A Nation (Relatively) Secure

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.