Courtesy Reuters

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

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