A World on Fire?

A sense of historical perspective and responsible rhetoric may be too much to ask of candidates at this stage in a presidential campaign. With fifteen contenders all looking to score points some hyperbole is to be expected. Even so the level of threat inflation and “world in flames” talk last night was troublesome given how at odds it is with fundamental trends in world affairs.

Here is just a sampling of last week’s overheated discussion of global dangers:

Donald Trump: “The world is blowing up around us. …These are extraordinarily dangerous times that we live in.”

Ben Carson: “We’re talking about global jihadists who want to destroy us. …They are an existential threat to our nation.”

Rick Santorum: “Yes, they (Iran) are radical Islamists, that’s true. But their particular version of it, which is an apocalyptic version, which is a death cult, they believe in bringing about the end of the - end of the world. If you - if you poll Iranians and Iraqis, Shiites in the region, more than two-thirds of them believe that the end of the world is going to come within their lifetime. …They believe in bringing about the end of times. That’s their theological goal and we are in the process of giving them a nuclear weapon to do just that.”

Mike Huckabee: “This is really about the survival of Western civilization.”

With the candidates competing to outdo each other’s apocalyptic visions of the threats facing the U.S., it is no surprise that their policy prescriptions for Russia, Syria, Iran, and ISIL displayed a distinct tendency toward irresponsibility and overkill. Of the candidates in the debate, only Rand Paul and John Kasich articulated more temperate visions of U.S. foreign policy, Paul suggesting that sometimes intervention makes things worse and Kasich that the U.S. should actually wait to see how Iran behaves before simply ripping up the Iran deal and pursuing more aggressive options.

Just a few of the GOP debate’s policy proposals included:

  • Spending billions of dollars to “rebuild” a military that is already by far the most powerful in the world
  • Arming Israel with earth-penetrating ordnance to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities
  • Conducting offensive cyber attacks on China as a form of deterrence
  • Sending 10,000 (or more) U.S. ground troops in to Syria to take on the Islamic State

The reality is that the world, though troubled, is more peaceful than at any other point in modern history. As scholars like Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of our Nature), John Mueller (Retreat from Doomsday), and Joshua Goldstein (Winning the War on War) have powerfully argued, warfare – indeed conflict of all kinds – has been on the decline for decades. The result, concludes the recent Cato volume, A Dangerous World?, is that the United States enjoys unprecedented security despite the presence of the Islamic terrorism and other troubles abroad. Nor is the good news limited to the decline of war. As the Cato project HumanProgress.org documents, the world has made steady progress in the past 100 years on all fronts from life expectancy and poverty reduction to the expansion of political and economic freedoms.

Unfortunately, this kind of good news won’t help Republicans get elected. And thanks to this relentless overselling of global dangers, few Americans understand the world’s peaceful trajectory and too many support shortsighted and counterproductive interventionist strategies.