Nostalgia Is a National Security Threat
By idealizing the past, Americans have made themselves unsafe in the present.
One of the most prevalent, and pernicious, biases in U.S. foreign-policy circles was best summarized by the political scientist John Mueller. Humans have a “tendency to look backward with misty eyes, to see the past as much more benign, simple, and innocent than it really was,” Mueller wrote in 1995. “That is, no matter how much better the present gets, the past gets better faster in reflection, and we are, accordingly, always notably worse off than we used to be. Golden ages, thus, do happen, but we are never actually in them: they are always back there somewhere.”
What Mueller was describing was retrospection bias. Humans have a tendency to actively forget negative events from long ago, and thus we disproportionately judge the past in a more positive light. History is also simplified and chunked into a few key events and big impressions. With the benefit of hindsight, the past seems relatively predictable and sensible, while the present is always chaotic and uncertain. “We are standing at an unprecedented moment in human history,” say respected politicians and generals, as if that is not always the case. Inevitably, what results are mistaken—and sometimes catastrophic—foreign-policy decisions.
Within the U.S. foreign-policy community, the Cold War is particularly notable for being compressed and selectively remembered as global ideological battleground where “we” won over communism. This collective nostalgia—which overlooks the greater number of genocides and mass starvations, mass casualty wars of all types, and the 72 regime changes the United States attempted between 1947 and 1989—makes the Cold War seem stable and the outcomes obvious. By comparison, the international landscape is forever becoming more and more violent, complex, and threatening.
Consider the judgements expressed by civilian and military officials, as well as policymakers, over just the past few years. All of these are cited and placed into their context in a new book I co-authored with Michael A. Cohen, Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.
“We are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” — Gen. Marin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, February 2012
“I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been.” — Dempsey, February 2013
“The global environment is the most uncertain I have seen in my 36 years of service.” — Gen. Raymond Odierno, February 2013
“The world is literally about to blow up.” — Sen. Lindsey Graham, January 2014
“I have not experienced a time when we’ve been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.” — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, February 2014
“We are probably in the most serious period of turmoil in our lifetime.” — Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, January 2015
“We’re already in World War III. The fact is this is a new world war and one that won’t look like the last two.” — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, December 2015
“There’s no question, though, that … this generation is living in probably, I would say, the most dangerous time since the Civil War for the republic.” — Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, November 2017
“We live in the most dangerous world of my lifetime.” — Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, December 2018
This mindset of always-growing global chaos and foreign threats reached a new level in January, when Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned in his annual threat briefing: “Threats to U.S. national security will expand and diversify in the coming year.” Previous directors had consistently diagnosed the United States as facing greater and more consequential threats at that time—Iraq, Iran, North Korea, jihadi terrorism, homegrown terrorism, cyberattacks, China, etc. But Coats made a critical shift that went unnoticed by foreign-policy watchers. He now forecast a future of perpetually expanding dangers. Like every other national security official, he could not imagine the world being otherwise. And given that his forecasting statement is both fuzzy and unfalsifiable, he will be able to claim that he was correct next January.
The practical consequences of misremembering a supposedly stable global past, and misrepresenting the allegedly threatening present (and future), are many. The first is the habitual practice of foreign threat inflation, which we detail exhaustively in our new book, that results in over-reactionary policies best represented by the staggering $4 trillion spent overseas in post-9/11 wars.
Second, and relatedly, perpetual threat escalation leads to disproportionately spending finite taxpayer resources on the military, as there is nothing more responsive to counter purported threats than troop deployments or uses of force.
Third, it enables a strategic misdiagnosis about what actually threatens the American people—threats that are almost exclusively domestic, including guns, drugs, and noncommunicable diseases—and where to apportion the greatest attention and resources to mitigate and prevent such threats.
Fourth, and most importantly, when leaders believe the world is only getting worse and worse, it reduces America’s sense of agency and urgency to use its vast wealth and influence to improve things, both within the United States and abroad. This collective indifference has been made worse by the United States’ ever deepening partisanship, which prevents rational discussions or evidence-based policymaking. Despite what generals and politicians may tell us, things were not so great in the past, nor so terrible in the present, that the future is predestined to only get more dire and dismal.