.4 billion people compose the biggest global market and could become the world's largest economy and GDP. China is also building a formidable military while fortifying islets in the various contiguous seas. And with Belt and Road, China is reaching out to gain access and markets far from its shores.
But the coronavirus is a significant event testing the capacity of the Communist Party to govern. Indeed, that test appears to be showing potentially great cracks in its government and the brittleness of a rigid authoritarian political system. Containing the disease, or not, may well determine the party's legitimacy to rule.
Despite that outcome, Beijing must still deal with an under or lower class of upward of half a billion people at or below the poverty line. Every regime from emperor to general secretary has lived in fear of a peasants' or peoples' revolt, something most Western or liberal democracies so far have avoided.
Russia is more than, as John McCain teased, "a gas station with nuclear weapons." Its political system of oligarchs and autocrats likewise is brittle. Whether Vladimir Putin's actions last month to move power to Parliament and a governing council will constitute a stable leadership transition plan or not remains unknowable.
Russia's economy is dependent on oil and gas. It has not learned how to produce other items of value. With a shrinking population and limits on economic growth, Putin may be astride a veritable political tiger with no immediate avenues for dismounting.
That said, an implosion of China or Russia is not out of the question. It has happened before in and to both countries. It is this line of analysis that the United States and its allies should pursue and not rely only on the historical tendency of overly estimating kinetic and political dangers.
Some worry that Presidents Xi Jingping and Putin are proposing an alternative political system to "liberal democracy." This too may be overstated. The United States has been dedicated to advancing democracy, especially to regions where it will not take or work, such as Vietnam and the Middle East. But it is not clear that Beijing, which declares it will not interfere in domestic affairs of others, or Moscow really believes that its versions of autocracy and oligarchy are readily exportable.
One conclusion is important. Many U.S. and Western interests are in conflict or disagreement with China and Russia. China's predatory practices are well known. So, too, are Russian active measures. However, in countering these challenges and dealing with China and Russia, let us not mistakenly assume that either state is 10 feet tall.
Harlan Ullman is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.