Paul D. Miller

Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen ("Clear and Present Safety," March/April 2012) argue that "the world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place." The country faces no "existential" threats, great-power war is unlikely, democracy and prosperity have spread, public health has improved, and few international challenges place American lives at risk. In light of these developments, they argue, the United States is safer today than it was during the Cold War.

The biggest problem with this argument is the authors' narrow definition of what constitutes a threat to the United States: a situation that poses existential danger or causes immediate bodily harm or death to U.S. citizens. This threshold is shortsighted and unrealistically high. If the same framework were applied to the twentieth century, then the outbreak of World War I and the German invasion of Poland in 1939 would not have been considered threats to the United States. But U.S. strategists then understood that because their country was a primary beneficiary and architect of the world order, any threat to that order was a threat to the United States itself. 

So, too, today, there are major challenges to the global order that endanger U.S. national security, whether or not they pose existential or immediate threats. They include nuclear-armed autocracies, the spread of failed states and the rogue actors who operate from within them, and a global Islamist insurgency. Because the United States has lacked a single superpower rival and has focused chiefly on defeating terrorism and al Qaeda, it has underestimated the danger from all three. 


The single greatest danger to global peace and to the United States is the presence of powerful autocratic states armed with nuclear weapons. Democracies, including those with atomic weapons, generally share a similar view of the world as the United States and thus rarely pose threats. Unlike during the Cold War, when the United States faced only two nuclear-armed autocratic adversaries, China and the Soviet Union, now it may soon face five: Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan (if civilian rule there proves illusory and relations with the United States continue to deteriorate), and Iran (should its nuclear program succeed). All these countries are at least uncooperative with, if not outright hostile to, the United States. Zenko and Cohen are sanguine about the prospects of great-power war, but a militarized crisis involving nuclear weapons states is more likely today than at any time in decades. 

Russia no longer purports to lead a global revolution aimed at overthrowing all capitalist states, but its contemporary ideology -- authoritarian, nationalist, and quasi-imperialist -- threatens Europe's future freedom and territorial integrity. The Kremlin was likely involved in the 2007 cyberattack on Estonia, a NATO ally, which targeted the country's parliament, government offices, banks, and media organizations. And in 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, which had been promised future NATO membership. As his popularity at home erodes, Russian President Vladimir Putin may once again allow a foreign crisis to escalate to win nationalist plaudits. For more than 70 years, U.S. policymakers have equated Europe's security with that of the United States; it is that notion that gives credence to the U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney's contention that Russia is the United States' "number one geopolitical foe."

Meanwhile, China clearly poses a greater danger today than it did during the Cold War. The United States and China fought to a bloody stalemate in the Korean War and remained enemies for the next two decades. But crippled by economic weakness, in 1972, Beijing embraced diplomatic relations with Washington. China's power quickly grew as the country liberalized its economy and modernized its military. It is now a formidable power, armed with nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile capability, and it has invested heavily in building up its navy. Its increasing strength has emboldened it to aim more overtly at reducing U.S. influence in East Asia. The same Pentagon report that Zenko and Cohen cite to calm fears about China also notes that "Beijing is developing capabilities intended to deter, delay, or deny possible U.S. support for [Taiwan] in the event of conflict. The balance of cross-Strait military forces and capabilities continues to shift in the mainland's favor." And because U.S. relations with China are prone to regular crises, as during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and after the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, a militarized confrontation with China is more likely today than at any point since the Korean War. 

In addition to Russia and China, there may soon be up to three more nuclear autocracies hostile to the United States. North Korea and Iran are avowed enemies of the United States, and distrust between the United States and Pakistan has never been higher. Pakistan and North Korea tested nuclear weapons in 1998 and 2006, respectively, and Iran will almost certainly develop a nuclear weapons capability. (To be sure, a U.S. or Israeli strike could temporarily delay Iran's nuclear program. But such an attack might well provoke a wider war, illustrating once again the dangers rife in the international system.) All three states have invested in medium- and long-range ballistic missiles that could hit U.S. allies, and despite the failure of North Korea's recent missile test, the United States must take seriously the possibility that any of these three states could soon be able to produce missiles that could hit the U.S. homeland. North Korea's nuclear arsenal is very small, and it would take years for Iran to accumulate a nuclear stockpile. But these states need only a few dozen warheads to pose a major challenge to the United States. What is more, because of their technological and conventional military weakness, North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran have sought to level the playing field by investing in unconventional capabilities or terrorist organizations, the latter of which could be used to carry out a nuclear attack.


In addition to traditional threats from nuclear-armed states, the United States faces dangers that it rarely or never encountered during the Cold War: failed states and the rogue actors that operate from within them, including pirates, organized criminals, drug cartels, terrorists, and hackers. 

Zenko and Cohen correctly observe that these kinds of dangers have often been overblown. There is nothing new about pirates and terrorists, for example, and they have rarely been more than a nuisance. What is new are their increased capabilities to threaten the United States, capabilities magnified by technology, globalization, and state failure. Travel and communication have become easier, weapons technology is more lethal, and the growing number of lawless countries offers fertile ground for rogue actors to operate with impunity. At the same time, U.S. border, port, and infrastructure security has not kept up. Osama bin Laden harmed the United States in a way that would have been inconceivable for a nonstate actor during the Cold War. And even if the United States can prevent another 9/11 or a crippling cyberattack, the aggregate effects of an increasing number of malicious nonstate actors include rising costs of sustaining the global liberal order, a slowing of the gears of normal diplomatic and economic exchange, and heightened public suspicion and uncertainty.

The most dangerous threat of this type is what the counterterrorism scholar David Kilcullen has called the global Islamist insurgency, consisting of campaigns by Islamist militants to erase Western influence in Muslim countries, replace secular governments in the Muslim world with hard-line regimes, and eventually establish the supremacy of their brand of Islam across the world. Some Islamist organizations have directly targeted the United States and its allies in dozens of attacks and attempted attacks over the last decade. Of these groups, Zenko and Cohen mention only al Qaeda, and they repeat the Obama administration's claim that the organization is near defeat. The claim is wrong, but even if it were true, it would be irrelevant: al Qaeda is only the most famous member of a global network of Islamist movements that oppose the United States. If such a movement were to take over any country, that country would offer a safe haven to al Qaeda and its affiliates, allies, and copycats. But if one were to seize control of Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons, or Saudi Arabia, with its oil wealth, the resulting regime would pose a major threat to global order. 

During the Cold War, the only phenomenon comparable to today's proliferation of militant Islamist groups was the Soviet Union's sponsorship of communist insurgencies around the world. But the Islamist movements will likely prove more resilient and more dangerous, because they are decentralized, their ideology does not rest on the fate of one particular regime, and globalization has made it easier for them to operate across borders. There is also a greater risk that Islamists will acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, since they are not accountable to one particular sponsoring power that can be deterred. 

Zenko and Cohen are right that the United States needs to reinvest in its tools of soft power, including diplomacy and development. But those tools are not enough to cope with hostile states armed with nuclear weapons, rogue actors empowered by technology and globalization, and a worldwide network of insurgent and terrorist groups that claim they have a religious duty to oppose the United States. In attempting to manage or defeat these threats, the United States cannot afford to reduce its military capabilities, as Zenko and Cohen advise. Waiting to respond to dangers only once they threaten the very existence of the United States, instead of trying to prevent them from materializing, is an irresponsible basis for foreign policy.

PAUL D. MILLER is Assistant Professor of International Security Studies at the National Defense University. He served as Director for Afghanistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from September 2007 to September 2009. The views expressed here are his own. 


In "Clear and Present Safety," we argued that the world the United States inhabits is a remarkably safe place and that politicians, government officials, military leaders, and national security experts regularly overstate threats to the country. In this regard, Paul Miller's response is not an indictment of our thesis but a strong corroboration.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better example than Miller's response of how potential challenges are regularly inflated in order to justify an ever-expanding national security infrastructure. Miller relies on alarmist, worst-case scenarios and dubious historical analogies. Even worse, he displays a surprising lack of confidence in the United States' ability to respond to emerging challenges. 

In Miller's dystopian worldview, every potential provocation, no matter how far-fetched, both is likely to occur and requires a militarized response. 

Take his approving citation of Mitt Romney's claim that Russia is the United States' "number one geopolitical foe." Despite his halfhearted caveat that Moscow "no longer purports to lead a global revolution aimed at overthrowing all capitalist states," he still seems to believe that a demographically, economically, and diplomatically weakened Russia is bent on imperiling European security. Reading Miller, one would never know that a massive, 28-state military alliance, comprising 3.5 million active-duty troops and close to 2,500 nuclear weapons, exists in large measure to block Russian revanchist aspirations. 

Miller claims that "Iran will almost certainly develop a nuclear weapons capability." That Tehran has decided to pursue nuclear weapons, however, would be news to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency, neither of which shares Miller's view. Even if Iran did go nuclear, there is little reason to believe that the United States could not contain it, just as it has contained numerous other nuclear powers since World War II.

Miller speaks of a global Islamist insurgency and warns grimly that Pakistan or Saudi Arabia could be taken over by radical Islamists. These are doomsday scenarios that have been batted around for the last decade but are unlikely to materialize. This is largely because jihadist groups have shown little actual ability to seize power in these countries, where they enjoy paltry public support.

Miller also argues that any authoritarian state with a few dozen nuclear weapons would "pose a major challenge to the United States." But he omits the motive for these countries to seek nuclear weapons -- defense -- and discounts the United States' own formidable nuclear deterrent. In the past ten years, North Korea has developed a small nuclear capability, but that acquisition has had little effect on the strategic balance on the Korean Peninsula because of U.S. conventional and nuclear weapons deployed in the theater. What is striking, although Miller mentions the failure of Pyongyang's most recent missile test, it seems to have had no impact on his dire prediction of a North Korean missile threat to the U.S. homeland.

Finally, Miller argues that "a militarized confrontation with China is more likely today than at any point since the Korean War." His basis for this assertion is that U.S.-Chinese relations "are prone to regular crises," such as those during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and following the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. But neither of these disputes, nor the many others that have occasionally roiled relations in the last two decades, came even close to provoking a militarized conflict. 

The reason is both obvious and important: neither Washington nor Beijing has any interest in going to war, and both have employed formal and informal mechanisms to prevent conflict, including the exchange of special envoys, the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, and mutual membership in the World Trade Organization. Indeed, the U.S.-Chinese relationship has been defined by intermittent cooperation and mutual interest on such issues as curbing nuclear proliferation, enhancing global economic stability, and even putting in place sanctions against Iran.And as the recent incident involving the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng demonstrated, neither side wants to openly confront the other. So it remains a mystery why Miller contends that "China clearly poses a greater danger today than it did during the Cold War."

Just as Miller overestimates the threats the United States faces, he also underestimates Washington's ability to respond to those challenges. The United States has unmatched intelligence and analytic capabilities and some of the world's best diplomats. Its defense budget is larger than those of the next 14 countries combined and supports over 2,000 operationally deployed nuclear weapons; an air force of some 4,000 aircraft; a navy with 285 ships, including 11 carrier strike groups; and 770,000 active-duty soldiers and marines. Even if this budget is reduced by eight percent over the coming decade, as Congress agreed it would be as part of the 2011 debt-limit agreement, the men and women who protect the country and its interests will still be able to meet the challenges that may come their way.

Miller is right to conclude that "waiting to respond to dangers only once they threaten the very existence of the United States, instead of trying to prevent them from materializing, is an irresponsible basis for foreign policy." He is wrong, however, about the appropriate strategy and tools to stop these dangers from emerging.

Our essay argued that the United States must rebalance its national security strategy to de-emphasize the currently dominant role of the military. Miller apparently disagrees, but he never explains why a highly militarized foreign policy can best manage the challenges facing the United States in the twenty-first century. Even if one accepts Miller's darkly pessimistic worldview, it does not necessarily follow that the armed forces should take the lead in carrying out U.S. foreign policy. If the past decade demonstrated anything, it is that military action is not always the best way to keep the country safe and healthy, especially if one wants to avoid the accompanying cost in blood and treasure and a host of unintended consequences.

Since September 11, 2001, U.S. defense spending has grown by 70 percent, intelligence spending by 100 percent, and homeland security spending by 300 percent. Miller implicitly argues that these efforts have not made the United States any safer. But he refuses to provide any alternatives, sticking to the same pattern of overreaction that our essay addressed. It makes little sense to continue to base U.S. national security strategy on such a flawed premise and yet expect a different outcome.

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