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How the World's Only Superpower Is Vulnerable to Catastrophe

The U.S. is poised to collapse with self-inflicted wounds.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Igor Zh.

 
 
 
 

This article is a joint publication of  Foreign Policy In Focus and TheNation.com

The U.S. security complex is up in arms about cyberhackers and foreign terrorists targeting America’s vulnerable infrastructure. Think tank reports have highlighted the chinks in homeland security represented by unsecured ports, dams and  power plants. We’ve been bombarded by stories about outdated software that is subject to hacking and the vulnerability of our communities to bioterrorism. Reports such as the  Heritage Foundation’s “ Microbes and Mass Casualties: Defending America Against Bioterrorism” describe a United States that could be brought to its knees by its adversaries unless significant investments are made in “hardening” these targets.

But the greatest dangers for the United States do not lurk in terrorist cells in the mountains surrounding Kandahar that are planning on assaults on American targets. Rather, our vulnerabilities are homegrown. The United States plays host to thousands of nuclear weapons, toxic chemical dumps, radioactive waste storage facilities, complex pipelines and refineries, offshore oil rigs and many other potentially dangerous facilities that require constant maintenance and highly trained and motivated experts to keep them running safely.

The United States currently lacks safety protocols and effective inspection regimes for the dangerous materials it has amassed over the last 60 years. We don’t have enough inspectors and regulators to engage in the work of assessing the safety and security of ports, bridges, pipelines, power plants and railways. The rapid decline in the financial, educational and institutional infrastructure of the United States represents the greatest threat to the safety of Americans today.

And it’s getting worse. The current round of cutbacks in federal spending for low-visibility budgets for maintainence and inspection, combined with draconian cuts in public education, makes it even more difficult to find properly trained people and pay them the necessary wages to maintain infrastructure. As  Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution points out, the 2015 budget fresh off the press includes  a chart indicating that non-defense discretionary spending — including critical investments in infrastructure, education and innovation — will continue to drop severely, from 3.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013 to just 2.2 percent in 2024. This decision has been made even though the average rate for the last 40 years has been 3.8 percent and the United States will require massive infrastructure upgrades over the next 50 years.

The recent  cheating scandal involving employees of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is emblematic of the problem. Nuclear officers charged with protecting and maintaining the thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons simply copied the answers for tests about how to employ the complex machinery related to nuclear missiles. The scandal is only the latest in a  long series of accidents, mishaps and miscommunications that have nearly caused nuclear explosions and tremendous loss of life. As Eric Schlosser has detailed in his new bookCommand and Control, we have avoided inflicting a Hiroshima-sized attack on ourselves only through sheer dumb luck.

Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its  Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, which painted a grim picture of America’s infrastructure. The average grade for infrastructure — covering transportation, drinking water, energy, bridges, dams and other critical infrastructure — was a D+. The failure to invest in infrastructure over the last 15 years, the report argues, bodes ill for the future and will guarantee further disasters. As political campaigns against “bureaucrats” render the federal government incapable of recruiting and motivating qualified people, these disasters appear almost unavoidable. The weakest link from the point of view of national security are the military and energy sectors.