[Originally published in The Boston Globe.]
President Obama and his presumptive challenger Mitt Romney agree on at least one important matter: the world these days is a terrifying place. Romney talks about the “bewildering” array of threats; Obama about the perils of nuclear weapons in the wrong hands. They differ only on the details.
A bipartisan emphasis on threats from outside has always been a hallmark of American foreign-policy thinking, but it has grown more widespread and more heightened in the decade since 9/11. General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, captured the spirit when he spoke in front of Congress recently: “It’s the most dangerous period in my military career, 38 years,” he said. “I wake up every morning waiting for that cyberattack or waiting for that terrorist attack or waiting for that nuclear proliferation.”
The unpredictability and extremism of America’s enemies today, the thinking goes, makes them even more threatening than our old conventional foes. The old enemy was distant armies and rival ideologies; today, it’s a theocracy with missiles, or a lone wolf trying to detonate a suitcase nuke in an American city.
But what if the entire political and foreign policy elite is wrong? What if America is safer than it ever has been before, and by focusing on imagined and exaggerated dangers it is misplacing its priorities?
That’s the bombshell argument put forth by a pair of policy thinkers in the influential journal Foreign Affairs. In an essay entitled “Clear and Present Safety: The United States Is More Secure Than Washington Thinks,” authors Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen argue that that American policy leaders have fallen into a nearly universal error. Across the ideological board, our leaders and experts genuinely believe that the world has gotten increasingly dangerous for America, while all available evidence suggests exactly the opposite: we’re safer than we’ve ever been.
“The United States faces no serious threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon,” Cohen says. “Yet this reality of the 21st century is simply not reflected in US foreign policy debates or national security strategy.”
It might seem that the extra caution couldn’t hurt. But Zenko and Cohen argue that excessive worry about security leads America to focus money and attention on the wrong things, sometimes exacerbating the problems it seeks to prevent. If Americans and their leaders recognized just how safe they are, they would spend less on the military and more on the slow nagging problems that undermine our economy and security in less dramatic ways: creeping threats like refugee flows, climate change, and pandemics. More important, the United States would avoid applying military solutions to non-military problems, which they argue has made containable problems like terrorism worse. In effect, they argue, the United States should keep a pared-down military in reserve for traditional military rivals. The bulk of America’s security efforts could then be spent on remedies like policing and development work — more appropriate responses to the terrorism and global crime syndicates that understandably drive our fears.
Why should Americans feel so secure right now? Zenko and Cohen write that a calm appraisal of global trends belies the danger consensus. There are fewer violent conflicts than at almost any point in history, and a greater number of democracies. None of the states that compete with America come close to matching its economic and military might. Life expectancy is up, and so is prosperity. As vulnerable as the nation felt in the wake of 9/11, American soil is still remarkably insulated from attack.
Nonetheless, more than two-thirds of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations — as good a cross-section of the foreign-policy brain trust as there is — said in a 2009 Pew Survey that the world today was as dangerous, or even more so, than during the Cold War. Other surveys of experts and opinion-makers showed the same thing: the overwhelming majority of experts believe the world is becoming more dangerous. Zenko and Cohen claim, essentially, that the entire foreign policy elite has fallen prey to a long-term error in thinking.
“More people have died in America since 9/11 crushed by furniture than from terrorism,” Zenko says in an interview. “But that’s not an interesting story to tell. People have a cognitive bias toward threats they can perceive.”
The paper’s authors are, in effect, skewering their own peers. Zenko is a Council on Foreign Relations political scientist with a PhD from Brandeis. Cohen (a colleague of mine at The Century Foundation, and a previous contributor to Ideas) worked as a speechwriter in the Clinton administration and has been a mainstay in the thinktank world for a decade.
Zenko and Cohen point out that there are plenty of good-faith reasons that experts tend to overestimate our national risk. A raft of psychological research from the last two decades that shows human nature is biased to exaggerate the threat of rare events like terrorist attacks and underestimate the threat from common ones like heart attacks. And security policy in general is extremely risk-averse: we expect our military and intelligence community to tolerate no failures. A cabinet secretary who pledged to reduce terrorist attacks to just a few per year would not last long in the job: the only acceptable goal is zero.
Electoral politics, of course, is greatest driver of what Zenko and Cohen call “domestic threat-mongering.” In an endless contest for votes, Republicans do well by claiming to be tough in a scary world. Democrats adopt the same rhetoric in order to shield themselves from political attacks. Both sides see an advantage in a politically risk-averse strategy. If a minor threat today turns into a sizeable one tomorrow, better to have sounded the alarm early than to have appeared naïve or feckless.
But Zenko and Cohen make the politically uncomfortable argument that it’s wrong to govern based on the prospect of unlikely but extreme events. Instead of marshalling our resources for the 1 percent risk of a nuclear jihadist, as Vice President Dick Cheney argued we should, we should really set our security policy based on the 99 percent of the time when things go America’s way.
They point to the number of wars between major states and the number of people killed in wars every year, both of which have been steadily declining for decades. They also point to the historical, systematic growth of the global economy and spread of financial and trade links, which have undergirded an unprecedented period of peace among rival great powers and within the West.
Their thinking follows in the footsteps of a small but persistent group of contrarian security scholars, who have noted the post-9/11 spike in America’s already long history of threat exaggeration. Best known among them is Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller, who has argued that American alarmism about terrorism can cause more harm to our well-being and national economy than terrorism itself. In that vein, Zenko and Cohen claim that America’s over-militarization prompts avoidable wars and has in fact created far more problems than it solves, from terrorist blowback to huge drains on the Treasury.
The implications, as they see it, are clear: spend less money on the military; spend more on the boring, international initiatives that actually make America safe and powerful. Zenko’s favorite example is loose nukes, which pose hardly any threat today but were a real cause for concern as the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, leaving poorly secured weapons across an entire hemisphere.
“There was a solution: limit nuclear stockpiles and secure them,” Zenko says. “We took common-sense steps, none of which involved the US military. We send contractors to these facilities in Russia, and they say ‘The fence doesn’t work, the cameras don’t work, the guards are drunk.’ It’s cheap, and it works. This is what keeps us safe.”
Not everyone agrees. Robert Kagan, the most influential proponent of robust American power, argues that America is safe today precisely because it throws its military might around. President Obama said he relied for his most recent state of the union address on Kagan’s newest book, “The World America Made.” Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute, says America benefits even when it appears to overreact. According to this thinking, even if the Pentagon designs the military for improbable threats and deploys at the drop of the hat, it is performing a service keeping the world stable and deterring would-be rivals. Like most establishment defense thinkers, Eaglen believes American dominance could easily and quickly come to an end without this kind of power projection.
“Power abhors a vacuum,” she says. “If we don’t fill it, others will, and we won’t like what that looks like.”
Other critics of Zenko and Cohen’s argument, like defense policy writer Carl Prine, say the comforting data about declining wars and violent deaths is misleading. Today’s circumstances, they argue, don’t preclude something drastic happening next — say, if China, or even a rising power like Brazil, veers into an unpredictably bellicose path and clashes violently with American interests. Simply put, safe today doesn’t mean safe tomorrow.
Even if Zenko and Cohen are right, however, and the big-military crowd is wrong, it is nearly impossible to imagine a spirit of “threat deflation” taking hold in American politics. The already alarmist expert community that shapes US government thinking was further electrified by 9/11. Anyone in either party who argues for a leaner military, or pruning back intelligence infrastructure, risks being portrayed as inviting another attack on the homeland. The result is an unshakeable institutional inertia.
To get a sense of what they’re up against, listen to James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, presenting the “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to Congress, as his office does every year. The latest version, in January this year, reads like a catalogue of nightmares, describing macabre possibilities ranging from Hezbollah sleeper cells attacking inside America to a cyberattack that could turn our own infrastructure into murderous drones. Are these science fiction visions, or simply the wise man’s anticipation of the next war? It’s impossible to know, but one thing is striking: there’s no attempt in the intelligence czar’s report to rank the threats or assess their real likelihood. He simply and clinically presents every possible, terrifying thing that could happen, and signs off. It’s truly frightening reading.
This is what Zenko dismissively deems the “threat smorgasbord.” It makes clear how high the stakes are in planning for war and terrorist attacks, and how much emotional power the issue has. The reasonable thing to do might simply never be politically palatable. The current debate about Iran’s nuclear intentions is a perfect example, says Eaglen, who debated Cohen about his thesis on Capitol Hill in April.
“I can say Iran’s a threat, Michael can say it’s not,” she says. “But if he gets it wrong, we’re in trouble.”
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is an Ideas columnist.