Relax, America! Not everything is as dire as you think

March 9, 2012

The world is becoming ever more dangerous. Threats to the United States are multiple and complex. Just think of terrorists, rogue states, dangers arising from Middle East revolutions, cyber attacks, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the rising power of China. The list goes on.

It makes for a world “more unpredictable, more volatile and more dangerous,” as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has put it. According to polls, most of America’s foreign policy elite thinks the world is as dangerous, or more dangerous than it was during the Cold War.

This belief, write the foreign policy analysts Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen, shapes debates on U.S. foreign policy and frames the public’s understanding of international affairs.

“There is just one problem,” they write in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “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 than at virtually any other point in history.”

They add: “The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful.” And though there are a variety of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens, say the two scholars.

Take terrorism: Of the 13,816 people killed by terrorist attacks in 2010, only 15 (or 0.1 percent were U.S. citizens, according to the two scholars. Between 2006 and 2010, terrorist attacks world-wide declined by almost 20 percent and the number of deaths by 35 percent.

Zenko and Cohen argue that there is a disparity between foreign threats and domestic threat-mongering that America’s political and policy elites are unwilling to recognize and even more unwilling to integrate into national security decision-making.

Why? Hyping threats serves the interests of both political parties, and more so in an election year. Republicans turn up the volume of warnings to better attack Democrats’ alleged weakness in dealing with threats. Democrats exaggerate threats as a protection against Republican attacks.

The chronic exaggeration of threats, argue Zenko and Cohen, also serves as a justification for huge budgets for the military and America’s intelligence agencies.

Result: the militarization of foreign policy, a skewed allocation of funds and not enough emphasis on non-military national security tools.

Challenging what has become conventional wisdom, the two write that “American foreign policy needs fewer people who can jump out of airplanes and more who can convene round-table discussions and lead negotiations.”

Yet, the budgets of the two principal agencies of “soft,” rather than military power, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State, pale in comparison with the Pentagon. Its enormous budget “not only wastes previous resources; it also warps national security thinking and policy-making.”


Will the two scholars’ thought-provoking arguments prompt policy-makers to rethink? Probably not, but the fact that their piece appears in the house organ of America’s foreign policy establishment will spark debate – and no doubt criticism from defenders of the so-called 1.0-percent doctrine, the notion that no effort must be spared to counter a threat even if there is only a 1.0-percent chance that it will materialise.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem, given a daily diet of news on bloodshed from places around the world, Zenko and Cohen are not alone in insisting that the world has become a safer place.

Last year, Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, published an influential book, “The Better Angels of our Nature,” that traces the decline of violence over the centuries.

“Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not – violence has declined over long stretches of time,” Pinker writes. “And today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” That decline is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, he says.

Pinker admits that his assertion may strike some as “between hallucinatory and obscene”, given that the new century began with more than 3,000 people killed in the attacks on New York and Washington and that wars inIraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur killed thousands more.

But relatively speaking, the beginning of the 21st century and all of the 20th (despite two world wars and the holocaust) featured less bloodletting than earlier eras. In the 17th century, for example, the Thirty Years’ War reduced the population of Germany by a third.

Do such numeral comparisons change perceptions? Not according to Pinker. “Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times,” he writes in the preface to his book, “especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword ‘if it bleeds, it leads.'”


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Well, you left one thing out – Americans have become wusses. There are many sources for that change in the American psyche but change it has. Unfortunately, at the rate of speed we’re going, we are likely to precipitate what we fear.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

One of the problems with having a huge powerful military is that it sorely tempts politicians to use it, whatever the pretext. And virtually all heads of government now have no hands-on experience with warfare. Their job is to send other people out to die. I wonder how many of the current contenders for President would beat the war drums if they were going to have to lead the charge.

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive

Thru the cold war, only a few people controlled the “WMD’s” of the world. Now, far more people do. Some of them are not the statesmen of the past, but so called radicals, fruits of the cold war. Every year, more and more people have the power to cause mass destruction and misery, physically and economically. So I say yes, the world is more dangerous place today than it was at the height of the cold war, or any time in history.
For thousands of years man has predicted the end of days. We now have the power to fulfill that prophecy.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

oh, and BTW, as an American, how many countries do you feel safe traveling to now vs. say, 1999?

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

The Pentagon budget is not about military security, it is about employment. It is also about education. The DOD now runs everything from remedial high schools for recruits to fix the failures in the public system, to advanced medical schools to address the fact that since 1970 the civilian schools have actually been reducing the number of MD’s they graduate at the same time the U.S. has added +100 million to its population.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

So basically the report is saying since the surge that terrorism has fallen off dramatically… which said another way is that when terrorists learned and witnessed that America wasn’t gonna play it soft anymore they tucked tail and ran. Same goes for piracy – that’s way down since SEALs have started capping thine enemy. I’m no hawk, but when it comes to terrorism there has to be a certain level of bloodshed to squelch the enemy – and make no mistake America did have its share of enemies who now have been completely marginalized or destroyed entirely. All this to say that fearmongering against Iran that is essentially refuted outright by intel is ridiculous, but hyping the potential threat from al Qaeda and their occupation of sovereign nations (most notably Afghan, but quite nearly Pakistan as well, and they were looking to Iraq before the invasion) was justified and the results speak for themselves. There are so few regimes left that don’t accept the new paradigm of universal human rights and a global culture that only a short time and pressure will cause them to yield… the acts of al Qaeda and other rogue actors like them are the swan song of soon-to-be-gone era of nation-states.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Obama is more than “just” a president. He is quietly ushering in a new America. An America with hope rather than hatred. An America with the rhetoric turned down. An America that begins to pull itself up by its bootstraps after republicans almost destroyed it.

Posted by urownexperience | Report as abusive


The One-Percenters are not doctrine but economic fact. I know this is a tangent on the above article, but it does nonetheless bear on what is “dire” in America.

For an understanding of where the “One Percenters” came from, just scroll down to the info-graphics on this insightful piece of economic research on Wealth in America here: er/wealth.html

It is more impressive, I suggest, to consider the 20-Percenters. Why?

Because 20% of American households possess 93% of the nations wealth (a bit less in Net Worth, which excludes Debt from Wealth). Whilst the remainder of us poor slobs, the 80-Percenters obtain the crumbs off the table … just 7% of the nation’s Wealth.

Yes, of course, 1% versus 99% sounds more dramatic in our media of superlatives. If you will read these same tables, you’ll find that 1-Percenters obtain “only” 43% of the nation’s Wealth.

Frankly, if the 20-Percenters are out Plutocrat Class, which most perhaps do not think of themselves as Plutocrats, then there is something very wrong in our nation.

In fact, Reagan brought high-end Marginal Income taxation down from the 70% level and today it is at a measly 20/25% according to the IRS (after deductions). Another fact, since the mid-1930s it has been even higher than 70% – up to the 1960s. (See this historical info-graphic of tax rates here: alIncomeTax.svg )

So, BD, if there we consider what is really dire in America, it may indeed not be what you say it is not. But it certainly IS Income Disparity.

Posted by deLafayette | Report as abusive

Generally a strange thought heralding complacency. The weakness of the US military is evident in its total inability to create a win in either of its last two “adventures”; its economic power has been blunted and beaten down to the point of survival based on its “debtor power” of owing so much to China that the debt has the potential to imperil China’s development. Its internal manufacturing economy has been ravished, its citizens face a declining future economically and there is an accompanying and predictable decline in morality. Truly it seems far more like the fading days of the Roman Empire before the arrival of the Barbarians……

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