Of course, a low‐probability chance of a catastrophic event justifies expensive defensive actions even under cost‐benefit reasoning. But pretending that the catastrophe is certain justifies overly risky and expensive preventive actions. If there is a 1 per cent chance of a $US10,000 problem, you should not want to pay insurance worth more than $US100 to prevent it. If the odds are certain, you’ll pay anything less than $US10,000. That is the kind of reasoning that makes the vast defence budget and the Iraq War seem sensible.
Precautionary reasoning extends to more specific defence policies. Why does the US keep 30,000 troops in South Korea? Originally the troops remained there after the Korean War to protect South Korea against another communist invasion. That may have made sense when South Korea was a relatively poor country, North Korea received strong backing from Beijing, and Washington believed in the domino theory. But today the Cold War is over and South Korea has over 20 times the GDP and 10 times the military spending of its northern counterpart. Would aUS pullout from South Korea increase the danger of North Korean aggression? It might, a bit, although the North Koreans would know that the US could still bring air power to bear quickly. Would an attack endanger Americans? It might harm the economy and it certainly would offend American values. But strategy should not focus only on preventing remote dangers while ignoring the risk of tying down troops that are needed elsewhere and expending considerable resources and money. This does not necessarily mean that Washington should abandon Korea, but that it should consider all the relevant risks.
The continuation of the Iraq War is often justified using similar logic. Advocates of the war imagine the consequences of a US withdrawal as regional Iranian hegemony, a Saudi‐ Iran war, or a terrorist state in Iraq. Those lurid possibilities are generally offered without attempts to judge their probability or how the possible costs of withdrawal stack up against the certain costs of staying — costs that include further inflaming anti‐Americanism, $US2 billion to $US3 billion in military spending each week, an inability to deploy troops elsewhere, lost political capital, recruiting difficulties for the army, and many dead and wounded American servicemen.
Only a precautionary ethos explains why the federal government spends large sums to protect every American state from terrorism. Terrorists could strike Arkansas. Based on history, if they did so, they would probably kill several dozen people in an explosion. That possibility is so remote and the utility of the spending in addressing the risk is so unclear that the right amount of homeland security spending in Arkansas, and most areas of the US, is probably zero.
The dirty secret of American national security politics is that the country is relatively safe. Official rhetoric shrouds an increasingly stable and peaceful world. There is no basis for believing that the world is becoming more uncertain and dangerous. The Cold War was not predictable. Few predicted its end. Few agreed on Soviet intentions, on how much to spend on defence, and on which states were worth defending from communist aggression or insurgency. The giant clash did not come, but the world was not stable. Rogue states prospered. Civil wars raged. States failed.
Today, peace, liberalism, and order are spreading. According to a 2005 University of Maryland study, there is less war now than at any time since the 1950s. War between states is far less common than it was during the Cold War, and seems to be disappearing among the most powerful states. Civil war, the far more common type, has been declining since the early 1990s. A 2006 study from the University of British Columbia reports that the incidence of genocide has declined sharply since the end of the Cold War. Though terrorism is up lately, the number of incidents has not surpassed that of the 1980s. The report also shows that wars have become less deadly on average even as they become less numerous. Meanwhile, GDP rates are rising around the world, even in Africa, aiding the spread of law and order via taxes.
Americans are among the most secure people in history. On average they live 78 years, longer than ever before. The threats that have historically driven states’ military spending — civil war and invasion — are unthinkable in North America. The closest thing to state enemies, North Korea, Iran, and Syria, lack the capability to attack US shores directly. Together they spend about $US10 billion a year on their militaries, less than a sixtieth what the US does. None of those states would have good prospects for territorial expansion even if US non‐intervention were assured. And it is not clear how Americans would be endangered if they did expand.
Our biggest worry, terrorists, kill less Americans than allergic to reactions peanuts in most years. Even in 2001, terrorists killed less than a tenth as many Americans as the flu. The minority of the jihadist movement that is actively trying to kill Americans has shown no sign of a presence in the US itself, as the FBI has grudgingly admitted.
Why do Americans never hear the good news about their security? Why do US leaders conjure up so many possible monsters to destroy, and then overspend to confront them? One explanation is the imbalance of interests and government’s near‐monopoly on information in the national security realm.
In other policy arenas, like environmental politics, there are strong private interests on both sides. Environmental groups preach precaution. Business interests advocate regulatory restraint. The result is a fair political fight that creates debate. As marketplaces of ideas go, that is not bad. In US national security politics, there is debate, but all the interests are one side. Both parties see political reward in preaching danger. The massive US national security establishment relies on a sense of threat to stay in business. On the other side, as former secretary of defence Les Aspin once wrote, there is no other side. No one alarms us about alarmism. Everyone likes lower taxes, but not enough to organise interest groups against defence spending. A scattering of libertarians and anti‐war liberals confront a bipartisan juggernaut. The information about national security threats comes to Americans principally from people driven by organisational or electoral incentives toward threat inflation.
In the US one source of precautionary messages about security is the American two‐party system. There is no dove party. In recent decades, the Republicans have won elections by preaching national security vigilance. Few Democrats respond by making the case for a security policy that accepts more risk in exchange for more savings. That position would encourage them to downplay security dangers, as isolationist Republicans did in the first half the 20th century. Instead, Democrats — particularly in presidential elections — move to the political right to neutralise national security issues. They balance their relatively dovish stance on Iraq by supporting the enormous military budget and demanding more spending on homeland security, aid to failed states, and preventing weapons proliferation. The result is a debate where no party profits by helping Americans perceive their safety.
Information about national security also tends to be precautionary because it is provided by a massive security establishment with an interest in a sense of danger. Scientist William Clark, writing about the history of risk assessment, notes that medieval Europeans did not much fear witches until they created an inquisition to find them. The institutionalisation of the hunt heightened perceptions of the danger hunted. A similar problem haunts modern Americans. The large supply of defence creates a large demand for it.
Not all threats are exaggerated. Those that lack institutions designed to confront the dangers (and plead for government support) can be neglected. Because there was no large interest designated to fight terrorism in the 1990s — no natural bureaucratic champion — the threat was arguably given too little attention. Likewise, one explanation for the anemic American reaction to Nazism before World War II was the absence of a substantial military establishment that would have gained by promoting it. Some will argue that Nazi Germany proves that you can never have too much vigilance. But the solution to no vigilance is not over‐vigilance. And examples of American underreaction are rare. The general American affliction is threat inflation, not threat denial.
In times of great danger, a large set of interests that profit by promoting danger and defence are necessary. Defence is a public good and, as University of Georgia economist Dwight Lee has noted, it will be underprovided unless public entities gain from its provision. But if we conclude that the dangers of defence are greater than the danger they confront, how to right the ship? Can we avoid precautionary security politics? Obviously, Americans should give greater consideration to the costs of defences. But political problems need political solutions. There is no analytic holy grail.
As with other hazards, the best strategy for dealing with true uncertainty is gathering information to assess the magnitude of the danger, as MIT’s Kenneth Oye has written. In national security that means intelligence. Empowering intelligence agencies at the expense of military services might help steer the political energy created by fear into more productive uses.
More generally, what we need are interests that profit by exposing precautionary reasoning in security, the counterparts of the industries that encourage scepticism about the extent of various health and safety hazards. Expanding the American political system to include a party that wins at the polls by attacking militarism might accomplish this, but that is a pipe dream.Amore realistic solution is to provoke more competition among government agencies. Today in the Pentagon, “jointness” is a nearreligious principle. Open competition between military branches is taboo.
But if war‐fighters need unity, civilian managers need rivalries to exploit. Security strategies should cap spending and pit organisational budgets against each other, eliminating the fixed shares between the services and threatening to move less useful funds out of defence into intelligence, diplomacy or foreign aid and even to the non‐defence side of the budget. Made to fight, different federal agencies and departments might publicly wield theories about risk in budgetary battles. For instance, the army might note (or encourage those it funds to note) that terrorists are rarely found at sea, making the navy’s claims to counter‐terrorism spoils less credible. The State Department might argue that terrorism is primarily a political problem, not a military one. The more public these fights, the better. Public fights let the public learn what dangers are more exaggerated.
We could also use fights that cross risk categories. We need more mechanisms that pit a dollar spent on health care against a dollar spent on defending Taiwan. One way to do this is to strengthen the budgetary overseers in places like the Office of Management and Budget. Another way of provoking competition is a budgetary crisis. Big changes in government tend to come from rare events like wars and landslide elections, not sudden epiphanies by policymakers; increased entitlement costs combined with an economic slowdown might force a day of reckoning where the 20 per cent of the federal budget spent on defence becomes an attractive piggy bank. A competition of risks might ensue. A government decision to take on more health care costs could create similar pressure. Of course, these comparisons occur somewhat today. This helps explain why the defence budget does occasionally decrease. More of this competition is needed.
An obvious fix is less secrecy. Reforming the system of classification to make more information public would make it harder for officials to maximise alarm by cherry‐picking information for release. It would also distribute expertise or credible claims to it and empower independent experts.
Debates about national security could also use more truly independent experts. More thinktanks that encourage a contrarian ethos would be helpful, as would more academic security specialists. Tenure’s purpose is to insure intellectual independence. Unfortunately, in the US the academy has largely abandoned the study of national security politics as distinct from international relations.
No formula tells us how to maximise safety. But scepticism — towards both what we are told to fear and the defences we are sold to confront it — is a good start.