A Dangerous World: Introduction

May 6, 2020 • Publications

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.”

He is scarcely alone—or unusual. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, born in 1941, has testified that he has never “experienced a time when we’ve been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.”1 Sen. Lindsey Graham, born in 1955, explains, “I’ve never seen the world more dangerous than it is now.”2 From his perch on two congressional committees tasked with keeping Americans safe, Rep. Michael Turner, born in 1960, proclaims, “The security environment is more dangerous and more uncertain than ever before.”3 Sen. Jim Inhofe, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he is unable to recall “a time in my life where the world has been more dangerous and the threats more diverse.”4 His Senate colleague, John McCain, born, like Inhofe, before World War II, agrees, “The world is a more dangerous place than I have seen,” and quietly adds the proviso “in many respects.”5

Such extravagant proclamations occasionally do generate some pushback.6 And a few systematic efforts emerged to examine and to warn against the dangers of threat inflation.7 However, for the most part, the alarmist pronouncements go rather blandly accepted and uncountered. The Defense Department’s Threat Reduction Agency never seems to come out with reports observing that there may not be, actually, all that many threats out there to reduce.

One could say that fear and anxiety are baked into our DNA. Our distant ancestors correctly perceived that a four‐​legged creature charging at them from a distance might be dangerous, and they were impelled by such emotions either to flee or to defend themselves. Thus, they lived to procreate. But getting the threats right is important. Unnecessary and excessive fear can be harmful to health and emotional well‐​being. Indeed, fully 18 percent of Americans already suffer from at least one form of anxiety disorder.8 Individual liberty can be threatened as well. Thus, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison noted what he called “a universal truth”: “The loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad.”9 Or, as noted writer and social critic H. L. Mencken acerbically declared, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”10

The unkind might be inclined to suggest that General Dempsey and the many politicians and administrators who agree with his alarmism are motivated by political or institutional self‐​interest. However, it is highly important to evaluate their proclamations carefully. Do we live in a world that is uniquely or especially dangerous? From wars between states to wars within them, from crime and terrorism to climate change and cyber‐​mischief, we are beset by a seemingly endless array of threats and dangers. But is it possible that there is something to Mencken’s quip? Are many or most of the threats so prominently espied and promoted “imaginary”? This book seeks to carry out that task of evaluation.

The contributors ask to what degree, if any, the United States is actually threatened. Most of them argue that—from the standpoint of American national security— the world is safe and growing safer and that Americans enjoy a measure of security that our ancestors would envy and that many of our contemporaries do envy.

They approach that question from different angles, considering both the multiplicity of supposed threats and the wisdom or folly of the measures proposed to deal with them. They seek to put today’s perceived threats and dangers in full context and consider as well those that no longer loom. Together, they chip away at the common perception that U.S. national security is severely threatened and getting worse.11

The book begins with the two chapters about nuclear weapons. It examines fears that such weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists or other nonstate actors—or that ever more countries will acquire them. In his chapter, Francis Gavin shows that such fears are not new and muses over the paradox that, although the threat of nuclear catastrophe “has decreased enormously,” alarmism about nuclear weapons persists. Some of this alarmism, he suggests, has been impelled by the fact that the United States has been concerned that the proliferation of such weapons might limit its own ambitions. He hopes that a better understanding of the history surrounding the weapons—including the impact that they have had on international relations—might produce better policy and calm public and official fears.

John Mueller agrees. Fears of rampant nuclear proliferation ignore the fact that most countries have never seriously aspired to possess such weapons, as well as that those countries that have taken them on have found them to be more trouble than they are worth. Moreover, the effects of the proliferation that has taken place have been substantially benign: possessors have “used” the weapons simply “to stoke their egos and to deter real or imagined threats.” However, aggressive attempts to stop proliferation have resulted in the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, terrorist and other nonstate actors have exhibited only limited desire to attain a nuclear capacity, and they will confront monumental difficulties if they try to do so.

For many, the single greatest state‐​based threat emanates from China—a country of sufficient size and potential wealth to directly challenge the United States in the future. Lyle Goldstein is sensitive to such concerns, and he considers some of the specifics of China’s military modernization, as well as the potential geopolitical flashpoints that could, in worst‐​case scenarios, lead to war. On balance, Goldstein suggests that U.S. policymakers’ reaction to China’s emergence as a global threat is premature and may prove counterproductive. Rather than seeking excuses to contain China’s rise on the assumption that such a rise will inevitably lead to conflict, Goldstein urges the United States instead to exploit opportunities for collaboration and cooperation. Any “actual threat” from China “is minimal,” he argues. Although there are insecurities and problems, China is neither out to attack the United States nor out to conquer East Asia, and any risks “can be mitigated quite easily” with appropriate hedging policies. Indeed, to the extent that legitimate dangers exist in the world, the two countries have many reasons to work together to reduce or eliminate them.

Three chapters consider nonstate and “substate” threats around the world including terrorism, insurgency, revolution, rebellion, crime, and general disorder.

Paul Pillar observes that these threats pale in comparison to traditional state threats, and he urges readers to reexamine their preconceived notions of what is required to keep the United States both safe and free. He voices dismay at the tendency to espy monsters abroad and then to “conceive of America’s place in the world largely as one of confrontation against them.” Noting a disconnect between how much alarm substate conflicts abroad often generate and how much danger they actually pose to U.S. interests, Pillar examines three varieties: the potential overthrow of a friendly regime, direct threats to the United States by substate groups, and trouble stemming from internal disorder itself. He cautions that the capacity of the United States to curb substate conflict is usually very limited and that intervention can often prove to be counterproductive or otherwise damaging.

Austin Long notes that concerns about a range of substate actors— rebels, terrorists, and bandits—are not new. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States has greatly overestimated the threat they pose and has worked “harder, not smarter” to combat them. Although some new technologies enable substate actors to pose a greater threat than in the past, it is hardly an existential one. Moreover, technology actually affords crucial advantages to states if it is used wisely.

Peter Andreas questions whether crime poses a greater threat today than in the past because of the far‐​reaching effects of globalization. Individuals with nefarious intentions have always been adept at exploiting new technologies, advances in communications, increases in ease of travel, and enhanced access to information, but it is not clear that new technologies allow criminals to do harm on a greater scale than before. Moreover, police and other law enforcement officials, then and now, can use these same technologies to defeat the criminals. Furthermore, criminals have strong incentive to remain separate and disconnected, and accordingly they are unlikely to band together and thereby create a substantial security threat. They scarcely pose a “power shift,” notes Andreas, in which they are “overpowering and bypassing states.”

Four chapters examine nontraditional security threats.

Numerous U.S. officials have warned that cyberattacks, perpetrated by either state or nonstate actors, are the single greatest threat to U.S. national security—even, according to some, to the “world system.” Martin Libicki considers these claims. He finds that, although hackers and criminals are adept at exploiting the vulnerabilities in computer networks, remarkably few attacks have been effective. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to carry out an attack that has far‐​reaching consequences. The most probable attacks, in fact, would be “more like a crime than a national security event,” inflicting relatively low economic costs and few, if any, casualties. Libicki advises policymakers to focus on appropriate responses to possible attacks because poorly conceived, badly executed, and overreactive policies might cause more harm than the precipitating incident. It is also important to track possible cyberattacks to their true source, thus ensuring that punishment or retaliation is visited on the correct perpetrators.

Others worry about the national security risks posed by climate change. Mark Stewart considers those risks in context. Although the potential effects of climate change—including melting polar ice, rising sea levels, and other weather and environmental effects—could have national security implications, these effects will occur gradually, giving the United States ample time to adapt. Stewart assesses the likely costs of such adaptation strategies and concludes that they are modest relative to those imposed by traditional security threats.

In their chapters, Michael Cohen and Stephanie Rugolo agree that threats from abroad to U.S. security are low and declining. However, broadening the approach to “security” used in most of this book, they come to different conclusions about threats to human security in the United States that arise from domestic concerns. Cohen argues that, particularly in comparison with other developed countries, the United States is falling behind in such human security areas as health care, infrastructure, education, and income inequality. Together, he argues, these constitute risks to “its long‐​term national security.” Rugolo disagrees. Drawing on data compiled at the website Human​Progress​.org, she documents the many ways in which the health, environmental, economic, political, food, community, and personal security for Americans is improving. She also argues that, although income inequality has increased, “real incomes have risen across every income group.” She anticipates that positive human security trends will continue, concluding that Americans are secure not only in the traditional sense but increasingly so with respect to human security.

Four chapters consider the claim that the nation’s economy is vulnerable to harm, that the fragility of the international economic order demands a proactive approach, and that U.S. national security strategy should be oriented toward a policy of active intervention to stop possible threats before they materialize, including threats that might undermine the global economy even if they never result in open warfare.

In this vein, Daniel Drezner considers the possible economic benefits of U.S. primacy. Some argue that U.S. security guarantees, both formal and informal, encourage other countries to defer to the U.S. government in trade negotiations or to otherwise extend preferences to U.S. businesses and consumers. Drezner finds some merit in the global public good provided by overwhelming U.S. military power. However, it is not obvious that military power is the primary driver of the benefit. Moreover, building and sustaining that power comes at great cost, and the benefits of military hegemony do not generally offset this expense.

Eugene Gholz explores the economic effects of warfare and of preparing to fight wars. When countries shift resources to the purchase of military goods, the result is not so dissimilar from other consumption binges, and “conflict naturally transfers wealth from the tension‐​filled parts of the world to relatively peaceful, neutral parts.” Although war itself may have many highly undesirable effects, tensions and war overseas do not necessarily harm the American economy.

Joshua Shifrinson and Sameer Lalwani examine the threats posed to the global maritime commons—loosely, the seas on which most global trade is conducted and the air above them. They scrutinize current U.S. strategy designed to deal with challenges in that area, a strategy that hinges on U.S. global hegemony or what others have called primacy, deep engagement, or dominance. They find that any threat is “significantly overstated”—in some cases nearly nonexistent—which strongly suggests that the United States is doing far more than it needs to. Moreover, American strategy encourages other countries to free‐​ride on the security guarantees provided by the U.S. military, and that imposes an unnecessary burden on U.S. taxpayers. They urge the United States to move away from attempts to dominate, or to “command,” the commons, and they suggest instead an offshore balancing strategy that shifts some of the costs of maintaining open access to the sea and air to the many countries that benefit from that access and that would be most harmed by disruptions to it.

Brendan Green agrees that the primacy strategy is flawed at its core because it greatly exaggerates the likelihood that a challenging great power hegemon will emerge. These exaggerated fears prompt the United States to spend massively on defense and to risk war “to stop other people from fighting among themselves.” Put another way, the threats that the United States confronts today are as much caused as solved by the primacy strategy, creating alliances that probably will not “prevent conflict in the situations where it is most likely” and “are unnecessary in most other circumstances.”

The book concludes with two chapters that consider the sources of threat inflation in the United States and what, if anything, can be done to counteract them.

Christopher Fettweis perceives a deep pathological impulse with in the collective American psyche to exaggerate dangers. Many Americans have internalized the belief that the United States is not only an island of tranquility surrounded by a dark and dangerous world beset by continuous violence, but also an exceptional nation that is uniquely suited to bring order out of chaos and is thus indispensable to global security. Fettweis contends that, although “there is precious little evidence to suggest that the United States is responsible for the pacific trends” in the world, the “empirical realities” of those trends may eventually “trump pathological geopolitical fear.”

Benjamin Friedman sees threat inflation as a relatively recent phenomenon that can be explained by the structure of the international system within which the United States is the dominant power and by interests that have aligned to respond to—and profit from—that condition, including defense agencies and interests, politicians, policymakers, the defense industry, nongovernmental organizations, some foreign states, the news media, think tanks, and public intellectuals. In the process, they “serially exaggerate the nation’s vulnerability to national security threats,” and “estimates of danger are more servants of policy preferences than their cause.” Those efforts are not always successful with the public, and current conditions may favor the emergence of political interests “prone to resist threat inflation.” However, for the most part, the result has been an unbroken cycle of threat inflation.

It would probably be too much to hope that this book, by itself, could break that cycle. But the contributors to this volume try, in their own way, to do so. Although the world will never be free from dangers, we should aspire to understand them clearly. And a better understanding of what threatens and of the dangers that do and do not exist in the world might tame our tendency to overreact.

A better assessment of threats and dangers might also affect defense spending considerations. When running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, Newt Gingrich argued, “Defense budgets shouldn’t be a matter of politics. They shouldn’t be a matter of playing games. They should be directly related to the amount of threat we have.”12 This book assesses that threat environment—problems that lurk today and on the horizon. The exercise suggests that the United States—as it works its way out of, or away from, the costly 9/​11‐​induced wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—is substantially free from threats that require a great deal of military preparedness or “balancing” behavior. It also appears to be substantially exaggerating dangers that may still lurk and thus to be overspending to confront real or imagined threats that seem to be of only very limited significance.

A few months after Gingrich’s observation, Greg Jaffe, the Washington Post Pentagon correspondent, mused, “No one is rushing to discuss the implications of a world that has grown safer.”13 This book may help provide a useful first step toward getting that overdue discussion under way.

About the Authors

1 Quoted in Micah Zenko, “Is the World More Dangerous Than Ever?” CNN, April 12, 2012, http://​glob​alpublic​square​.blogs​.cnn​.com/​2​0​1​2​/​0​4​/​1​2​/​i​s​-​t​h​e​-​w​o​r​l​d​-​m​o​re-da….

2 Quoted in Micah Zenko, “Most. Dangerous. World. Ever: The Ridiculous Hyperbole about Government Budget Cuts,” For​eign​Pol​i​cy​.com, February 26, 2013, http://​www​.for​eign​pol​i​cy​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​2​0​1​3​/​0​2​/​2​6​/​m​o​s​t​_​d​a​n​g​e​r​o​u​s​_​w​o​rld_e….

3 James R. Clapper, “Current and Future Worldwide Threats to the National Security of the United States,” Statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 113th Cong., 2nd sess., February 11, 2014.

4 Quoted in Susan Jones, “Sen. Lindsey Graham: ‘There Are More Benghazis Coming,’” CNSNews, February 5, 2013, http://​cnsnews​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​s​e​n​-​l​i​n​d​s​e​y​-​g​r​a​h​a​m​-​t​h​e​r​e​-​a​r​e​-​m​o​r​e​-​bengh….

5 Quoted in Time, March 12, 2013, http://​nation​.time​.com/​2​0​1​3​/​0​3​/​1​2​/​h​e​r​e​-​t​h​e​r​e​-​b​e​-​d​r​a​g​o​n​s​/​#​i​x​z​z​2​h​i​4​oq1Fz. Turner is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, where he chairs the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, and of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where he sits on the Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense, and Foreign Operations.

6 Jim Inhofe, Opening Statement at Senate Armed Services Committee Oversight Hearing for U.S. European Command, U.S. Northern Command, and U.S. Southern Command, 113th Cong., 1st sess., March 19, 2013.

7 Quoted in David T. Cook, “John McCain: Focus on Flight Delays Shows ‘Upside Down’ Sequester Concerns,” Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 2013, http://​www​.csmon​i​tor​.com/​U​S​A​/​P​o​l​i​t​i​c​s​/​2​0​1​3​/​0​4​2​5​/​J​o​h​n​-​M​c​C​a​i​n​-​f​o​c​u​s​-​on-fl….

8 Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen, “Clear and Present Safety: The United States Is More Secure Than Washington Thinks,” Foreign Affairs, March–April 2012, pp. 79–93. See also John J. Mearsheimer, “America Unhinged,” National Interest 129 (January/​February 2014): 9–30.

9 John Mueller, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (New York: Free Press, 2006); A. Trevor Thrall and Jane K. Cramer, eds., American Foreign Policy and the Politics of Fear: Threat Inflation since 9/11 (London and New York: Routledge, 2009); Christopher J. Fettweis, Dangerous Times? The International Politics of Great Power Peace (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2010). For an examination of a similar process of creative threat inflation at the end of the Cold War, see John Mueller, Quiet Cataclysm: Reflections on the Recent Transformation of World Politics (New York: HarperCollins, 1996). For earlier history, see John A. Thompson, “The Exaggeration of American Vulnerability: The Anatomy of a Tradition,” Diplomatic History 16, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 23–43.

10 Ronald C. Kessler, Wai Tat Chiu, Olga Demler, and Ellen E. Walters, “Prevalence, Severity, and Comorbidity of 12‐​Month DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication,” Archives of General Psychiatry 62, no. 6 (June 2005): 617–27.

11 Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, May 13, 1798, quoted in Saul K. Padover, ed., The Complete Madison: His Basic Writings (New York: Harper, 1953), p. 258.

12 H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy (New York: Knopf, 1954), p. 29.

13 The chapters in this book were commissioned before events in Ukraine in the spring of 2014. These events by themselves do not threaten U.S. national security but will bear watching in the future.

1 PBS NewsHour, January 26, 2012.

15 Greg Jaffe, “The World Is Safer. But No One in Washington Can Talk about It,” Washington Post, November 2, 2012.