Stephen M. Walt

America is really, really secure

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 , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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.

I say all this as a preamble to a recommendation for your reading list: Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen's terrific Foreign Affairs article "Clear and Present Safety." It's a rare piece of analytic sanity, and I hope it gets widely read. Money quotation:

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.

I say all this as a preamble to a recommendation for your reading list: Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen’s terrific Foreign Affairs article "Clear and Present Safety." It’s a rare piece of analytic sanity, and I hope it gets widely read. Money quotation:

"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 remakably 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."

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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