May 6, 2020 1:32PM

Reflections on “Security Threats in Contemporary World Politics”

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 on international security 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 will be 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.

The first response comes from Brendan Rittenhouse Green, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, and a recently named Cato adjunct scholar.


Many world leaders today could tell you, earnestly and genuinely, that their country faces major security threats. Historically, such threats have been endemic to the international system, and they have tended to consume most of the time, attention, and social resources of national policymakers. Moreover, statesmen from the past and present alike could probably adopt a common definition of what a “security threat” is: the possibility of outside actors using large scale violence to menace a state’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, or the physical safety of a substantial portion of its populace; or the emergence of a state that could obtain enough material power to do these things.

But the modern United States does not have this kind of problem. To be sure, its foreign policy discourse has been suffused with the language of security threats for a hundred years. The regnant American grand strategy, which I term primacy, is justified largely—though not exclusively—on security grounds. Yet no state with enough military power to reach inside the Western Hemisphere is likely to emerge any time soon. In short, there is a major disjunction between the language sometimes used to explain and justify American foreign policy commitments and the actual purpose of its strategy.

This, at any rate, was the premise of my essay Security Threats in Contemporary World Politics.” In it, I made three basic arguments. First, I tried to show that America’s most powerful rival, China, looks nothing like the most plausible past security threats faced by the United States—the Nazi and Soviet empires. Indeed, China would have to jump over a series enormous hurdles before it even came within shouting distance of such dangerous states. Second, I claimed that the political commitments entailed by primacy had only a small prospect of reducing competition in China’s backyard below what it otherwise might be. That is, primacy has a “goldilocks problem”: the highly revisionist states that would propel any East Asian competition are likely to be either absent, or too highly motivated for American power to discourage them from risky behavior. Third, I argued that American political commitments were themselves the most plausible sources of threats to national security. Though unlikely to successfully depress regional competition, primacy’s political connections provide several mechanisms by which America could become involved in a major war.

Looking back on this essay from nearly a decade’s distance, I continue to endorse its major claims. Though I might make a few marginal changes here and there, my views are still roughly the same. But national security discourse, recent history, and my own intellectual temperament have all been altered in important ways. These changes would make for a very different essay, were it written today.

For one thing, the essay’s overwhelming focus on security issues seems less necessary today. Over the past decade, national security discourse has increasingly centered on the defense of the liberal (or rules‐​based) international order as the key object of American foreign policy. I think the idea of the “order” borders on conceptually incoherent. But it does have a key virtue: it has enabled more and more analysts to admit that American grand strategy is concerned with something other than traditional security problems. It has therefore made the trade‐​off at the heart of American grand strategy more obvious: American leaders are risking major war, and thereby making the American people less secure, for the purpose of shaping the international environment in ways they consider favorable. Was I re‐​writing this essay today, I would devote more attention to examining the supposed benefits of the international order. Essays by Daniel Drezner and Eugene Gholz from A Dangerous World? provide excellent examples of this kind of analysis.

Another idea I would emphasize more is the idea of “tail risk.” The world today is living through a global pandemic, which will probably kill hundreds of thousands of people and induce the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. This turn of events was unexpected, even though the potential for a devastating global pandemic has been well‐​known for decades. Nevertheless, most countries were underprepared.

Many rare phenomena pose a similar problem. Society lacks the data that would justify the assumption that certain kinds of apparently rare events are in fact extreme outliers on a bell‐​shaped curve of event frequencies, rather than merely uncommon results of some other kind of frequency distribution.. In fact, it turns out that many rare events—for example, earthquakes, rogue waves, and importantly, war—do not follow a normal distribution. In many cases, the statistical likelihood of such events is far greater than the traditional bell‐​shaped curve would imply—the tail ends of the actual distribution of events are “fat.”

Societies are therefore likely to underestimate the risk associated with rare events. I suspect that the probability that America’s primacy strategy will produce a major war is similarly underestimated. The probability may be relatively low, but the scale of disaster would be very large. Over the long‐​term I worry that the chances of such a war would exceed the tolerance threshold of even the most aggressive strategist. Considering and analyzing this possibility seems like an especially salient task in light of recent events.

Finally, if I wrote the essay today, I would focus more attention on the idea of “second best” strategies. Early in the last decade, I still had something of the zeal of youth about me. I retained hopes that normal politics might produce non‐​trivial change in American grand strategy. After all, the country had been somewhat chastened by its exhausting wars in Southwest Asia. The Tea Party, whatever its faults, was a live political force that had managed to achieve temporary restraint in the defense budget, a feat whose last occurrence had required the collapse of the Soviet Union. Obama was pursuing a second‐​term foreign policy that, if not exactly worth defending, at least challenged the elite consensus on grand strategy in a couple of respects.

Well, there is nothing that the world likes better than nice, tasty hopes. The forces enumerated at the end of Christopher Preble and John Glaser’s lead essay turned out to be significantly stronger than I estimated. American power has proven so extensive that a grand strategy explicitly justified in terms of many varied goals like the liberal order is now plausible to the foreign policy establishment. The material and ideological consensus in favor of primacy among the national security elite has proven so robust that American commitments have been able to resist the election of a president like Donald Trump, who is no one’s idea of an internationalist. The American people turned out to give even less of a damn about foreign policy than I expected.

Today I believe that the probability of normal politics producing a genuinely restrained grand strategy is exceedingly slight. The best hope for a major change is probably a crisis that exposes the unexpected risks and costs of primacy. For this reason alone, the task of making the case for restraint remains vital: policymakers will need to have good ideas lying around if and when the bankruptcy of primacy is revealed.

However, I increasingly believe that more effort should be devoted among partisans of restraint to “second‐​best” policies, in case my pessimistic political assessment proves out. And I am not confident that the standard answer—that the second‐​best policy is “less of whatever primacy is proposing”—is always true.

For instance, if we are not going to abandon American alliances, I am not certain that loosening those ties is worthwhile, as it may encourage bad behavior among allies and adversaries alike. If we are going to retain American political commitments, then I suspect that will require more robust military capabilities than I would like as a matter of first preference. I worry that grand strategies may best be plotted on a U‐​shaped curve, where the tail strategies of primacy and restraint both produce reasonably coherent and stable outcomes, but where the strategies in the middle—“off-shore balancing,” “selective engagement,” and “liberal internationalism”—turn out to be ineffective and destabilizing to world politics.

But working out whether there is anything to these concerns would be the subject of a completely different essay. And the present essay, I believe, retains real value. Its fundamental conclusion is still true: “the United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year—and risks war—largely to stop other people from fighting among themselves. The common story that reducing regional competition abroad makes America more secure at home is close to being backwards.”

My essay is not the most original or brilliant exposition of this basic point — but as bottom line conclusions go, I think one could do a lot worse.

–Brendan Rittenhouse Green

Cincinnati, OH