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Balloons, Biden, and American Power
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Balloons, Biden, and American Power

What the spy balloon incident tells us about America as a superpower.

The Chinese spy balloon flies above in Charlotte NC, United States on February 4, 2023. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)

Like something out of a children’s story, a wandering balloon has triggered a crisis of confidence for the United States and for the Biden administration. 

Since the White House waited a week before its February 4 take down of a Chinese spy balloon that had been drifting over the continental United States, there’s been a flurry of shootdowns of similar objects in North American airspace—no less than three since the Chinese balloon was destroyed. But despite White House reassurances that the situation is under control and there’s nothing to see here, the nation’s disquiet isn’t going away. 

This balloon incident has stirred something in the American psyche—I’d even say the American conscience. It’s interesting to speculate why. According to a 2022 Defense Department report, China has 260 satellite systems capable of spying on us, and more than 300 ICBMs capable of delivering a nuclear payload into the United States—that’s double the number from just a year ago.

Still, a single balloon has provoked as much national outrage as China’s spreading COVID around the world, and more outrage than its abuse of the Uyghurs, or even its role in killing 100,000 Americans a year through fentanyl. 

It’s not hard to guess why. The entire balloon escapade has been China’s way of showing its contempt for the United States—not just toward Joe Biden and his hapless administration, but toward America as a superpower. 

The fact is, we’ve not had a robust air defense system over the United States since the Cold War, and the Chinese know it. They have also assumed that an administration that tolerates 2 million illegal border crossings annually isn’t going to respond effectively to a spy balloon during its leisurely voyage from the Aleutian islands across the western United States, pausing to gather data from U.S. nuclear weapons bases, before drifting along to the Atlantic coast. 

Now, after failing to act decisively in the spy balloon case, the White House has been scrambling to restore credibility with serial shootdowns of anything, balloons or otherwise, that drift over our national territory. The American people and Congress, however, aren’t fooled. They sense something wrong with the Biden administration’s approach to this entire problem. 

That something is about where we are today, as a superpower. 

The Germans have a word for it, Machtfrage, or the power question. Herman Kahn, the father of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, described it as “a question whether a nation is in fact a great power or merely has the trappings of one. If the nation does not adequately meet the challenge of a Machtfrage, further testing and a serious loss of prestige and status are likely to ensue.”

The balloon incident has become such a test: Are we ready to act like a great power or not? Are Americans willing to take the necessary steps to reassert their presence as the world’s superpower and to boldly stand up to the China threat to our national interests, and the threat to freedom more generally, or do we prefer a more modest role in the world—one that ultimately surrenders the control of our fate to others?

Although they would never say it, I suspect the Bidens and many Democrats are content with the United States becoming a second or even third-class power. That way they can forget all this competition with China nonsense and get on with building their green socialist utopia—and enriching themselves, Al Gore-style, in the process. In their view, our wide-open borders and deaths from fentanyl are the inevitable collateral damage as we drift along toward the American sunset.

This is not to let Republicans off the hook. They need to rethink their position on the Machtfrage, as well. There are too many in Congress and elsewhere who want to take the same resigned attitude, of withdrawing the U.S. from the world stage and letting others deal with the geopolitical challenges from China, Russia, and Iran. 

The problem is, trying to surrender our status as the world’s leading superpower won’t make us safer. As Kahn concluded, “A nation which fails a Machtfrage test … must be prepared to defend its interests by actual use of military force. The more prestige, status, reputation, and credibility that have been lost, the greater the need to rely on actual force.”In short, resigning ourselves to second-power status makes armed conflict with China more likely, rather than less, whether it’s in the Taiwan Straits, the South China Sea, or even over the skies of Alaska and the Arctic. Americans need to know that, before they allow our leaders to let the baton of global leadership slip into the hands of President Xi Jinping and Beijing, no matter how many balloons we shoot down in the meantime.

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Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is the author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II and The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World