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Is Trump’s America the Safest Country in the World?

The world is less dangerous than it was a year ago — but the long-term trends, if you're not American, have gotten cloudier.

Donald Trump sings the national anthem with a U.S. Army chorus during a "Celebration of America" event on the south lawn of the White House June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Donald Trump sings the national anthem with a U.S. Army chorus during a "Celebration of America" event on the south lawn of the White House June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: Are you safer than you were a year ago? Are you less at risk of serious harm, external dangers, sudden violence, or a loss of freedom or safety? Contrary to the alarmist suggestions of populists out to create panic and the breathless paranoia that dominates the news cycle, the answers are mostly reassuring for the West and other major powers.

Consider the United States. Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s systematic attempts to destroy what’s left of the existing world order, the immediate threats to Americans haven’t changed much since a year ago. And if you take the long-term perspective, the United States might even be the safest country in the world — or at least the only one whose greatest risk is its own citizens.

One sign of that continued stability is the complacency in most global markets. If the risk of war involving major powers were clearly increasing, one would expect this heightened geopolitical risk to be dragging down equities, discouraging investment, and slowing global growth. But the Dow Jones industrial average is up more than 15 percent on the year, the Nasdaq composite is up 25 percent, and thus far the market has been shrugging off the U.S. decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal, the possibility of a trade war, and the wild tango between North Korea’s Kim “Little Rocket Man” Jong Un and Donald “Dotard” Trump.

To be fair, it’s not just Wall Street: The FTSE in London and the DAX in Germany are both up about 3 percent on the year, and the Japanese Nikkei index and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index have risen more than 12 and 15 percent, respectively. Maybe the markets are wrong, but they’re not pricing in a lot of geopolitical risk right now, which suggests the major powers are about as safe today as they were last year —  though long-term trends for non-Americans are another matter.

There are, in fact, millions of people around the world who are in far greater immediate peril than they were one year ago. For the most part, however, they tend to be in places far from the United States and countries that most Americans are perfectly happy ignoring.

Why do I think this? Here’s a quick tour d’horizon:

The United States

The good news — if you happen to be American — is that you’re in no greater danger of outside attack today than you were last year. The United States is still thousands of miles away from most sources of trouble — those oceanic moats still matter in many ways — and it still has robust nuclear and conventional forces that can deter or thwart any serious attack on the U.S. homeland. Americans should also be grateful that it would take a lot more than a few stupid presidential tweets to turn Canada into an enemy. The danger from terrorism remains remote; in 2017, in fact, terrorists killed a grand total of 17 people in the United States itself. Maybe you were really worried about North Korea’s small nuclear arsenal and primitive (but improving) missile capabilities, but that’s a serious danger only if you assume Kim Jong Un and his associates are suicidal. In fact, there’s no evidence of a death wish among North Korea’s ruling elite, and thus far Kim has shown himself to be a ruthless but rational leader.

Indeed, despite last year’s saber rattling, the risk of a U.S. war with North Korea was always pretty low. I have no idea why Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass thought the odds of war were 50-50, or why the former CIA head John Brennan judged the risk to be 20 to 25 percent. If asked, I’d have said 10 percent or less, even at the height of the Kim-Trump tweetstorm and the talk of “bloody nose” strikes. Why? Because attacking a nuclear-armed power is inherently risky, there were never any good military options, and local U.S. allies and China were strongly opposed to any use of force. So the United States wasn’t in much danger back then and is in a bit less danger now. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any country attacking the United States anytime soon, which means it’ll only be at war if it decides to attack someone else. That risk has gone up somewhat in the past year — especially with respect to Iran — as discussed at greater length below.

The bottom line is that Americans continue to enjoy the luxury of surplus security, at least from foreign attack. Instead, the biggest threats of violent death come from their fellow citizens. There have been more than 1,300 mass shootings (i.e., four or more fatalities) on U.S. soil since 2014, including repeated and horrific massacres at public schools, and more than 56,000 Americans were killed with guns between 2014 and 2017. That is more lives than the United States lost in Vietnam, a war that lasted more than decade.

Americans are also at greater risk due to some recent government decisions. Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association Forum, David Cutler and Francesca Dominici of Harvard University conclude that the Trump administration’s decision to relax clean air standards “is likely to cost the lives of over 80 000 US residents per decade and lead to respiratory problems for many more than 1 million people.” External threats remain low, but that doesn’t mean Americans will be able to take a deep breath and relax. 

Europe

What about Europe? If you focus solely on the short term, the risk of war has not increased appreciably in the past year. The only potential source of serious conflict is between Russia and some of its neighbors, but Russia has its hands full in Crimea, its economy remains fragile, and NATO has sent clear signals of its continued commitments in the East, though Lord knows what Trump will do or say at the next NATO summit. And good news: The crime rate in Germany is at its lowest since 1992, no matter what the U.S. president seems to think.

But the long-term trends in Europe are deeply worrisome. The European Union continues to unravel in various ways: Agreement on a common refugee policy remains elusive, Poland and Hungary are moving steadily in illiberal directions, Chancellor Angela Merkel is in trouble in Germany, and French President Emmanuel Macron’s grand schemes for EU reform aren’t exactly catching fire. Over the past year, Euroskeptic parties such as the Five Star Movement in Italy and Alternative for Germany have become more prominent or actually gained power. And instead of helping contain these divisive forces, the United States is egging them on. The U.S. ambassador to Germany openly declared that one of his goals was to “empower” right-wing forces in Europe, and Trump himself continues to sow division and cast doubt on the U.S. commitment. Add to this Trump’s contemptuous disregard for European views on trade, the Iran nuclear deal, and the membership of the G-7, and you have a surefire recipe for continued political turmoil.

To be clear, the danger is not a sudden outbreak of hostilities; from this narrow perspective, most people in Europe are no less secure than they were a year ago. Rather, the danger is the progressive weakening of the various elements that have guaranteed peace in Europe since 1945, and the gradual renationalization of foreign and defense policy throughout the continent. Instead of relying on NATO and the EU to keep most European states safe from external dangers and from each other, a resurgence of nationalism will tempt — or force — each country to look out for itself. If not halted or reversed, history suggests this trend will not end well. Realists may have anticipated these developments some time ago — but that is no reason to take pleasure in them.

Asia

The good news in Asia is that the risk of war with North Korea — which was never very high, in my opinion — is now even lower. Nor is the risk of war between India and Pakistan appreciably higher than it was 12 months ago, despite continued tensions and the usual unresolved disputes.

But here again, long-term trends in Asia are cause for concern, largely because the Trump administration — either by design or incompetence — has been systematically undermining the U.S. position in the region. It began when Trump first took office and abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It continued when he kept trying to bully South Korea and Japan on trade. His latest blunder was agreeing to cancel military exercises with South Korea during his meeting with Kim Jong Un, in exchange for Kim’s solemn promise to do, um… nothing. And he did this without consulting Seoul.

America’s Asian allies are a rather tolerant and patient group, but their confidence in U.S. judgment is probably at an all-time low. The big winner, of course, is China, which is eager to push the United States out of Asia for all sorts of obvious reasons. That doesn’t raise the risk of war with China in the short term, but if the two countries remain rivals for much of this century, Trump will have ensured that the United States will be waging it from a weaker position.

Who Is Really Less Safe?

In many parts of the world, in short, the turbulence of the past year has not made people significantly less safe. Unfortunately, that is not true everywhere. For some states and some groups, in fact, their situation has deteriorated badly over the past 12 months.

If I were Iranian, for example, I’d feel a lot less safe. The United States has left the Iran nuclear agreement, and statements by top U.S. officials have made it clear that their goal is still regime change. At a minimum, ordinary Iranians will suffer as the United States reimposes sanctions, and some number of Iranians will die as a result. The U.S. decision was also a cruel blow to moderate Iranians who were trying to reduce the hard-liners’ influence, and who had promised that diplomatic engagement would yield real benefits. This step makes it more likely that Iran will eventually restart its nuclear enrichment program, which will in turn lead the hawkish wings of the Israel lobby and wealthy Republican donors such as Sheldon Adelson to tell Trump he now needs to go to war to stop them.

Here, the differences between North Korea and Iran become apparent and relevant. Unlike North Korea, Iran does not have nuclear weapons (yet). North Korea’s neighbors strongly opposed military action by the United States, but some of Iran’s neighbors (e.g., Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) would be delighted — at least at first — if the United States attacked the Islamic republic. The U.S. military may not be eager for another war in the Middle East, but there is a strong anti-Iranian sentiment inside the Defense Department, and it might be much more open to preventive war provided ground troops were not involved and the military was not asked to conduct another costly and open-ended occupation.

Palestinians

By any measure, Palestinians are less safe than they were a year ago. The Trump administration isn’t even pretending to be even-handed: It has dispatched a U.S. ambassador to Israel who openly supports settlement expansion, has fully embraced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda, and has turned a blind eye to the carnage on the border with Gaza. As of early June, about 130 Palestinians had been shot dead by Israeli snipers, and the International Committee of the Red Cross reports that more than 13,000 have been wounded, some of them grievously. Living conditions in Gaza and the West Bank continue to deteriorate, as well.

Yemenis

As bad as the plight of the Palestinians is, it pales in comparison to the tragedy unfolding in Yemen. As of this month, Saudi Arabia’s Air Force has conducted some 100,000 airstrikes against the Houthi forces in Yemen. Three-quarters of Yemen’s 28 million people now require food relief, 1 million people suffer from cholera, and more than 50,000 children reportedly died just last year from starvation or other causes. The Saudi and UAE-led assault on the crucial port city of Hodeidah threatens the remaining relief lifeline, which means destruction, famine, and disease are likely to get worse. And don’t forget: This war is being waged by two U.S. allies, with weapons that are made in America. So, don’t be completely surprised if some of the victims eventually try to strike back at the United States.

Afghanis

Like former U.S. President Barack Obama, Trump also reluctantly bowed to military pressure and agreed to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Yet, the past year recorded the highest level of civilian casualties since the United States first invaded in 2002, and the casualty rate for 2018 is on a similar pace. Opium production is at a record high as well, even though the U.S. government has spent more than $8 billion on various anti-narcotics programs. It’s funny that Trump is bothered by military exercises with South Korea that he thinks are too expensive, yet he’s willing to continue a costly forever war that is doomed to failure.

The Rohingya

Last but not least, over the past year some 700,000 members of the Rohingya minority were driven from their homes in Burma, joining the roughly 68.5 million people worldwide who are now officially regarded as “forcibly displaced.” This is the largest total in recorded history, and the overall trends are discouraging. According to the United Nations, some 10.3 million refugees were newly displaced last year, while only 552,200 were able to return to their countries of origin.

It is hard to exaggerate the level of fear and insecurity that these people face, or the level of indifference that the rest of the world often exhibits in response. And their plight should remind others that having the good fortune to live in a stable social and political order — one where power is constrained by law and by informal norms of tolerance — is a luxury one should never take for granted.

To sum up: Most of us in the developed world are no less safe today than we were a year ago. This may help us understand why some governments keep acting so irresponsibly: The people involved just don’t think there are any real dangers out there, and certainly not risks that might affect them personally, so short-term expedience trumps long-term strategic thinking and basic moral commitments.

But even if you are fortunate enough to live in one of those lucky countries, you might want to worry a bit more. What I fear is the steady erosion of existing institutions and norms inside the societies that are still relatively safe and fairly tranquil, especially when compared to the worst trouble-spots. The subtler danger is that this erosion will continue to take place gradually, but without provoking a major crisis that causes people to sober up and behave more responsibly. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, we may not notice the temperature is rising until the water has come to a full boil. But, by then, we’ve been thoroughly cooked and will just be ready to be served up.

About the Author

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

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

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