So Long, Chicken Little
The 9 most annoying sky-is-falling clichés in American foreign policy.
Why is it that fallacies in foreign policy are so endlessly repeated? Whether in the form of alarmist predictions that never seem to pan out or stale clichés that are constantly recycled no matter how discredited, the apocalypse -- or utopia, for that matter -- always seems just around the corner.
Can't we just dispense with these ideas already? Perhaps we don't because we prefer to imagine, as the old curse goes, that we "live in interesting times." As for the pundits and prophets, well, nobody ever won an invitation to Davos or got a six-figure book deal by arguing that the world of 2050 will -- in all probability -- look pretty much like that of today. So, in a spirit of curmudgeonly exasperation, here is my personal list of the most infuriating failed predictions, perennial fallacies, and doomed proposals that never seem to go away, from nuclear apocalypse to bird flu.
1. A nuclear bomb will go off in a U.S. city in the next 10 years.
Why is it that fallacies in foreign policy are so endlessly repeated? Whether in the form of alarmist predictions that never seem to pan out or stale clichés that are constantly recycled no matter how discredited, the apocalypse — or utopia, for that matter — always seems just around the corner.
Can’t we just dispense with these ideas already? Perhaps we don’t because we prefer to imagine, as the old curse goes, that we “live in interesting times.” As for the pundits and prophets, well, nobody ever won an invitation to Davos or got a six-figure book deal by arguing that the world of 2050 will — in all probability — look pretty much like that of today. So, in a spirit of curmudgeonly exasperation, here is my personal list of the most infuriating failed predictions, perennial fallacies, and doomed proposals that never seem to go away, from nuclear apocalypse to bird flu.
1. A nuclear bomb will go off in a U.S. city in the next 10 years.
The fact that it hasn’t happened yet certainly hasn’t stopped U.S. security officials and political leaders from relying on the specious precision provided by estimated probabilities of a nuclear holocaust. Such fears are easily manipulated for political purposes — see George W. Bush’s administration invoking “the smoking gun … in the form of a mushroom cloud” to justify the invasion of Iraq — and even President Barack Obama has now bought in, calling nuclear terrorism the “biggest threat” facing the United States today. So? No question U.S. intelligence agencies should be watchful. But first lady Michelle Obama has also called childhood obesity a “national security threat.” Now, if portly teenage domestic terrorists got their hands on a loose nuke, that really might be the sum of all fears.
2. The world must adapt quickly to the end of fossil fuels.
It’s one thing for reformed oilman T. Boone Pickens or former CIA Director R. James Woolsey to argue that industrial societies should end their reliance on fossil fuels in order to reduce their dependence on hostile petrostates or combat global warming. But it’s quite another to claim that such a massive shift is necessary because we’re about to run out of the stuff.
ILLUSTRATION BY PAULO BUCHINHO/IMAGEZOO/GETTY IMAGES
3. Europeans are pacifists.
Yet the defense spending of major European powers hardly proves them to be doves. As a share of GDP, European military budgets have been roughly even with those of the BRIC countries that are supposed to be the great powers of the future. What really irks Americans who criticize Europe’s alleged pacifism has been opposition to the Iraq war or refusal to make greater commitments for the war in Afghanistan. In reality, Europeans are no pacifists; they’ve simply declined the invitation to play Robin to America’s global Batman. European countries spend quite enough to defend themselves — against real threats.
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4. The rain forests are about to disappear.
But as the New York Times reported in 2009, “new ‘secondary’ forests are emerging in Latin America, Asia and other tropical regions at such a fast pace that the trend has set off a serious debate about whether saving primeval rain forest — an iconic environmental cause — may be less urgent than once thought.” For every acre of rain forest chopped down annually, more than 50 acres are growing back on previously ravaged tropical land, according to one estimate. Meanwhile, thanks to advanced agricultural technology that permits more food to be grown on fewer acres, Northern Hemisphere countries like the United States, Canada, and the nations of Europe are being regreened rapidly, as former farmland returns to forest.
5. The coming global pandemic.
And yet it was not just the BBC ominously informing us that “the deadly swine flu … cannot be contained.” Like warnings about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the good done by mobilizing people to address the problem must be weighed against the danger of apocalypse fatigue on the part of a public subjected to endless Chicken Little scares.
6. America is losing the high-speed rail race.
Not only does the United States already have first-rate highways, but it leads the world in freight rail, which at $265 billion a year is far more important to the economy than pouring hundreds of billions into bullet trains for affluent Americans. Unfortunately, freight trains and other more rational projects, like improved inland waterways, truck-only highways, and computerized “smart” roads, just don’t capture the imagination. And now that conservatives have learned that they can infuriate progressives by promising to cancel high-speed rail projects, American supertrains may end up as they are now: the perpetual transportation mode of the future.
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7. Climate change will cause mass migration.
Hold on a second. According to the same source, out of this 1 billion, 250 million — the vast majority of whom will remain in their own countries — could be “permanently displaced by climate change-related phenomena such as floods, droughts, famines and hurricanes” and 645 million “by development projects such as dams and mines.” And this won’t happen in 40 days and nights; governments have 40 years to adjust. In other words, not quite the hordes of homeless, stateless refugees fleeing runaway climate change that the sensationalist headlines evoke.
TONY KARUMBO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
8. Water-sharing can bring peace to the Middle East.
He was wrong. And though UNESCO and other international organizations have taken up the torch, holding such conferences as “Water: A Catalyst for Peace,” the key conflicts remain, as always, about territory, demography, ideology, and relative power. Water-sharing agreements are the effect of peace, not its cause.
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
9. The nation-state is dead.
Or maybe not. When al Qaeda attacked New York, did the NYPD invade Afghanistan? And who bailed out London’s banks when threatened with collapse in 2008? Again and again, when “global” financial and corporate enterprises have been threatened, good, old-fashioned nation-states have come to the rescue. As they surely will again, when the apocalypse finally hits.
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