Chill Out, America

TV news, think-tank pundits, and politicians all want you to see threats around every corner. Don't fall for it.

BALTIMORE - DECEMBER 28:  A sign telling passengers that the National Threat Advisory is at Level "Orange," or high, is posted outside a security screening area at Baltimore Washington International Airport December 28, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland. A passenger was detained after flying yesterday evening from BWI to New York La Guardia Airport with a 4-inch-long firework. Security measures have been heightened at airports after a Nigerian man attempted a terrorist attack on a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day in Detroit.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE - DECEMBER 28: A sign telling passengers that the National Threat Advisory is at Level "Orange," or high, is posted outside a security screening area at Baltimore Washington International Airport December 28, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland. A passenger was detained after flying yesterday evening from BWI to New York La Guardia Airport with a 4-inch-long firework. Security measures have been heightened at airports after a Nigerian man attempted a terrorist attack on a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day in Detroit. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

These days, prominent experts and politicians seem determined to keep the American people in a perpetual state of trembling fear. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations thinks “the question is not whether the world will continue to unravel but how fast and how far.” The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, told Congress last year that “[the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been.” (Someone really ought to tell the general about the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, and a little episode known as World War II.) Not to be outdone, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believes the United States “has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.” And then there’s CNN and Fox News, which seem to think that most news stories should be a variation on Fear Factor.

One could multiply alarming forecasts such as these almost endlessly. As investigative journalist David Sirota tweeted in response to a recent speech by New Jersey governor and erstwhile presidential aspirant Chris Christie, where FDR told Americans the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” today’s politicians and pundits mostly tell us to “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.”

But if you’re an ordinary American citizen living here in the United States, how much should you worry about foreign dangers? Surely, people in contemporary Syria, South Sudan, Gaza, Libya, eastern Ukraine, and any number of other places face obvious and disturbing dangers, as the media reminds us daily. But Americans? Not so much unless you have friends or family in a war zone or you’ve invested your entire retirement portfolio in Greek government bonds.

Here in the United States, in fact, it’s hard to identify any looming or imminent external threats, and certainly none as dire as the dangers that other societies face or as serious as the challenges the United States has overcome in the past. As I’ve noted before, the United States still has the world’s largest and most diverse economy, the world’s most powerful conventional forces, and a robust nuclear deterrent. It has no powerful enemies nearby, close allies in every corner of the world, and it is insulated from most foreign dangers by two enormous oceans. Despite the hype about the shrinking of geopolitical space and the emergence of a tightly connected “global village,” distance and the “stopping power of water” still provide considerable security, if not quite 100 percent protection.

Look, nobody is saying that there aren’t any problems lurking outside U.S. borders, or suggesting there aren’t some nasty characters in today’s world. For starters, eight other countries have nuclear weapons, and we’re not on the best of terms with some of them. China’s growing power and long-term ambitions are an obvious concern, and the violent extremist movements that are convulsing countries in the Middle East and Africa are troubling on several levels. I’m even willing to concede that cybersecurity is worth some degree of vigilance, even if the danger is often overhyped. Problems such as these deserve attention, careful study, and sometimes vigorous and sustained action.

But when did the country that conquered North America, won World Wars I and II, and stared down Joseph Stalin and his successors become so easily scared by spooks, ghosts, tin-pot dictators, and marginal radical movements like the Islamic State, whose total fighting force is smaller than two U.S. Army divisions and whose territory is mostly worthless desert? That’s not to say these problems are of no concern; it’s to ask why we routinely see this year’s troubles as the Greatest Danger Ever.

We exaggerate external dangers in part because violent events are vivid and dramatic, and they seem scary even when they are rare and when they are taking place tens of thousands of miles away. (The Islamic State understands this, by the way, which is why they use beheadings instead of something more “civilized” and discreet, such as a drone strike.) As Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack have noted, global news coverage and the 24/7 news cycle have led many people to conclude the world is becoming more violent and dangerous, when the actual long-term trend has been going in the other direction. Durable peace is a boring “non-event” in which nothing much happens, so nobody bothers to report it. And that means most people don’t appreciate how safe they really are.

But the main reason so many people stay afraid is that fear is good for the people who purvey it, and so they work hard to instill fear in the rest of us. Fear is what keeps the United States spending more on defense than the next dozen states combined. Fear is what gets politicians elected, fear is what justifies preventive wars, excessive government secrecy, covert surveillance, and targeted killings. And fear is what keeps people watching CNN and Fox News, and running out to buy the New York Times or the Washington Post. As both democratic and authoritarian leaders have long known, you can get people to do a lot of foolish things if they are sufficiently scared.

Unfortunately, this enduring exaggeration of external dangers can blind us to real problems. In fact, if you look at the past 25 years or so, it is abundantly clear that external enemies have done far less damage to the United States than we have done to ourselves. Saddam Hussein was a very bad man, but he wasn’t threatening or harming Americans after we kicked his ass in 1991. Ditto Slobodan Milosevic, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and the whole wretched Assad family. They were all problems, to be sure, but they weren’t threatening many Americans and U.S. leaders did business with each of them at one time or another.

In terms of actual harm inflicted, America’s most lethal opponent in recent years was the original al Qaeda. Al Qaeda struck U.S. military and diplomatic assets in several countries during the 1990s, and then the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks killed 2,977 people and caused an estimated $178 billion in property damage and other economic losses. Those losses are hardly trivial — even for a $16 trillion economy — but they pale in comparison to the damage that we’ve done to ourselves.

Do the math. After 9/11, the Bush administration’s foolhardy invasion of Iraq cost at least $3 trillion dollars, more than 40,000 U.S. personnel killed or wounded, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. What did we get for it? A broken Iraqi state, enhanced Iranian influence in the region, and the emergence of the Islamic State. The invasion of Iraq also diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, guaranteeing the NATO mission there would also fail (at a cost of another $1 trillion or so).

Let’s add to these costs the creation of failed states in Libya and Yemen. The United States is not solely responsible for either outcome, but our interventions in both places surely did not help. The panicked U.S. response to 9/11 also produced an excessive “war on terror” that included the use of torture, illegal surveillance, and the emergence of an out-of-control intelligence community that repeatedly broke U.S. law and then lied about it. The costs to our global image are far from trivial, and it remains to be seen if our commitment to civil liberties will emerge unscathed. None of these actions were forced upon us by a powerful, hostile foe; they were choices made by U.S. leaders from both parties.

And don’t forget that little financial hiccup in 2008. The global financial crisis originated here in the United States, and it was an entirely the product of hubris and insufficient oversight. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas estimates the cost in lost output from the 2008 crisis is between $6 and $14 trillion, or roughly $50,000-$120,000 per U.S. household. Unless you’re one of the 1 percent, this ain’t chump change. And as former FP editor Moisés Naím recently noted, political fragmentation within the United States has stymied efforts to reform economic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the Export-Import Bank — both of which could be important tools of U.S. influence — and thwarted efforts to reach intelligent trade agreements that could make U.S. citizens richer and improve our geopolitical position vis-à-vis China. In his words, “The most potent forces constraining America’s economic power in the world are coming from Capitol Hill, not Beijing.” Another self-inflicted wound.

The final cost of all this foolishness has been an understandable opposition to continued U.S. engagement abroad. Hawks are now fretting that the American people no longer seem enthusiastic about intervening all over the world, but what did they expect given the disasters that their own foolish policies produced? With typical hyperbole, the Wall Street Journal now sounds the alarm about the emergence of Russia, Iran, and China as “regional hegemons” (a label that greatly exaggerates each state’s position) and blames this supposed “hegemony” on an “American retreat.” A key reason these three states are in a somewhat better position today than they were a decade ago is that too many U.S. leaders have listened to the Wall Street Journal‘s foreign policy advice and squandered American power in a series of pointless and failed crusades.

In short, what ought to worry most Americans is not that we face a powerful, cunning, and hostile set of foreign rivals (though I do have long-term concerns about China’s ambitions in Asia and elsewhere). The real worry should be America’s demonstrated talent for shooting itself in the foot and then pretending that was where it was aiming all along. If you want to something to worry about, you should ponder our inability or unwillingness to learn from past mistakes, the ability of special interests to warp key elements of U.S. foreign policy, the bipartisan tendency to recycle failed policies and the people who devised them, and our habitual surprise when we meddle in places we don’t understand and discover that some of the people we’ve been pushing around don’t like it, want us out, and are willing to do nasty things to achieve that goal. Unless and until these features of U.S. foreign policy are altered, even those of us who are lucky to be living here in the relative security of the United States have something to worry about.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Correction, May 31, 2015: Gen. Martin Dempsey is currently the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff but is expected to leave that post later this year. An earlier version of this article mistakenly called him the former chairman.

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

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