A Dangerous World?

Threat Perception and U.S. National Security

green target pattern
  • Introduction
  • Security Threats in Contemporary World Politics
  • The American Perception of Substate Threats
  • Dealing with Cyberattacks
  • Delusions of Danger
  • Climate Change and National Security
  • Alarums and Excursions
  • Nuclear Alarmism: Proliferation and Terrorism
  • Human Security in the United States
  • China’s Putative Threat to U.S. National Security
  • How Dangerous? History and Nuclear Alarmism
  • Related Content


In February 2012, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained, “I can’t impress upon you that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” He was born in 1952. In 2013, he upped the ante: “I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been.”

Security Threats in Contemporary World Politics: Potential Hegemons, Partnerships, and Primacy

by Brendan Rittenhouse Green

For much of its history, the United States has not faced serious security threats from nation‐​states. Its expansive ocean moats and weak neighbors simplified its security problem even before it became a great power; geographic distance and European distraction often protected what power alone could not. After the end of the Civil War, America added to those assets political unity and economic might. With few exceptions, the United States has been free from the worst sorts of external dangers. It took a freak accident of world historical scale—the military collapse of French armies in May 1940—to create a serious geopolitical threat to the United States. The efforts to meet Hitler’s threat set the stage for Stalin’s, because five years of war destroyed the industrial world and put the Red Army in the heart of Europe. In short, for a few decades following 1940, the United States arguably did face a legitimate external threat: the possibility that the resources of the industrial world could be politically united and turned against the Western Hemisphere. Those conditions have long since disappeared; yet their intellectual influence lives on in contemporary American grand strategy.

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The American Perception of Substate Threats

by Paul R. Pillar

If both the United States and the scholars and policy analysts within it have been turning more of their attention lately to substate threats, it is not because of an increase in the threats themselves. It is because of other influences on American sensibilities about challenges the United States faces outside its borders. The notion of substate threats constituting a new challenge is rooted in a broader proclivity of Americans—denizens of a new world of their own making—to focus on what is new and to be quicker than other people to perceive newness.1 The idea that substate disorder overseas threatens U.S. interests is rooted in the tendency of Americans—at least for the past century, and notwithstanding the earlier contrary assertion by John Quincy Adams—to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Or at least, if not actually going abroad to destroy monsters, the tendency is to perceive monsters worthy of destruction and to conceive of America’s place in the world largely as one of confrontation against them.

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Dealing with Cyberattacks

by Martin C. Libicki

Among the many types of threats that Americans worry about today, cyberattacks rank near the top. In March 2013, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, named cyberattacks — with the potential for states or nonstate actors to manipulate U.S. computer systems and thereby corrupt, disrupt, or destroy critical infrastructure — as the greatest short‐​term threat to U.S. national security. Earlier in the year, the head of Homeland Security announced that she believes a “cyber 9/11” could happen “imminently.“ The year before, Robert Mueller, then director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, mused that the cyberthreat might replace the terrorist threat as the nation’s top security priority. A year before that, Admiral Michael Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted as saying, “I really believe cyber is one of two existential threats that are out there, the other being nuclear weapons.“ The fear was extant outside the Beltway as well; a survey of security professionals (admittedly, a self‐​interested source) found that “79 percent believe that there will be [in 2013] some sort of large‐​scale attack on the information technology powering some element of the United States’s infrastructure — and utilities and financial institutions were the most likely targets.“

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Delusions of Danger: Geopolitical Fear and Indispensability in U.S. Foreign Policy

by Christopher Fettweis

One might think that American society would welcome the news that this is, by all reasonable historical standards, a golden age of peace and security. The great powers seem to have given up fighting one another, the lesser powers rarely go to war either, and levels of internal conflict (civil wars, ethnic conflicts, coups, and major violations of human rights) are at all‐​time lows. Terrorism may be the largest security challenge faced by the industrialized world, but it is not on the increase, and it poses less danger for the average American than does a bath. The pace of nuclear proliferation has slowed to a crawl, if not yet a complete stop. Perhaps most of all, states — no matter how mismanaged, corrupt, or weak — never disappear, because conquest appears to be dead. Despite what they may hear from their leaders, and no matter what the various underinformed pundits say, the actual empirical evidence suggests that the American people are safe, at least when compared with any who have come before.

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Climate Change and National Security: Balancing the Costs and Benefits

by Mark G. Stewart

If climate projections are correct, a changing climate has the potential to cause sea levels to rise, floods, more intense storms and hurricanes, droughts, and other climate extremes. Such climate change would affect every nation, and populations in developing countries would be hit hardest. In the worst case, it would lead to energy and food scarcity, increase the spread of disease, cause mass migration of “climate refugees,” and weaken fragile governments.

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Alarums and Excursions: Explaining Threat Inflation in U.S. Foreign Policy

In Elizabethan theater, “alarums and excursions” was a stage direction calling for actors to rush about the stage in a chaotic clamor suggestive of battle.1 In American politics, threat inflation has a similarly theatrical role: it tries to confuse and excite an audience to win its support for some policy, often military excursions of some sort. This chapter explains why U.S. defense politics is especially prone to such behavior—why, that is, U.S. leaders serially exaggerate the nation’s vulnerability to national security threats.

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Nuclear Alarmism: Proliferation and Terrorism

by John Mueller

Alarmism about nuclear weapons is common coin in the foreign policy establishment. During the course of the Cold War, for example, the chief concern was that the weapons would somehow go off, by accident or by intention, devastating the planet in the process.

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Human Security in the United States

by John Mueller

A growing literature defines security in relation to the individual. Instead of focusing on a state’s external threats, scholars of “human security” focus on a broader set of threats. This approach includes threats — such as poverty and pollution — to individuals within states. Scholars of human security began to take that approach at the end of the Cold War as state‐​to‐​state warfare seemed less relevant. Those scholars do not dismiss the importance of a state’s ability to defend itself. Rather, they tend to argue that without human security, there can be little traditional state security and vice versa, and some conclude that threats to U.S. human security are increasing. This chapter concludes otherwise: the United States is secure in both the traditional sense and with respect to human security.

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China’s Putative Threat to U.S. National Security

by Lyle Goldstein

Of late, U.S.-China relations seem to be on a more secure footing. After the Sunnylands summit in May 2013, some modest steps have occurred to indicate an improving climate for security cooperation among the superpowers: a joint anti‐​piracy exercise was held in the Gulf of Aden, several Chinese ships came to Hawaii to participate in another exercise, and China’s navy chief has made an official visit to the United States. But don’t believe the hype.

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How Dangerous? History and Nuclear Alarmism

by Francis Gavin

Nuclear weapons have been used twice, both times by the United States within the same week nearly 70 years ago. Since August 1945, even more destructive weapons—thermonuclear bombs and warheads— have been developed, and all manner of new delivery systems have been devised. Eight additional states have built the bomb, and many others have the capacity to do so. All the while, the world has witnessed innumerable geopolitical crises, international turmoil, and even war involving nuclear‐​armed states.

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