America Has Never Been Safer -- So Why Are Politicians and the Media Trying to Terrify Us?

The United States has never been more secure, and Americans have never been safer than at this moment in history. Violent conflicts are at an all-time low around the world, and we still maintain significant military superiority over other major powers. The Al Qaeda network has been rendered largely incapable of mounting major attacks.

So write foreign policy analysts Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. Their argument appears to be a contrarian one, but only because our political and media establishements continue to tell us that we are in constant peril. Cohen and Zenko write that the facts say otherwise:

In 1992, there were 53 armed conflicts raging in 39 countries around the world; in 2010, there were 30 armed conflicts in 25 countries. Of the latter, only four have resulted in at least 1,000 battle-related deaths and can therefore be classified as wars, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program: the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Somalia, two of which were started by the United States.

Today, wars tend to be low-intensity conflicts that, on average, kill about 90 percent fewer people than did violent struggles in the 1950s. Indeed, the first decade of this century witnessed fewer deaths from war than any decade in the last century.

Michael Cohen appeared on the AlterNet Radio Hour to talk about the disconnect between the facts and the perception when it comes to national security. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Joshua Holland: During the recent GOP debate/cavalcade of clowns in Mesa, Arizona, we learned some interesting things. Mitt Romney said, “The world is more dangerous. It is not safer. North Korea is going through transition, the Arab Spring has become the Arab Winter, Syria is in flux, and of course Pakistan with 100 nuclear weapons or more represents a potential threat. Northern Mexico is a real danger area ... you have Hezbollah in Latin America and Mexico....” (I did not know Hezbollah was in Latin America and Mexico, by the way.) Then Newt Gingrich piped in and said, “You live in a world of total warfare. And everyone needs to understand, we live in an age when we have to genuinely worry about nuclear weapons going off in our own cities.” And he said further that, “all of us are at more risk today, men and woman, boys and girls, than at any time in the history of this country.”

I noticed that when they were talking about that, your head was basically exploding.

Michael Cohen: [laughs] I mean it’s almost hard to figure out where to respond with all that. It’s so ludicrous and empirically incorrect that it just doesn’t make any sense at all. For Gingrich to say, for example, that we are in a period of total warfare is completely untrue. We are literally in a moment in history of fewer wars, fewer civil wars, fewer violent wars that harm civilians than at any point in recent memory.

If you look back even to the '90s during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the conflicts in the Congo, in Darfur – even going back a few years it was worse. But going a bit further back still -- go to the Vietnam War, go back to Korea -- these are much more violent periods in history.

This is actually a very peaceful time in human history. And it’s something we should all be happy about and we should all be taking advantage of as opposed to looking for boogeymen to justify this sort of fear-mongering.

JH: You present a lot of the empirical data to support the argument that we are at the most secure point in our history. So we have this really dramatic disconnect between what the factual realities are today and what the political and media establishments are telling us pretty much all the time. Now I want to dig into why. You offer basically three explanations; let’s take them one at a time. You say first there’s politics.

MC: Yeah, I mean this is something that’s been true for a very long time in American history and certainly in the post-WWII era. You can go back to the Truman Doctrine, in which Truman was trying to get aid for Turkey and was told by Sen. Vanderburgh that the key to doing this was to scare the hell out of people. Which he did -- he scared people about the threat of Communism.

And you see repeatedly throughout history that Republicans tend to engage that alarmism about the foreign threat and Democrats respond in kind for fear of being portrayed as weak or feckless. And a lot of that by the way sprang from the McCarthy witch hunt in the '50s and the “who lost China?” debate. And this has been a recurrent theme in American politics.

You even see it now in Obama. I would make the case that in 2009, one of the reasons Obama escalated in Afghanistan, one of the reasons why he talked about it on the campaign trail in 2008, was that he needed to cover himself. He didn’t want to be portrayed as one of these weak McGovern Democrats who never served in the military and doesn’t understand foreign threats.

So the political element is a huge – a huge part of it is that you have one party that sees a real political benefit, that is seen as the better national security party, the party of the military -- in playing up these threats and Democrats who don’t have the guts to stand up and say, “No, this isn’t correct.” So the cycle continues over and over again.

JH: And of course Obama has really embraced this idea and has successfully wiped away this traditional gap on national security with his Republican rivals.

You say the second thing, and I think this is intuitive and self-explanatory, but I’ll quote you, “The specter of looming danger sustains and justifies the massive budgets of the military and the intelligence agencies along with the national security infrastructure that exists outside government, defense contractors, lobbying groups, think tanks, and academic departments.”

I don’t really even need to ask you about that, it’s pretty obvious, but the third one you talk about is the feedback loop. Tell me about that.

MC: Well, it basically creates a self-perpetrating situation in which you have this giant military to deal with these so-called threats that are out there and then if you make any effort to cut that military budget they say you’re weakening us in the face of a threat. But now the problem is, if you look at the actual threats, they don’t really exist.

I want to go back to point number two, because it does deserve a little extra explanation and I say this because on February 15, Martin Dempsey, who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was testifying before Congress and he said that this moment in time, right now, is the most dangerous moment in his lifetime.

Now he was born in 1952, he lived through much of the Cold War. The notion that he would say that -- if he does believe it then I really have to seriously question his role as the highest ranking military officer in the United States. But I think he doesn’t believe it, I think he just said that because it’s sort of the way that you can keep the military budget as high as it is right now.

I don't want to sound like a conspiracy monger, but every bureaucratic institution wants to protect its budget and the military is no different. And if you think of all the organizations outside of the military, the think tanks, the advocacy groups, the defense contractors, all of them benefit from this sort of fear-mongering. So everyone can sort of eat from the trough on this one. But the reality is that in fact most of it is based on mis-held assumptions about the world we live in.

JH: I want to talk to you about a few specific countries we are told we should have abject terror toward, but before I do I just want to offer a fourth thing: there’s quite a bit of psychological literature about the way we perceive of threats in general, not just security threats. Psychologists have long noted that we tend to inflate threats that are out of our control, so we don’t think twice before getting behind the wheel of a car, but we are terrified of air travel even though statistically air travel is extremely safe. And there is also a tendency to hype novel or newsworthy threats, so the shark attack which is basically – well you’re not going to get attacked by a shark. Those things become prominent fears, because the media gets hold of them and they have what is known as an amplifying effect. So I think these things that are true of all threat perception are also true here.

But let’s talk about a couple of countries. Shouldn’t I be terrified of the Chinese? They’re wily -- aren’t they wily?

MC: [laughs] Well they might be wily, I can’t speak to that issue, but they certainly are not a threat. They are an economic rival, there’s no question about that. From a security standpoint however, they’re barely even a rival in the Far East and in fact they lack any real power projection outside the region.

Even inside the region their power projection capabilities are pretty weak. Most of the countries in the region fear Chinese hegemony and have basically bandwagoned with the U.S. to prevent that from happening.

Now the reality about the Chinese situation with the U.S. is that in fact we both sort of benefit from both of us doing well. I think the Chinese realize that a strong U.S. economy is good for China and a strong Chinese economy is generally good for the U.S. So I see more of what is happening in China as an opportunity for the U.S. economy than I see it as a real security threat.

And I will say this by the way, for what it’s worth: this is one where even the fear-mongering has died down on it.

JH: Now Iran. Iran is basically a third-world country, right?

MC: Militarily, certainly, it is not an advanced country. Its military is very antiquated. Again, they do not have great power projection capabilities. Their economy has been badly hamstrung by economic sanctions, politically they are very isolated, but if you listen to a GOP debate you would think that they are the second coming of Adolf Hitler. They’re presented as the big bad bogeymen.

JH: Yeah, It’s amazing. And I think part of it is that here the culture wars are bleeding into foreign policy on the Right. You know the argument about Iran -- one of many arguments, of course -- is that the nuclear threat would be so great because they’re suicidal, basically, so the traditional deterrence --the mutually assured destruction that kind of ushered the United Sates and the Soviet Union through the Cold War – would not work with them.

MC: This is the argument that I always find so amusing, this notion that -- and this was one that was used to justify the war in Iraq, of course -- that deterrence doesn’t work with crazy terrorists. And so the idea is that Iran is run by crazy terrorists who want to get a bomb that they can then deliver against Israelis or the U.S. – it’s a very bizarre cultural notion that somehow these people are operating on a crazy idea of a plan of national suicide which is basically what a lot of people argue about the Iranians.

They’re a country that, like any other country, sees themselves vulnerable regionally and internationally and having a nuclear weapon is generally a defensive tool on their part. And most countries that have had nuclear weapons, in fact all countries with a nuclear weapon, have not acted irrationally with them.

Now, granted, there’s a first for everything and you don’t want to have it with nuclear weapons, but there’s really no reason to believe that Iran is any different from any other country when it comes to how they would use and protect their nuclear weapons.

JH: And I would just note that Ahmadinejad has no control over the Iranian military.

MC: Right, and that’s a great point and one that needs to be made. In fact, he’s the one that makes crazy statements; he has no actual foreign policy power in the government.

JH: I think that’s really important to point out. Have you read Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined?

MC: I have not read the book, though I’m very familiar with his arguments, which have very much informed a lot of what we wrote in this piece.

JH: The piece very much reminded me of his book. And he talks about a number of “civilizing factors” as the reasons that violence has declined -- he basically makes the same argument that you do, except over a much longer period of time. He goes back thousands of years, and one of the things he talks about and that you echo, is the expansion of trade. And this means that when you have relationships with for example China, it’s not a zero sum game.

Another point he talks about is what he calls the second human rights revolution in the middle of the last century. This is the framework of the UN Treaty and you talk about this as well – how there are now dispute-resolution avenues. Tell me a little bit about that.

MC: This is what’s interesting about this. His argument is, and I very much agree with it, is a lot of what civilized the world are normative changes. So the human rights thing is a huge part of it. It is no longer appropriate to kill civilians in warfare, because there are war crimes treaties against it -- it’s a prosecutable offence in international law.

If you look at things like global trade for example, there are resolution mechanisms for arbitrating trade disputes. You don’t need to go to war over them. If you look at all the advances in democracy, in literacy, in health, you have all these normative shifts that have happened over the past 50 or 60 years.

And here’s the thing about this that’s so important, a lot of this is because of the United States. We deserve credit for this, we should take a bow for this. A lot of the stuff we think of as the world we want to live in -- where human rights are respected, where there’s less warfare, where there’s more democracy, where there’s more open economies -- are things that we’ve been pushing for since the end of World War II. So we’ve created the international system that we want, and we should really reflect that reality in our foreign policy as opposed to looking for new enemies and new threats that don’t really exist.

JH: Now one thing that I like to say is that good policy really can’t arise from bad analysis. Tell us how this widespread belief that we live in the most dangerous time in history hurts us in practical terms as far as our domestic and foreign policy.

MC: There’s all kind of ways you can point to, but the best example to me is 9/11. I mean think of the national freak-out over 9/11. Our response to this was first of all a military response, not just in going to war in Afghanistan, but going into war in Iraq. We spent trillions of dollars on preparing for a threat that doesn’t really exist in any way, at least not any more. And even after 9/11, the threat was pretty minimal and even more minimal today. I think what the fear-mongering does, what this hair-trigger response to even the smallest threat, is that it leads to overreaction, which to me is the number-one problem here.

And this is why we wrote this piece, in large measure because there might be a few terrorist attacks, there might be something that will increase tensions with China and the Far East. The reaction to this shouldn’t be, “Let’s go to the barricades and grab our guns.” It should be, “How do we resolve these things in a peaceful way, how do we think of non-military ways to solve these problems?”

But the other thing about this too is that when you think of everything in terms of the military, which we often do, then you sort of miss opportunities to confront problems that don’t really have a military approach to them -- like climate change, things like global development, like democracy promotion -- that in my view will do much more to make the U.S. safer in the long term and more prosperous, will get short shrift in our budget debates versus, “How do we spend $650 billion on the military?” So to me, it’s really that we misplace our priorities in how we think about foreign policy.


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