Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans

| March 2020
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Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans, Michael A. Cohen and Micah Zenko (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2019), 272 pp., $27.50 cloth.

It has been said before but cannot really be said too often: By a large number of measures, human welfare has massively improved over the course of the past couple of centuries. In their lively and highly readable book Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans, Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko focus on the period since World War II. It is a time in which, as they note, “great-power wars have disappeared”—World War III remains history’s greatest non-event—while “interstate wars have become vanishingly rare, and the world is a safer and freer place than it has ever been in human history” (p. 8).

The book is filled with statistics showing improvement during that period, and they note, for example, that in just the last three decades the number of people in the developing world living in “crippling poverty” dropped from 50 percent to less than 10 percent (pp. 31–32). Despite the evidence, Cohen and Zenko observe that two-thirds of Americans refuse to embrace such numbers, choosing to believe instead that global poverty has “almost doubled,” while another 29 percent say that it has remained much the same (pp. 27–28). And the authors quote with exasperated and fully justified dismay the opinions of prominent politicians and military leaders proclaiming the world to be “more dangerous than it’s ever been,” and that there are “more crises and threats” and more “serious turmoil” than ever before.

Cohen and Zenko are particularly concerned about such threat inflation, pointing out that, over the decades, members of what they call the “Threat-Industrial Complex” (TIC) have persistently exaggerated the threats that do exist while inventing quite a few that do not. This TIC is populated with the usual suspects: politicians with votes to win, industries with gizmos to sell, bureaucrats and military officials with budgets to justify, think tanks with donors to service, pundits with careers and egos to satisfy, and the media with ratings to enhance.

The authors aptly and extensively array the exorbitant costs of the wars overseas in Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq, lamenting that so much money has been spent dealing with such “phantom” threats (pp. 159, 179)—though they do not spend much time explaining why they think that adjective is an appropriate one to use to describe these situations. Far better, they suggest, would be to have used this money for dealing with domestic problems that they consider to constitute national security threats—health and education deficiencies, gun culture, drug abuse, infrastructure decay, and economic inequality.

The book is certainly correct to point out, as it does several times, that “fear sells.” But the analysis suffers somewhat from a degree of selection bias, in that it focuses on the fears that did sell while neglecting the ones that did not. Americans bought the terrorism threat, as Cohen and Zenko document well. But, at the same time, they have been largely unpersuaded by those who have tried to sell them the fear of genetically modified food, and a great many have remained substantially unmoved by concerns about global warming, even in the face of warnings that sometimes are of apocalyptic proportions.

In his book Selling Intervention and War: The Presidency, the Media, and the American Public, Jon Western looks not only at instances in which the people attempting to do such selling succeeded but also ones in which they failed. He repeatedly finds that the public has often “resisted persuasion,” (p. 5) and that, when sales pitches work, it is probably best not to conclude that the public has been manipulated, but rather that the arguments made happened to be ones that the public is “willing to accept,” (p. 20–21) that “strike a chord,” (p. 179) or that “resonate” (p. 229) with it.

This conclusion is also seen in a series of research experiments carried out by Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza in their book Whose Rights? Counterterrorism and the Dark Side of American Public Opinion. In these studies, people were found to respond favorably to “elite cues” on one policy, remained unmoved on another, and moved in the opposite direction on a third (chapter 6). This phenomenon was apparent as well in the rise of Donald Trump in 2015–2016, during which time Republican voters seem to have been entirely capable of rejecting elite cues and warnings promulgated by leaders of their own party and the media.

The public not only often picks and chooses which threats to be fearful of but it can also be quite selective, and often rather unpredictably so, about which issues it wishes to pay attention to. For example, about the only time the American public chose to pay much attention to the war in Bosnia, a venture much publicized and agonized over by TIC elites in the 1990s, was when an American airman was shot down behind enemy lines and when American troops were dispatched to the area to police the situation.

 To the extent that the public accepts cues from the TIC, it is probably better to see the cue givers not so much as creators, but as merchants who put ideas on the shelf for the public to consume, reject, or ignore as it chooses. The essential dynamic is substantially bottom up: far from creating or perpetuating public fears, the TIC is governed and manipulated by them. Thus, leaders seem incapable of pointing out, as Cohen and Zenko note, that an American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist is one in four million per year or that Islamist terrorists have managed to kill but six people per year since 2001. For a leader to suggest that terrorism might pose an acceptable risk (or even to discuss the issue) appears to be utterly impossible.

For the Threat-Industrial Complex, then, the incentives were (and are) to play to the galleries and to stoke fears: if the public remains terrified by a threat, there is likely to be considerably more purchase in servicing the notion than in seeking to counter it. The problem seems less to do with the TIC than with those to whom it panders. And, despite the admirable efforts of this engaging book, if people want to be afraid, nothing will stop them no matter how clear their present safety may be.


—John Mueller

John Mueller is a political scientist in the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 34.1

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