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Breaking: US Not in Mortal Danger

I want to direct you to an article at the normally staid Foreign Affairs magazine by Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko, which they’ve made available without a subscription for the next several weeks. The article provides a nice counterpoint to the normal practice in American politics of screeching about imminent threats to our way of life and mortal dangers lurking around every corner. In fact, Cohen and Zenko write, the US has no real equals in military power, nor do they face any catastrophic threats:

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. A 2009 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 69 percent of members of the Council on Foreign Relations believed that for the United States at that moment, the world was either as dangerous as or more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. Similarly, in 2008, the Center for American Progress surveyed more than 100 foreign policy experts and found that 70 percent of them believed that the world was becoming more dangerous. 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. 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.

You’re usually not allowed to say anything this bold in a magazine of the foreign policy establishment. And yet it’s entirely true, and recent statistics have borne it out. After the Cold War, neoconservatives went on a desperate search for an enemy. It would have been the Chinese if 9-11 hadn’t occurred. And the terrorist threat has been completely overblown for a variety of unrelated purposes, like government graft or waging war on certain illicit drugs.

Cohen and Zenko highlight the key way in which this mythic belief in a permanently beseiged
America serves both parties. Republicans always want to hype threats and paint their rivals as too weak to deal with them. Democrats always want to reverse that label by being as or more belligerent than Republicans. This cycle does nobody any good, least of all the victims around the world of our national security policies. And it foregrounds military solutions to problems over diplomatic ones, a cycle that has gone unbroken and is actually getting worse, because the new American way of war tends toward unaccountable covert operations and drone attacks rather than anything allowing for a full accounting of costs and benefits.

I’m really glad that Cohen and Zenko wrote this, and I suspect I’ll be going back to it over and over again. It really has some excellent data and historical perspective, especially as we move toward the defense trigger and will hear that we risk utter destruction by shrinking our military budget to the point that it’s not quite as large as every other country in the world combined.

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David Dayen

David Dayen