Humans are enjoying longer, healthier, and better lives. Nearly 100 million people died in major wars in the first half of the 20th century, but the leading states have managed to avoid direct military conflicts since 1945. In fact, interstate war, the norm throughout much of history, has almost ceased to exist. Conquest, too, has largely become a thing of the past. Many were shocked by Russia’s brazen annexation of Crimea in 2014, but we should recall that from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, there was roughly one conquest every 10 months. The average amount of territory conquered in this period equaled about 11 Crimeas per year. Today, conquest is extremely rare: according to Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, since World War II, the chance that a given state would suffer a conquest fell from once in a lifetime to once or twice a millennium. Even the great scourge of terrorism is not unusually threatening today: in the West, it was much more common, and on average much more deadly, in the 1970s and ’80s. And while ethnic violence and civil wars continue around the world, Harvard’s Steven Pinker explains that “we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”
And yet, you would never know it judging from the statements of U.S. government officials. Apparently, that is exactly the way they want it. In February 2017, newly installed White House press secretary Sean Spicer explained, “What we need to do is to remind people that the Earth is a very dangerous place these days.” Other Trump administration officials complied with Spicer’s instructions. In April of that year, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly described the terrorist threat in sensational, ominously existential terms: “We are under attack from terrorists both within and outside of our borders.… They have a single mission, and that is our destruction. And I tell you, without exaggeration, they try to carry out this mission each and every single day, and no one can tell you how to stop it. No one.”
Despite such warnings—and the Trump administration’s policies—nothing appears to have changed over the next two years. Indeed, judging from Trump’s own appointees, the problem seems only to be getting worse. In March 2019, for example, acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan warned, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that “the world continues to get more dangerous.”
And, of course, they worry about China. It seems as though nearly everyone is on that game. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) opined of China: “I’m not sure in the 240‐year history of this nation that we’ve ever faced a competitor and potential adversary of this scale, scope, and capacity.” Not to be outdone, a front‐page headline in the Washington Times warns: “China has power to crush U.S. in Pacific within hours.”
A 2018 Government Accountability Office list of long‐range emerging threats, assembled from a survey of four federal agencies, includes 26 entries in four broad categories.
Surely, there are national security concerns worth preparing for, but we should all strive to keep things in perspective. When politicians or members of the media ignore the context, or claim that a particular danger is greater than anything we have ever faced, the rest of us are entitled to a degree of skepticism.