Despite the warnings of some GOP presidential candidates, we've got nothing to fear but fear itself -- and our own propensity for overreaction
Late last month, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took time out of his campaign schedule to perform an annual rite of passage for those seeking the nation's highest office: a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention. In between criticisms of President Barack Obama for not being tough, strong, or unapologetic enough, Romney made a rather surprising comment about the state of global relations today. It "is wishful thinking," he said, "that the world is becoming a safer place. The opposite is true. Consider simply the Jihadists, a near-nuclear Iran, a turbulent Middle East, an unstable Pakistan, a delusional North Korea, an assertive Russia, and an emerging global power called China. No, the world is not becoming safer."
Romney isn't alone in warning of global peril. According to Texas Governor Rick Perry, who also spoke at the VFW event, it is a "dangerous world we live in today," which necessitates a renewed "commitment to taking the fight to the enemy." Fellow GOP hopeful Herman Cain sees "real and present danger" from the "many regimes" that "seek to destroy us" and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann warns of the "rise of powerful competitors including China and Russia." Even President Obama justified his decision to escalate in Afghanistan by using the imagery of September 11th and the specter of al-Qaeda-style terrorism. Now, with the anniversary of September 11 only days away Americans can look forward not only to paeans about American resilience but redoubled commitment to face the country's varied enemies.
It all sounds very ominous. But the truth is that, for all the warnings of imminent doom, rarely before in America's history has the United States been in less danger than it is today. And understanding that might be the single most effective tool for keeping America safe and secure in the 21st century.
The United States today faces no serious existential threat from a foreign actor, no great power rival, and no military competitor that imperils the American homeland. Part of this is the result of geography, but the larger reason is that no country that considers America a rival has much good reason to turn it into a potential enemy. After all, the backbone of our national security, the U.S. military, remains far and away the world's most powerful and fearsome.
The threat of terrorism today is far from being an existential or even significant threat. Since September 11, only a handful of Americans have been killed by jihadist terror attacks on American soil -- virtually all of the victims were members of the U.S. military.. Al-Qaeda is on the run, chased down by a persistent drone campaign and special operations efforts that are removing its key lieutenants from the battlefield at a rapid pace. According to some intelligence estimates, the organization is down to a handful of members. More importantly, the U.S. is far more prepared today than it was 10 years to detect and respond to a terrorist attack. Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said of the organization's capabilities in a recent interview, "The kind of multi-team, coordinated, big attack that was 9/11 would be something that we would be able to detect before it happened and stop now. The threat now has sort of atomized to these small, one or two person attacks, which can still be very harmful. But they're really not on the scale of 9/11."
It's not just the United States that is safer. According to research done by Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleiditsch, the 2000s saw fewer deaths from war than any decade of the past century. As Joshua Goldstein recently wrote in Foreign Policy, contrary to popular imagination, wars are becoming less frequent and less deadly. And according to the 2010 Human Security Report, high-intensity wars (those that kill at least 1,000 people a year) have declined by 78 percent since 1988 and major global powers have not fought a significant war in six decades, "the longest period of major power peace in centuries." Notwithstanding such conflicts as the horrific carnage in Iraq, the continuing civil war in Congo, and the ongoing violence in Afghanistan, the 21st century already looks to be a far more peaceful than the century that preceded it.
It's true that America faces a turbulent Middle East, a rising China, and even an assertive Russia, but these each represent opportunities as much as they do challenges for the U.S. and its interests. To see them purely as dangers is to view the world through fear-colored glasses. Indeed, if the global political environment can be defined by any macro-trend right now, it is the emerging movement for greater political rights; a development that brings with it uncertainty but also hopefulness for the future.
Even China's recent effort to modernize its military brings it to a mere fraction of what the United States spends on defense. And considering China's export-driven economic strategy -- and large reserves of U.S. debt -- Beijing has far more to gain from a strong America than a weak one.
This is not to suggest there are no reasons for concern. A potentially nuclear Iran, a "delusional North Korea," and an unstable Pakistan each represent significant regional dangers and even economic challenges to the United States. These are serious global security issues that require U.S. attention. Along the same lines, nuclear and biological terrorism are potentially grave challenges facing not just the United States, but the world -- even though either would be extremely difficult to pull off successfully. However, dealing with these issues -- and recognizing their potential threat to regional and even global security -- does not necessitate the sort of call to military arms we saw after September 11th, but rather cooperative, diplomatic efforts to ameliorate them. Hyping these challenges as existential threats has the potential to drive self-defeating policies that do more to weaken America than strengthen it.Ironically, given how many of the dire warnings about global peril seem to come from Republicans, it is strange that so many of them are relatively blase about what may be the one true existential threat facing the United States: global warming. Another reason for concern would be Russian nuclear weapons, many of which are still pointed at the United States. So why did so many Republicans, including Romney, oppose the New START nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia?
To be sure, overhyping foreign threats on the campaign trail is nothing new: candidates from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush established impressive track records in this area. The problem, of course, is when those expedient political proclamations end up driving national security policy. In 1947, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, advised President Harry Truman about how to most effectively sell the idea of foreign aid for anti-Communist rebels in Greece and Turkey: "Scare the hell out of the country.". Truman proceeded to do just that and to great success. His aid package passed Congress and, before long, over-inflated threats of Soviet/Communist aspirations and capabilities became the hallmark of Cold War politics. After September 11th, to build support for a global war on terror and for war with Iraq, President George W. Bush followed a similar course, playing up the possibility of nuclear, biological, and chemical terrorism in American cities if the United States didn't dislodge Saddam Hussein from power.
Warnings of a dangerous world might be effective politics, but they tend to make for rather poor foreign policy decision-making. As the ten years since September 11 have demonstrated, the greatest wounds inflicted on the United States are as liable to come from our own hands -- and our own misjudgments -- as they are from others. The created fear over the much-hyped imminent threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which the Bush Administration alleged might be given to terrorists, led the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003; 4474 American lost lives and hundreds of billions in national treasure later, there is virtually no evidence that the decision to go to war has improved American security or other interests. In Afghanistan, an initially reasonable response against the Taliban government that was harboring al-Qaeda has led to the longest war in U.S. history -- driven in part by the mistaken fear that once a safe haven, always a safe haven or that U.S. security from terrorism can only be guaranteed by a 100,000-troop presence. According to John Mueller and Mark Stewart the United States has spent more than $1 trillion, including direct expenditures and loss of economic and consumer activity, to battle a terrorist threat that has a 1 in 3.5 million chance of taking the life of a U.S. resident. By some estimates, the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have cost the United States between $3 and $5 trillion; when one considers the numbers of jobs that could have been created, health care provided, highways and schools built, it's hard not to view America's over-reaction to September 11 as one of the greatest self-inflicted wounds in our history.
Considering America's propensity to act rashly in the face of foreign "threats" understanding that the U.S. is, for the most part, a safe and well-protected country might be the single best tool for keeping America secure and resistant to the sort of over-reactions that made the last 10 years something of a lost decade. Better to focus on actual threats that challenge America's ability to remain globally competitive -- global warming, for example, or high unemployment and stagnant economic growth -- rather than hyping the phantom threats. whose danger to America is wildly, and dangerously, overstated.