/ Published April 19, 2021
Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans by Michael A. Cohen and Micah Zenko. Yale University Press, 2019, 256 pp.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” President Franklin Roosevelt’s Great Depression–era slogan perfectly describes the core idea in co-authors’ Michael A. Cohen and Micah Zenko’s 2019 book, Clear and Present Safety. A March/April 2012 Foreign Affairs essay was the incubator for the book seven years later. Cohen, then a columnist with the Boston Globe, teamed up with Zenko, then a columnist with Foreign Policy, to challenge the notion of what they term the “threat industrial complex.”
Central to this idea is the concept of threat inflation—rhetoric continuously espoused by policy makers, the media, politicians, and academics (and then parroted by others) promoting fear and pessimism. The rhetoric is misleading Americans about foreign threats while ignoring and masking more serious national security challenges at home. Through somewhat shocking but now all-too-familiar public statements by these groups of people, Cohen and Zenko paint a stark and depressing state of affairs for America relative to external threats to national security from early in the book. Those in national security circles can easily relate to the sound bites and arguments made for why the sky is falling and how America’s existence as a leader in the world community is at stake. But is there truth to those arguments? The authors by and large say no!
After the barrage of public statements used to jolt readers, Cohen and Zenko methodically go about setting the level of reality. A prominent example of the threat inflation talk rampant in the US for years has been terrorism abroad. The argument is that if America does not act with resources (people and money) to keep the problem away from its shores, we will all be speaking another language and perhaps be under someone else’s rule. The reality suggests otherwise. Fear is overblown disproportionate to the rhetoric. A similar and steady grandiloquence is expressed through the constant talk of how the US will soon be at war with the Chinese. Again, we are fed a steady diet of threat inflation where fears may be somewhat mischaracterized.
In each of these instances and a host of others, Cohen and Zenko broadly describe how things at home—obesity, drinking, smoking, suicides, the opioid crisis, noncommunicable diseases, gun homicides, and other harmful things―kill or hurt Americans more. And why does this matter? The concern is that the country is spending far less on domestic issues than on “threat industrial complex” elements.
Further, the authors strengthen their argument not only with convincing data and well-researched statistics. They also note how Americans today are prospering more than ever in terms of life expectancy, access to vaccinations, employment, wealth, freedom, education, and the like. In the course of seven chapters in a book under 200 pages long, they set about their task.
The authors make several key points. First, external threats are minor concerns for Americans on a daily basis relative to the domestic issues cited above. Second, the notions of freedom, interconnectedness, and general prosperity exist at an all-time high for the general population relative to years past. Third, it is necessary to think about national security differently, focusing on systemic and personal threats and issues while thinking a bit less about unrealities that may never affect the US at all. Fourth, as Americans, we should collectively be more skeptical and hold accountable those in the public sphere whose claims seem far-fetched and detached from reality. Fifth, Americans should measure and think about today’s prosperity thesis relative to the broader historical context of the past, including the “missile gap,” “domino theory,” “evil empire,” and other issues that were very real national security concerns at one time. Sixth, the authors use the case study of 9/11 to dramatize and apply the reality of their argument and to propose an alternative. Lastly, the authors recommend ways to reverse what in their view is an unbalanced perspective and approach to foreign threats and national security.
One of the linchpins of the argument is the irony that although most Americans perceive the world as being more dangerous than it is, it is in fact safer than ever before. Why then would all of these public people try to dupe Americans into thinking we are so bad off globally? According to the authors, the answer is simple. Most everyone benefits in some way—materially, through greater news coverage, satisfying constituencies, feeding the industrial and defense base—by arguing the worst case. When you marry this concept with 24-hour news cycles and the constant presence of and ability to employ social media, anxiety and distress are manifest broadly―even if the fears that are promulgated have little impact on the average American.
In their concluding chapter, which in my personal view is excellent, Cohen and Zenko challenge Americans to be more critical of what they hear, read, and see. They implore readers with critical thinking insights to smartly confront the negativity and frame it within a proper context. They also claim that although America is more prosperous, freer, and healthier than at any time in its history, much more can and should be done to improve the lot of the average American versus the feeding of the threat industrial complex.
I found only one shortcoming in the argument, and that was a failure to address the effect of public statements on the thinking and actions of potential US adversaries. Though a nontangible and unquantifiable concept, the deterrent effects of misleading information and half-truths can and should play a role in an overall information strategy. Getting the authors’ thoughts on the subject would have been useful.
This book is clearly for all national security professionals and those with an interest in this topic, as its sole focus and treatment of the subject cannot easily be found elsewhere.
Brig Gen Chad T. Manske, USAF, Retired
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."