Just How Dangerous Is It Really?

March 17, 2015
1st Air Cavalry provides support in sling load training

Christopher A. Preble and John Mueller, eds., A Dangerous World?: Threat Perception and U.S. National Security (CATO Institute, 2014)


In his recent Congressional testimony, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Marine Lt. Gen. Vince Stewart provided a worldwide threat assessment that noted “A confluence of global political, military, social, and technological developments, which, taken in aggregate, have created security challenges more diverse and complex than those we have experienced in our lifetimes.”

This judgment runs directly counter to the arguments in a new book with a question as its title: A Dangerous World? The central theme of this anthology is that perceptions of the threats the United States faces are unrealistic or manifestly exaggerated. The contributors to this anthology are commendably consistent on these points, to a fault. They want the country and the Pentagon to confront real threats rather than preferred demons and warn the reader to be leery about accepting the “revealed wisdom” about the dangers the people of the United States face. In that regard, this book is a healthy (but not entirely convincing) exercise in challenging longstanding threat perceptions.

The 16 chapters of this tightly edited volume are penned by an impressive array of American academics. One of the early chapters comes from the co-editor, Professor John Mueller, a member of the Hall of Fame of Congenital Contrarians. He has thrown a lot of cold water in his career on hyperbolic threat prognosticators. His essay on proliferation and terrorism is soundly presented but is limited to nuclear threats. Professor Mueller’s perspective on the implications of proliferation comes off as too narrow and far too optimistic. He is correct that the pace of nuclear proliferation has been slower than feared, but of course, this decrease did not happen organically. Rather it was the product of active policy measures to increase pressure on states. Mueller fails to give credit to the establishment of these norms or the explicit pressures placed on proliferating states. He is probably right that “the consequences of proliferation that has taken place have been substantially benign.” But I disagree that proliferation by North Korea or Iran is quite as benign as say India and Israel. Many analysts believe that strategic stability in the Second Nuclear Age is weakening, generating more rather than less danger.

As the current cover story in the Economist notes:

The new nuclear age is built on shakier foundations. Although there are fewer nuclear weapons than at the height of the cold war, the possibility of some of them being used is higher and growing. That increasing possibility feeds the likelihood of more countries choosing the nuclear option, which in turn increases the sense of instability.

Former American intelligence analyst Paul Pillar assesses the dangers of terrorism in his chapter. He observes, “The idea that substate disorder overseas threatens U.S. interest is rooted in the tendency of Americans to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Pillar challenges the idea that every failed state is a “safe haven” for Al Qaeda to plot another 9/11. The notions of safe havens are far less significant, he notes “in an era of globalization and globe-spanning information technology in which planning, recruitment, and the direction of operations take place at least as much in virtual space as they do in physical space.” What Pillar does not address is groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Boko Haram who are now seizing and holding not just safe havens but large swathes of real estate. It’s not clear that the United States can defang ISIL since it is evident U.S. leaders do not understand it. But overall, until such groups challenge our core interests, Pillar rightfully argues the United States should not make matters worse.

Martin Libicki from RAND focused on cybersecurity, particularly our homeland security. Libicki notes that much of what concerns our society about cybersecurity is actually criminal behavior, not a true national security challenge. Even in his most speculative scenario of an attack on critical infrastructure, he does not estimate damages of $1 billion, which “is unlikely to be catastrophic – though the damage could be magnified considerably by hasty and ill-considered overreaction.” His views are consistent with other scholars including Kings College London lecturer Thomas Rid. While cybersecurity at home is overdone, Americans should be more pessimistic when it comes to military capabilities given the U.S. military’s huge reliance upon cyber connectivity and networked computer systems. U.S. forces are highly dependent on the secure use of IT-based systems for the conduct of operations, and remain vulnerable.

Joshua Shrifrinson and Sameer Lalwani offer a number of critical observations on maritime security. They note the United States has a sizable lead in maritime power over potential competitors and there are very few threats to freedom of the seas or direct threats to our ability to access the oceans. Shrifrinson and Lalwani attack the notion that the United States has an obligation to preserve freedom of access to the global commons for everyone else’s benefit. They effectively undercut the U.S. Navy’s stress on controlling the Global Commons, but their argument falls apart when then assert that competitors have little interest to contest U.S. command at sea or to seriously impact sea lanes of communication. The authors insist that no one will come close to U.S. capabilities for 20 years, and that China “lacks the ability, opportunity, or motivation to seriously challenge American command.” Instead of engagement and forward presence, their stated preference is for a more “hands off” approach that relies perilously upon regional actors. This is simply a form of off-shore balancing – what they define as “security of the commons.” The implication of this approach is that the United States could put a premium into convoy security, anti-submarine warfare, and missile defenses, while reducing forward presence onshore and our power projection forces. This approach, they contend, would “limit the spirals of insecurity that might cause challenges to American command to emerge, while pocketing the fiscal and political savings of a smaller footprint abroad.”

This argument fails to consider China’s own advances and its ongoing provocations in the Pacific, nor does it represent an understanding about how U.S. maritime dominance relates to our geopolitical interests or the reassurance of U.S. allies in the Pacific. Further, the authors do not satisfyingly explore the emerging combination of shore and sea-based cruise missiles in both the Pacific and the Persian Gulf. Several intelligence sources note Iran’s acquisition of more advanced capabilities including anti-ship cruise missiles and Chinese influence mines that will further complicate efforts to protect commerce in the Gulf. Rather than gut U.S. power projection and forward presence, the American people should realize that its Navy is dangerously smaller than it should be.

Christopher Fettweis of Tulane University wraps up the major contributors with a sweeping essay. To Fettweis, the world we live in today “is by all reasonable historical standards, a golden age of peace and security.” He continues, “The great powers seem to have given up fighting one another, and the lesser powers rarely go to war either, and levels of internal conflict are at all-time lows.” From his perspective there is an incontrovertible “growing mountain of evidence” that we live in an age where risks to our security are far lower than they are commonly thought. Habits of mind, hangovers from 9/11, and institutional constituencies are accorded as responsible for our “delusions of danger.”

Fettweis is perplexed by the prevalence of higher threat and risk perceptions held by many Americans, especially those in the national security establishment. Perhaps it is because “risk” is more than looking at the number of ongoing wars, where our policy has failed, or where interests are not engaged. Maybe it is related to perceptions of threats by policymakers from China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran that do not yet cross the threshold of war. Perhaps it is related to a deep understanding of human history and nature, rather than a truncated picture of the last generation where geopolitical pressures were at an all-time but transitory low. Perhaps it is because most of these countries have sharply expanded their military capacities and spending levels and expressed their intent to use their military forces rather than let them lie fallow. I’ve written in War on the Rocks before about the dangers of “culpable complacency.”

These shortcomings aside, readers will be impressed with the effort in A Dangerous World? and appreciate its contribution to a rigorous understanding of various threats. Several contributors score points in debunking myths. But the book did not alter my own assessment of the future for two reasons. First, too many of the authors tended to look backwards or focused in the present tense, and failed to extend threats into the future in a serious way. Potential challenges in the cyber and biotech domain come to mind, for example. When it comes to imagining our defense needs, we should look at trends with clear eyes and some imagination. One must examine trends and continuities, as well as projected discontinuities. Most of the authors in this volume were not so inclined. The combination of China’s assertiveness, Putin’s megalomania, the dawning of revolutions in cognitive, bioscience, and nanotechnology, and the socio-political eruptions of the Arab world, make a prudent strategist question assumptions about a constant glide slope to a peaceful and just world.

Second, I am inclined to see the progress of the last quarter-century as a deliberate byproduct of America’s ability to create and enforce a rules-based system with its allies, not as evidence of a global community that is inexorably marching along a linear and preordained path toward perpetual peace and shared prosperity. I do not discount progress but nor do I believe that it is self-generating, and am very skeptical it can be sustained in the absence of strong U.S. leadership. That linear pattern of reduced conflict totals, evident a few years ago, has flattened out and could worsen if we do not work to preserve our nation’s core security interests.

The conditions that generated those previously positive trends – lack of great power competition, reduced resource pressure, broad economic development, and generous support for conflict resolution are dissolving. In short, geopolitics, uneven economic development, human misery, and miscalculating leaders could ensure the return of history. Complacency and retrenchment on our part will only hasten it.

For a more future-oriented book, the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 is a useful antidote to presentism. Matt Burrow’s new book The Future Declassified also looks at the future with balance, humility, and fidelity. Readers are encouraged to take a look at Chris Coker’s new book, The Improbable War, which warns about the dangerous pattern of thinking that a war with China is unlikely. On the Middle East, readers would do well to read any of the penetrating articles by Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius.

While this book points out the dangers of careless Cassandras, we should not wear rose colored glasses as we peer into the future. It is not “pathologically parochial” to side, as I do, with General Dempsey’s latest statement to Congress and with retired Marine General James Mattis. The latter recently testified and emphasized that our position in the world is not self-sustaining. As former NSC and State Department official Nicholas Rostow has noted “Fundamental principles of world public order are at risk or directly challenged in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and the western Pacific,” and dire consequences for ignoring them.

The general theme of A Dangerous World? is that risks to our well-being and security are overstated, and security investments significantly reduced. That would be a huge error in my mind. Making that error would do more to completely undo what progress has been made and long peace we have enjoyed. I just see little justification as an historian for history to be cast as linear or evolutionary progress that moves inexorably only in one direction. We live in a better world right now, one which America’s influence and arms have helped shape. If we want to see positive trends continue it will not be achieved merely by retrenching our defense spending or retreating from the world stage. Stephen Pinker’s arguments notwithstanding, a true appreciation of history serves as a reminder of the folly of utopian thinking.

Overall, A Dangerous World? explored current threats and poked some holes at overhyped threats. It is strongly encouraged for classroom use in Security Studies programs since it promotes critical thinking. In the dangerous world we live in now and for the near future, we must see the world clearly. We need to separate true threats from routine problems, and differentiate between the unacceptable and the manageable. A Dangerous World? will help isolate the hype from the dangers we must fully confront.


F. G. Hoffman is a Contributing Editor of War on the Rocks. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University. These are his own views and not that of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army