New Dangers amid the Ruins: Americans Worry about China's Strength When They Should Worry about Russia's Weakness

By Zakaria, Fareed | Newsweek, March 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

New Dangers amid the Ruins: Americans Worry about China's Strength When They Should Worry about Russia's Weakness


Zakaria, Fareed, Newsweek


The last time we had a spy scandal--in April 1999--Washington's governing class worked itself into a froth. The administration spoke gravely about the damage and threw dozens of prosecutors on the job. Congress announced investigations. The press ran front-page stories for weeks. Sen. Arlen Specter summed up the conventional wisdom when he declared it to be "the grandest case of grand larceny in the history of the world on the espionage and the theft of vital American secrets." That was Wen and this is now.

The arrest of Wen Ho Lee, the American scientist accused of selling nuclear secrets to China, caused a national-security fright. (Lee was released last year after pleading guilty to one count of improperly handling classified information). And while there is interest in Robert Hanssen, the FBI's Russian agent, his story is mostly being reported as a human drama of greed and betrayal. What explains the difference in reaction to the two dramas?

Perhaps Lee had access to more lethal stuff. But Hanssen worked for the Soviets and then the Russians for more than 15 years. He came across extremely sensitive material about American counterintelligence. He may have given the Russians far more pertinent and useful information than Lee was accused of leaking to China.

Perhaps it was because Lee is an Asian-American and Hanssen is white. But while his ethnicity certainly didn't help Lee, I don't think racism was behind the rage directed at him. Far more important was the country he was supposedly spying for. Russia is the problem from the past; China the fear of the future.

Tales of spying for Russia have an almost nostalgic air to them, bringing back memories of the cold war and John Le Carre. We know how that story ended. Having watched the Soviet Union's ignominious collapse and Russia's struggle to make it in the new world, it's hard to get scared by Moscow. Been there, done that.

China is another matter. It remains a closed, mysterious political system run by a powerful elite. Revealing little about itself, it allows us to conjure up images of an adversary who is 10 feet tall.

But the reality is that China has a nuclear arsenal of 450 missiles, all tightly controlled. Russia, on the other hand, has an arsenal of 30,000 nukes and enough material for another 70,000--all of it rusting and ready for sale, accidental launch or implosion. It should worry us a whole lot more.

Behind the exaggerated fears about China lies an error that persists in our world view. We assume that the next threat America will face--like the last one--will come from a rising great power with ambitions to spread its global influence. Our next crisis, in this reading, will be a cold-war-style confrontation, except with China playing the role of the Soviet Union.

But the world has changed. …

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