Editor’s note: In 2014, Cato released A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security an edited volume of papers originally presented at a Cato conference the previous year. In each chapter, experts assessed and put in context the supposed dangers to American security, from nuclear proliferation and a rising China to terrorism and climate change.
As part of our Project on Threat Inflation, Cato is republishing each chapter in an easily readable online format. Even six years after its publication, much of the book remains relevant. Policymakers and influencers continue to tout a dizzying range of threats, and Americans are still afraid. We invited each author to revisit their arguments and offer a few new observations in light of recent events. You can view previous entries here, here, and here and on the Project on Threat Inflation homepage.
This week’s entry comes from Christopher Fettweis, a professor of political science at Tulane University, and the President of the Board of the World Affairs Council of New Orleans.
In “Delusions of Danger,” I made the case that fear in the United States is out‐of‐proportion to the dangers it faces. In the time since I wrote, I have tried to explain why this is so, where that fear comes from and how the nation can be reassured. Then my country elected Donald Trump to be its president, and I was tempted to delete the whole project and join my cousins in the drywall business.
Donald Trump is a manifestation of American fear. He is the nightmarish personification of everything that scares us, from immigrants to crime to job loss, and he stokes those fears on a daily basis. Even the COVID-19 crisis has provided opportunities for him to remind us of dangers, this time those emanating from China, the WHO and (apparently) arms control treaties. Trump’s entire existence is defined by his enemies, who for his supporters become the enemies of the nation. Voices of reason are easily drowned out by the cacophony of madness. Fear will be the defining feature of American politics as long as we are led by Donald Trump.
The COVID-19 crisis had the potential to mitigate American fears. We could have used this opportunity to recognize our common humanity, to realize that we faced the same challenges and work together toward solutions. Empathy toward the plight of others, whether in China or Iran, could have grown. A better, more rational, less fearful world could have emerged from this ongoing tragedy. Unfortunately we are led by a man incapable of thinking in such directions.
Perhaps it is not, however, time for despair and drywall. Surely it is possible for U.S. foreign policy to emerge stronger and wiser after Trump leaves office. It may prove useful for this country to have its fundamental assumptions challenged, in order to examine its most sacrosanct beliefs and evaluate their value. Trump is the equivalent of what political scientists call a systemic shock, and there is no reason to believe that what follows him will be worse. Perhaps the wreckage he leaves behind can be reconstructed in new ways; perhaps the final chapter in the story of this most pathological of administrations will be a positive one, a happy ending in which the assumptions that drive our decisions can be re‐thought. The first few post‐Trump years will be crucial: Do we return to the same fearful delusions that led to war after war (and to Trump), or do we seek to improve U.S. policymaking? Can we learn from our hideous national mistake?
Cato’s Project on Threat Inflation could not have come at a better time. With it and the establishment of the Quincy Institute, momentum is building toward more rational foreign policy, and perhaps a better post‐Trump world. I worry that restraint will be wrongly tainted with the Trump stench – an odor that will not wash off easily – but that is the subject for another essay. Much of what ails American foreign policy in the short term can be cured with one election. Long‐term trends, however, will not change unless acted upon by a force. Such a force may be growing in DC policy circles, but whether it can overcome the power of fear remains to be seen.
-Christopher J. Fettweis