With Donald Trump in the White House, political divisiveness has
reached new heights. Yet virtually everyone in Washington still
agrees about at least one thing: The United States is beset by
Americans are constantly bombarded with exaggerated claims about
the threat from terrorism and immigration, a nuclear North Korea,
the Iranian menace, China, Russia, and all manner of perils to
world order. Yet the truth is that America faces no major national
security threats from abroad. In fact, a much more proximate threat
Americans face comes from Washington, when policies intended to
chase after inflated threats waste money, undermine civil
liberties, and subvert the rule of law.
When it comes to terrorism and immigration, for example, the
fact is that neither poses a significant threat to Americans.
Research shows that immigrants commit less crime on average than American citizens do, and
your chance of being killed by a Muslim
terrorist is about 1 in 6 million. That’s way less than your
chances of being struck by lightning.
Politicians love to
exaggerate threats because it makes them look tough and
The same goes for supposed threats overseas. In Senate testimony
last month, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that North Korea’s nuclear program
is a “very significant, potentially existential threat to the
U.S.” Not true. Nobody welcomes nuclear weapons in
the hands of volatile dictators like Kim Jong Un, but there is no
indication that Pyongyang wants the bomb for any reason other than
to deter a U.S. or South Korean attack. Using nukes would mean
immediate retaliation and the destruction of the regime — not
a scenario North Korea is eager to bring about.
The same goes for the supposed threat from Iran. Even putting
aside the fact that Iran has rolled back its nuclear program
in compliance with international obligations
and has just reelected a moderate reformist, Iran is a
third-rate military power plagued by internal challenges and
surrounded by more powerful regional enemies, like Saudi Arabia and
Israel. In terms of military capability, they are a molehill to the American mountain
and do not represent a serious threat to U.S. security.
The hysteria over Russia and China is similarly overstated.
Moscow is a problem for some of the weaker states that border it,
but the United States’ GDP is more than 13 times
that of Russia’s, and the bulk of European economic and
military power towers over Russia’s. It is not a great power
on the order of the Soviet Union and certainly cannot threaten the
security of the United States beyond spreading fake news on the
And China has exhibited an impressively benign foreign policy,
given its growing power. The extent of the immediate peril seems to
be that Beijing claims sovereignty over a bunch of uninhabited
rocks in the South China Sea. It’s hard to see how that represents
a direct threat to the United States.
In spite of the little there truly is to fear from any of the
above, politicians love to exaggerate threats because it makes them
look tough and strong. The media love to emphasize looming dangers
because it boosts viewership. And the bureaucracies in Washington
tend to amplify meager security concerns because it sustains high
budgets and political relevance, and protects them from blame in
the event of a terrorist attack or instability overseas.
The reality, however, is that the United States is remarkably
insulated from foreign threats. We are still an economic
powerhouse, we are geographically isolated from enemies, we have a
superior nuclear deterrent and the most powerful military in the
Indeed, the biggest threat comes not from ISIS, mad Iranian
mullahs, or wily autocrats. No, the real threat Americans face is
from their own government. When Washington chooses to become
entangled in unnecessary foreign wars, it imposes serious human and
financial costs. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed
hundreds of thousands, including almost 7,000 U.S. soldiers, and
along with other post-9/11 expenses, has cost more than $5 trillion. What we’ve gained
in terms of increased safety is less clear.
Likewise, when the National Security Agency infringes on our Fourth Amendment rights to
privacy in the name of protecting us, it threatens our liberties.
When the federal government takes hundreds of billions of dollars
every year from the productive sectors of the private economy to
pay for a defense budget that is more than double the combined budgets of both
Russia and China, the next biggest military spenders, it makes
us all poorer. And when a capricious president threatens judges,
fires disloyal law enforcement officials, and denigrates American
political norms, it undermines the institutions that are designed
to prevent tyrannical abuses of power.
As Abraham Lincoln once said, “All the armies of Europe,
Asia, and Africa combined” cannot threaten America’s
survival. “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its
author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through
all time or die by suicide.”
John Glaser is
associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.
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