Land of the fearful

Stephen Walt is puzzled:

One of the great puzzles of contemporary national security policy is why the mighty United States gets its knickers in a twist over lots of security issues in lots of unimportant places. After all, it’s the world’s most advanced economy, by far the world’s most powerful military force, it is insulated from many world problems by two enormous oceans (which do still matter, by the way), and it has an array of stable allies in most corners of the world. And oh yes, it has a nuclear deterrent consistent of thousands of warheads, more than enough to devastate any country that threatened the United States directly or threatened our independence.

Yet Americans are constantly fretting about supposedly grave threats in far-flung corners of the world, and marching off to spend billions (or even trillions) fighting long and inconclusive wars in strategic backwaters like Afghanistan. To be perfectly blunt, it makes one wonder if the national security establishment in this country is even capable of a careful, sober, even-tempered analysis anymore.

Walt points to an analytical article titled Clear and Present Safety:The United States Is More Secure Than Washington Thinks by Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen (which is unfortunately behind a paywall) but gives a key quote from it that sums up their thesis:

Within the foreign policy elite, there exists a pervasive belief that the post-Cold War world is treacherous place, full of great uncertainty and grave risks…There is just one problem. It is simply wrong. The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history…The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful, and even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive…[Yet] this reality is barely reflect in U.S. national security strategy or in American foreign policy debates.

This view of an overall decline in worldwide decline in violence is consistent with what Steven Pinker said in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, that I reviewed here.

FDR’s words in his first inaugural address in 1933 that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” seems even more apropos today. But reality faces powerful odds against a political-media machine that thrives on using fear to keep the population cowed and subservient.


  1. says

    I wonder how much of this fear is driven by the Christian right and swallowed by Christians of all stripes. Thay have been playing the persecution card since the very beginning. I am sure that someone with better historical skills than I could define the origins of that complex.

    But the origins don’t really matter. My point is that virtually all modern Christians have that concept of persecution embedded in their theology. Since their entire identity is tied up woth their religion, they see persecution in many aspects of their lives.

  2. Didaktylos says

    Ah yes -- but we’re not talking about the security of the United States of America as a single autonomous nation; we’re talking about the dominance of the Imperial Hegemony of Amerika.

  3. Nathan & the Cynic says

    How about a little devil’s advocacy? You could argue that our willingness to march our troops overseas to distant lands is a more useful form of deterrence than nuclear weapons.

    If we used a nuke for anything short of a nuke attack on US soil (and maybe even then), we’d be seen as scum by the vast majority of the world, even among our allies and probably a lot of our own citizens. So anyone who actually harbored intentions of attacking us can fairly reliably say “no, they won’t drop a nuke.”

    On the other hand, nobody with two brain cells to bounce together can really doubt that if pushed sufficiently far (or if the ruling elite happen to want to do it) we’ll happily bomb and or cruise missile the hell out of your country. And if necessary, we’ll put boots on the ground.

    If I follow that thought to its conclusion, I could say that our perceived willingness to invade another country helps make us safer by discouraging other people who might attack us, and that therefore our massive expenditures in blood and treasure are well worth it. As evidence, I believe Libya voluntarily gave up its nuclear program. Why? Because they saw what we did in Iraq in 2003. Deterrence worked, not that it helped Gaddafi in the long run.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the U.S economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive…

    This person’s geostrategic calculations need not be taken too seriously.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Nathan & the Cynic @ # 4 -- Your logic parallels that of Noam Chomsky, who has repeatedly made telling comparisons between bipartisan US foreign policy and gangster tactics (hence, e.g., the unceasing & disproportionate hostility for each puppet regime overthrown, from Iran to Nicaragua …).

    You also approach the Ledeen doctrine:

    Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.

  6. says

    Shalom Mano,

    After 11 September 2011, I repeatedly asked friends: Just what are you afraid of? and I generally received one of two responses, either a. I’m not afraid, why do you think I’m afraid? or b. I’m not safe in my home/in my bed/on the street/pick a place.

    My vote for this behavior? Television.



  7. nichrome says

    There’s no puzzle -- the military/industrial complex wants to keep the cash flowing into their pockets and so they need to constantly stir up fear. Missile gaps! Commies! Muslims! Socialists!

    Actor James Cromwell puts it succinctly in talking about Hollywood blacklisting, “That’s actually what the blacklist was for. The blacklist was not for communists. It was to get Jews out, because they were in a position—they had been through [World War II] and they had seen what had happened, and they knew corporate America had found the golden cow which was that they could take tax dollars and put it into the defense industry, the military-industrial complex, and transfer the wealth of the United States from the 99 percent to the 1 percent under the guise of national defense.”

  8. Greg P. says

    9/11 popped that bubble of invincibility. To have a handful of people armed with box cutters walk right past the world’s most powerful military and kill 3000+ people does a lot to make one feel vulnerable.

    The problem is, our response to 9/11 was completely ineffective, except to make it look like the government was responding.

    There is no deterrence against 9/11-style suicide attacks, and a nuclear arsenal is pretty much only a deterrent against a nuclear first-strike. There is only ‘small ball’ defense like deporting people with expired visas, etc.

    You have to wonder if Osama bin Laden hoped the U.S. would spend itself into a big hole of debt fighting a long conventional war in response to 9/11, and that the 3,000 U.S. deaths would be simply an attention-getter.

  9. says

    Shalom Greg,

    Actually, the nuclear arsenal does serve, imperfectly, I grant, as a deterrent against the rogue use of a nuclear weapon against the United States. While I can’t point to a specific directive, my understanding is that key targets in the Muslim world — Tehran, Mecca, etc., have been marked for exchange — think New York/Moscow in Fail-Safe — as a way of convincing actual governments to not allow their proxies to get too out of control.



  10. Emily says

    I agree with nichrome that we manufacture fear in order to continue to manufacture weapons and feed the companies that make weapons and feed the military which employs roughly 10% of the U.S. Then there’s the idea that we reach overseas so that we have cheap (if you call our ‘defense’ budget cheap) access to oil, bauxite, coffee, etc. Finally, we live in fear because we have nowhere to go but down.


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