Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Clear and Present Safety: The United States Is More Secure than Washington Thinks

by Micah Zenko
February 23, 2012

The sun sets over the city in a phenomenon known as "Manhattanhenge" in New York in 2009 (Courtesy Reuters/Lucas Jackson). The sun sets over the city in a phenomenon known as "Manhattanhenge" in New York in 2009 (Courtesy Reuters/Lucas Jackson).

Listening to U.S. policymakers, you might believe that today’s world poses a dizzying and multiplying array of new threats to the United States. Last fall, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney offered up his own threat buffet when he stated, “[It is] wishful thinking that the world is becoming a safer place. The opposite is true. Consider simply the jihadists, a near-nuclear Iran, a turbulent Middle East, an unstable Pakistan, a delusional North Korea, an assertive Russia, and an emerging global power called China. No, the world is not becoming safer.” Just last week, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing: “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.”

Such warnings of doom and gloom from Romney and Dempsey, however, exemplify the chronic exaggeration of foreign threats by U.S. policymakers and pundits. Michael A. Cohen, my colleague at the Century Foundation, and I have a piece in the current edition of Foreign Affairs that challenges this widely-held pessimism: “Clear and Present Safety: The United States is More Secure than Washington Thinks.”

In stark contrast to the prevailing rhetoric from Washington, we argue that the world today is one with fewer violent conflicts, increased political freedom, and greater economic opportunity than at virtually any other point in human history. On average, people enjoy longer life expectancy. The United States faces no plausible existential threats and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is indisputably the most powerful in the world, and the U.S. economy remains the largest as well as among the most vibrant and dynamic.

Rather than multitude of threats, the United States faces challenges such as climate change, pandemic diseases, economic instability, and transnational criminal networks that post little risk to most American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and—to a much lesser extent—military tools. To confront these challenges, we write, “American foreign policy needs fewer people who can jump out of airplanes and more who can convene roundtable discussions and lead negotiations.”

Today, the U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department (comprising 2,000 and 30,000 employees, respectively) share a $50 billion foreign affairs budget, while the Pentagon maintains more than 1.6 million employees and a budget upwards of $600 billion. When confronted by the numbers, it doesn’t come as a surprise that policymakers tend to perceive challenges through the distorting lens of the U.S. military, and respond accordingly. As I was quoted yesterday in the New York Times:

“Faced with an intractable security challenge, both politicians and ordinary people ‘want to “do something…And nothing “does something” like military force.’”

Finally, Cohen and I assess the factors that explain the disparity between foreign threats and domestic threat-mongering, including electoral politics (i.e., Democrats must never appear weak), powerful bureaucratic interests, and the national security infrastructure existing outside government: defense contractors, lobbying groups, think tanks, and academic departments.

Admittedly, those who over-inflate threats to the United States have been remarkably successful in promoting their worldview. Currently, we are witnessing increasing calls to launch a preemptive military strike against the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program, which are eerily reminiscent of the months leading up to the war in Iraq. Instead of accepting that America faces a myriad of unrelenting threats, it is time to take a step back and look at the world as it exists, rather than as it is portrayed by policymakers, experts, and pundits.

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