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February 24, 2012 3:41 PM A Nation (Relatively) Secure

By Ed Kilgore

There is a useful buzz this week surrounding an article in, of all places, Foreign Affairs magazine, by Michah Zenko and Michael Cohen, with the provocative title: “Clear and Present Safety.” It argues that despite the regular alarms issued by national security experts and politicians of both parties (most notably the Republican presidential candidates who regularly accuse the Obama administration of potentially catastrophic weakness in the face of powerful and sinister enemies), the U.S. and indeed the whole world are much safer than at any recent juncture. Here’s Zenko and Cohen’s succinct summary of current conditions:

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. 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 even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools.

Why, then, don’t U.S. national security policies, and the political debate surrounding them, reflect this reality? Zenko and Cohen point to a host of factors, from the mental habits of national security stakeholders to a massive and continuing (if psychologically understandable) overreaction to 9/11 (on which, they note, the U.S. has expended an estimated $3 trillion). Beyond dollars, cents and lives, U.S. policy, they believe, is still dominated by Dick Cheney’s so-called “1% doctrine” whereby remote threats to national security absorb vast resources while more immediate problems, foreign and domestic, are ignored:

[T]he 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 — all of which could serve as catalysts to severe and direct challenges to U.S. security interests. But these concerns are less visceral than alleged threats from terrorism and rogue nuclear states. They require long-term planning and occasionally painful solutions, and they are not constantly hyped by well-financed interest groups. As a result, they are given short shrift in national security discourse and policymaking.

This is a prescription for a paradigm change that is not likely to get immediate traction in a political world where Democrats are forever trying to prove they are tough enough to be entrusted with the nuclear codes, and Republicans are openly frothing for war with Iran and a confrontational stance towards many other countries (and entire religions, for that matter).

But the growing debate over this article is not a bad place to begin an effort to bring American foreign and national security policy out of its strangely anachronistic paranoid crouch and into the world we actually inhabit. It’s far from being a world without many dangers and threats, but it is one where we can actually undermine our security by underestimating it.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Danp on February 24, 2012 3:59 PM:

    Ed, Zenko and Cohen's succinct summary would have seemed even more succinct if you hadn't hit the paste button twice.

  • T2 on February 24, 2012 3:59 PM:

    I'm not sure I noticed a reference to the Military Industrial Complex in the above article/posting. If you want to know why the Republicans and some Dems want to keep us in perpetual fear and/or conflict....that's it. Put simply: m o n e y

  • Mistamatic on February 24, 2012 4:04 PM:

    This piece inadvertently repeats this quoted section twice:

    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. 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 even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools.

  • Mitch on February 24, 2012 4:40 PM:

    "Why, then, don’t U.S. national security policies, and the political debate surrounding them, reflect this reality?"

    A.) The military-industrial complex is NEVER going to attempt to stop it's growth. Ike warned us of that long before my birth. His words are as true as ever.

    B.) As a nation (maybe THE nation) that has never really been invaded, we are kind of spoiled. So we overreacted to 9/11 and the threat posed by terrorism; we felt far too much fear considering the imbalance of forces between us and Al-Qaida. Long gone are the days when "all we have to fear is fear itself."

    C.) Talking heads, whether media or political, constantly tell us that we are endangered. Every threat, no matter how mild or easily thwarted, is First Page News. We are continually told that the world is worse than ever (particularly by Conservatives with their imaginary "Golden Age of the Past" baloney).

    D.) Our "action-movie" mentality. As a culture, we seem to believe that all evil can be defeated with fists and bullets. All of our entertainment reflects this, as does the speech of our elected officials.

    E.) Our rigid and somewhat barbaric habit of always aiming for maximum punishment of even suspected enemies, be they criminals, terrorists, or other nations. These days "innocent until proven guilty" is passe. Our media (and the people who consume it) has no qualms about declaring anyone to be guilty of anything.

    F.) Our inability to feel that any other nation or peoples are as important as we are, or have the right to make choices our nation may not agree with. We can have thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons, for example, but we tremble in fear and rage that North Korea or Iran may have even just one.

    That about sums it up.

  • T2 on February 24, 2012 4:45 PM:

    "we tremble in fear and rage that North Korea or Iran may have even just one."
    Probably because they just might use their nuke. They have crazy people running their governments...we have Santorum, Gingrich, etc.

  • emjayay on February 24, 2012 4:51 PM:

    Mitch, good points. But the mention of "particularly Conservatives" in one point is not enough. These are arguements used mostly by conservatives and almost never by liberals. Any discussion of foreign affairs or defense budget in the current Republican campaign has been simply fear mongering.

    As Al Franken once wrote about Bush's campaign, it was all queers, fears, and smears. Here we go again.

  • Mitch on February 24, 2012 5:03 PM:

    "Probably because they just might use their nuke."

    I just don't see it. Both of those nations strike me as too sane to use them. They simply want them so they can seem like Big Boys, and also as assurance that they don't become the next Iraq. Iran of course wants them simply because Israel has them. If Iran used one on Israel, then it would be the end of Iran; and no other nation would help them if they nuked Jerusalem. They are not stupid.

    I actually have some doubts over North Korea even having them. Both of their "tests" were such weak explosions that they could have been faked. If they are real, then their bombs are not much larger than some of our conventional explosives.

    As much as I hate the Cold War mentality, it probably was the only reason we never had a war with the USSR. Nations like North Korea and Iran seem to want the same defense against invasion.

    Now, I am very concerned about nuclear proliferation, but my fear is really only over non-state actors like Al-Qaida getting their hands on them. Iran would never give them one; though terrorists might very well try to acquire them from Pakistan (sympathetic soldiers) or Russia (the black market). It would be much harder to find friendly insiders in Iran due to cultural and religious differences between the Persians and the rest of the Muslim World, though it is possible.

    Oddly enough I am not worried about Gingrich, but the idea of Santorum being in charge of the nuclear football scares me to death. American Christians are way too in love with the apocalypse.

  • Mitch on February 24, 2012 5:10 PM:

    @emjayay

    You are correct. I guess that sometimes I don't feel like saying "especially conservatives" when having these discussions.

    It gets redundant fast, lol.

    Let's face it, it's almost always the GOP (and Fox-style journalists) who uses fear to their advantage and worships the military with an unhealthy devotion. When Dems do it, it's almost always to avoid being called names by the right.

  • skeptonomist on February 25, 2012 10:45 AM:

    The situation is not like that before the two world wars of the 20th century, when major blocs of armed nations faced each other, rather like that during much of the Roman or British empires. Conflict was not absent in those cases, it was a matter of standing professional armies putting down brushfire conflicts in various places and spreading the empire when possible. Jingoism in the home country was not absent, nor were atrocities; for example in the Boer war when thousands of civilians died in concentration camps (the first use of the term in English). Or consider the Spanish-American war and ensuing imperial conflict in the Phillipines. Absence of the threat of world war does not put down jingoism.

  • 4jkb4ia on February 26, 2012 10:21 AM:

    I am glad to see that in Foreign Affairs after Marcy Wheeler has only been writing it for years.