Hyping Threats Is a Smokescreen That Obscures the Real Threats

In an article for Foreign Affairs titled Clear and Present Safety, Micah Zenko of the Council for Foreign Affairs and Michael Cohen of the Century Foundation argue, per the subhead: “The United States Is More Secure Than Washington Thinks.”

First, from a post at the Century Foundation blog post by Cohen about the subject of his article:

And yet for a variety of reasons this singular reality of global affairs in the 21st century is pretty much not reflected in our foreign policy and national security decision-making. If you want a good explanation as to why this is — I present to you the words of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, who in testifying before Congress earlier this month said this, “I can’t impress upon you that in my personal military judgment, formed over thirty-eight years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.”

To which Cohen wrote in reaction:

Someone who holds such views would barely be qualified to teach undergrad IR no less be the highest ranking officer in the American military.

In Foreign Affairs, Zenko and Cohen wrote:

Within the foreign policy elite, there exists a pervasive belief that the post–Cold War world is a treacherous place, full of great uncertainty and grave risks. … Perhaps more than any other idea, this belief shapes debates on U.S. foreign policy and frames the public’s understanding of international affairs.

There is just one problem. It is simply wrong. The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon.

Just a couple of reservations … like Stephen Zinker with his The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, they might have been better served by making their argument in terms somewhat less sanguine. For example, “a remarkably safe and secure place” might have read “a less dangerous place.” I only mention it out of concerns for credibility with the threat hyping crowd.

More to the point, the authors write: “The United States faces no plausible existential threats.” Though the authors allude to climate change, more attention could have been paid to it. As for its co-holder of the championship belt for existential threats — nuclear weapons — they write:

Overblown fears of a nuclear Iran are part of a more generalized American anxiety about the continued potential of nuclear attacks. Obama’s National Security Strategy claims that “… Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the risk of a nuclear attack has increased.”

If the context is a state-against-state nuclear conflict, the latter assertion is patently false. The demise of the Soviet Union ended the greatest potential for international nuclear conflict. China, with only 72 intercontinental nuclear missiles, is … not a credible nuclear threat. … [The] threat of a nuclear device ending up in the hands of a terrorist group has diminished markedly since the early 1990s. … [And] even in Pakistan, the chances of a terrorist organization procuring a nuclear weapon are infinitesimally small.

To a disarmament advocate, this seems of a piece with how, since the demise of the Cold War, much of the American public has tucked its fear of nuclear war into bed for the duration. But it’s never a good idea to go to sleep on the subject of nuclear risk, no matter how terrifying it is. Not to be a nag, but all it takes is one accident, etc.

In fact, we may have dodged yet another bullet when a fire broke out on the Russian nuclear sub Yekaterinburg , which may have been loaded with nukes at the time. With nuclear weapons, thus far, the angels have been on our side. I guess they figured the c. 160 million who died in wars on earth in the 20th century was enough for a while. But all it takes is one angel to defect to Lucifer …

Still, Zenko and Cohen have performed a valuable service with their article, especially since it appears in the influential Foreign Affairs. Their conclusion is powerful:

Indeed, the most lamentable cost of unceasing threat exaggeration and a focus on military force is that the main global challenges facing the United States today are poorly resourced and given far less attention than “sexier” problems, such as war and terrorism. These include climate change, pandemic diseases, global economic instability, and transnational criminal networks. … If the main challenges in a 99 percent world are transnational in nature and require more development, improved public health, and enhanced law enforcement, then it is crucial that the United States maintain a sharp set of nonmilitary national security tools. American foreign policy needs fewer people who can jump out of airplanes and more who can convene roundtable discussions and lead negotiations.