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Ignore the headlines. The world is getting safer all the time.

A sign indicating danger.
A sign indicating danger.
Shutterstock

It's easy to feel like the world is becoming a scarier place. ISIS has established a foothold in Syria and Iraq. Russia is taking territory from Ukraine. North Korea (allegedly) attacked a major US movie studio. And, most recently, terrorists stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve. Policymakers certainly seem to think things are getting worse; in 2013, even before any of those developments, Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Martin Dempsey declared that the world was "more dangerous than it has ever been."

But if you take a broader view, Dempsey is completely, utterly wrong. If anything, the world is safer than it's ever been. The threat of nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union has lifted. Great power wars of the kind that plagued Europe until 1945 are a thing of the past. Peoples' odds of dying from violence, including warfare, have never been lower.

A Dangerous World?, an edited volume released by the Cato Institute this past October, makes the case that the level of danger posed to the US by everything from terrorism to the rise of China to cyberattacks has been greatly exaggerated by policymakers and the press. I spoke with Cato's vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, Christopher Preble, who edited the book with Ohio State professor and Cato senior fellow John Mueller, on Tuesday. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.

Dylan Matthews: What's the basic case that the world is getting safer?

Christopher Preble: It's understandable why some people believe that we live in a particularly dangerous world. As the cliché goes, the media doesn't cover the planes that land safely. But if you look at it empirically, which Steven Pinker among others has done, a person's chances of dying a violent death are at historic lows. We're living longer, healthier lives. It's not unique to the United States, or even modern, Western countries. There's quite a bit of evidence worldwide that we're living longer, better lives and that we're safer.

The counterargument is that, while it's true that war is claiming fewer lives globally and the US has been remarkably secure from war for a long time, there are a whole range of new threats in addition to interstate war that collectively pose a greater danger than faced us in the past. We wanted to scrutinize that at a granular level, including terrorism, cyberattacks, climate change, human security, traditional state threats like China, etc. The end result is a collection of essays that hang together along one major theme: the world is not uniquely dangerous, it is not more dangerous than it has ever been, and if you look at it dispassionately it's safer than it was two or three decades ago.

DM: What about nuclear weapons? Cold War-style brinkmanship is a thing of the past, but if proliferation to Pakistan and North Korea increased the odds of a weapon actually being used, by a state or a terrorist group, then that suggests the world has gotten less safe over the past two decades.

Kim Jong-Un Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

(Ed Jones / AFP / Getty)

CP: John Mueller has written a whole book on this. He argues that most states and most terrorists have concluded that nuclear weapons are more trouble than they're worth. If the object is to terrorize, a determined terrorist can accomplish that, tragically, by purely conventional means, and fairly small-scale conventional means, like a backpack bomb. There's evidence some terrorist groups recognize this. John cites a message sent between al-Qaeda leaders recovered in Pakistan in 2004 that says, essentially, "don't waste your time on things that aren't attainable."

That's not to say there's no concern. We'd all agree that trying to limit the amount of weapons-grade nuclear material in the world makes a low risk even lower, and the costs of doing that are manageable. The reason it's hard for terrorists to acquire this material is that they've attempted it in the past, and doing that attracts the attention of lots of people, including other people looking for nuclear material. This is an argument for normal, ongoing intelligence work.

Having said that, it's extremely difficult to pilfer or build a functioning thermonuclear device. Acquiring nuclear material and spreading it around through a dirty bomb is less difficult, but those effects can be and have been exaggerated. We have very high standards for determining what's an acceptable level of exposure to radiological material, and that can lead to fears out of proportion to the actual danger.

DM: Proliferation also has the potential to destabilize the balance of power in certain regions — East Asia in particular — in a way that makes war more likely. Do you worry about that?

CP: I worry about it, but I don't worry about it as much as many. Many international relations experts think that the number one reason why the US behaves as it does is to discourage other people from acquiring nuclear weapons. That's the leading argument for why the US provides security guarantees to South Korea and Japan and Germany.

Those concerns are overdone. You have evidence from history, which is in Frank Gavin's chapter, suggesting that when states acquire nuclear weapons, it doesn't spark a cascade. Israel getting nuclear weapons didn't cause a proliferation of nuclear weapons states across the Mideast. Pakistan and India are locked in this back and forth, but I don't think you can call that a proliferation cascade. North Korea is a nuclear weapons state, as we define it. They seem to be perfecting the ability to refine uranium and to make an actual device. We see no evidence that South Korea and Japan are more seriously considering acquiring weapons because North Korea has moved in this direction.

There's a lot of confidence in traditional deterrence. I think there's some evidence that nuclear weapons have a deterrent effect, but many states have concluded that the effect isn't great enough to warrant their own arsenal. So many states that could have a weapon if they chose to don't.

DM: Let's talk about conventional terrorism. Mueller has for years argued persuasively that the potential for harm just isn't that great — the death toll is comparable to that of lightning strikes. The counterargument is that deaths from terrorism have a much greater psychological impact than deaths from lightning or bee stings. What do you say to that?

CP: We wrote another book — me, Benjamin Friedman, and Jim Harper — on this topic, to which John contributed two chapters. The bottom line is that terrorism works through our reaction to it. That's both a psychological effect — how do people change behavior on the basis of their fear? — and an effect on policymakers — what policies do they implement? If those policies are demonstrably harmful to liberty, if they are unwise fiscally, then they're doing the terrorists' work for them.

Terrorism is different. We don't dispute that. It's incumbent on policymakers and elite opinion makers to speak candidly and honestly to the public, to treat them like adults, and to put the terrorism threat in context — not to diminish that threat, but to reduce its effectiveness. It's about building resiliency in society across the board. There's very little penalty for people making unsubstantiated claims about threats — not just terrorism — and we need to recognize that making outrageous claims is harmful in itself. There needs to be some pressure on people to speak dispassionately.

DM: Did ISIS change your thinking on this at all?

ISIS fighter

An ISIS fighter in Syria. (AFP/Getty Images)

CP: Not really, for a couple reasons. ISIS may be a terrorist organization, and may be an insurgency, and may be a quasi-nation-state or attempting to become a quasi-nation-state, but it's hard to be all of those things simultaneously. Austin Long writes about this in his chapter, about the differences between insurgents and terrorists. Most terrorists operate in the shadows. The hard part is not killing them, it's finding them. That's why traditional counterterrorism is an intelligence and information-gathering process. It's a lot like police work.

By declaring itself a state and raising a flag over territory it seizes and holds, ISIS is trading away one of its key advantages, and opening itself up to more traditional military attacks. It's a virulent, reprehensible state, but it's not clear to me that it's a greater terrorist threat than other organizations that are continuing to operate in the shadows.

DM: The Sony hack, and the US government's allegation that North Korea was behind it, has given cyberattacks more prominence as a potential threat. Martin Libicki talks about this in the book; how concerning is it, really?

CP: I really like Martin's chapter, and it's the first time I had studied this in any detail.

We assume a bit too casually that a major cyber incident, even if it doesn't cause longstanding damage, would have long-term ramifications. Martin effectively challenges that by pointing to the multi-hour NASDAQ outage in 2013. There's no evidence that it was a deliberate attack, and yet afterwards the market recovered to the point that we barely remember that incident. Martin doesn't mention this case specifically, but accidents that cause major disruptions to the power grid — like, as the legend goes, a squirrel running into a transformer and causing a major power outage throughout the Northeast in 2003 — don't have a longstanding effect either.

If accidents don't have longstanding effects, then why should we believe a deliberate attack would have a much greater effect? In the past, deliberate cyberattacks have not had longstanding permanent effects. Yes, we will encounter something in the future that is unlike anything we've encountered before. But we can build in resiliency to deal with events we've already witnessed, and maybe reduce the effectiveness of future events. That's worthwhile.

DM: Russia's invasion of Ukraine didn't directly threaten the US, but because of our treaty obligations under NATO, a similar incursion into, say, Estonia would create a problem for us. How big of a threat would that be?

CP: Because we have treaty obligations to Estonia — but didn't to Georgia in 2008, or to Ukraine in 2014 — we have to think seriously about what those commitments mean. We have pledged to go to war with Russia over pieces of territory that most Americans couldn't identify on a map even if they were given serious hints. We did not have a serious debate in this country when NATO expansion was pushed forward, and as NATO moved closer to Russia's borders, the likelihood of these sorts of incidents rose, and the likelihood of US involvement grew with it.

My colleague Justin Logan and I have said that this is an opportunity to revisit those commitments, to think seriously about whether we should maintain them and whether they're credible.

DM: You sometimes hear the argument that the US is needed to balance against China and prevent war between them and Japan, or them and South Korea. How necessary are we there?

xi jinping obama

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama make some solid facial expressions. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

CP: The short answer is that the US, in both economic and military power, is declining in relative terms even though it remains very powerful objectively, and therefore the effectiveness of its deterrent threats, with respect to NATO and disputed territories in the Asia-Pacific, attenuates over time.

The US commitment to defend Japanese territorial claims is less credible than it was 20 years ago, because China's military capability is rising (slowly, but measurably) and the logical response would be for Japan, which has a much greater interest in defending those claims, to enhance its ability to defend them itself rather than remain dependent on the US. The US security guarantee is a less effective deterrent that is, in turn, inhibiting a more effective deterrent.

So what I'd like to have is a better deterrent, and I think a better deterrent is one that's founded on the nation in question, or those that are most proximate to the territory in dispute, not a country that's over 5,000 miles away.

DM: What would a foreign policy that acknowledges the world has gotten safer look like? What should Obama's national security team do differently?

CP: When someone comes to them with a particular crisis and concern, they need to accurately assess the urgency of that crisis — whether it's an imminent threat, if it's just a threat that bears watching — and whom it threatens. Does it threaten the US directly, or primarily US allies' interests? I don't think it's inappropriate to think in a fairly hierarchical way. The things we should be most worried about are the ones that effect the US first, just as I'd expect Japan to be most worried about things that effect them first. That's just human nature.

After you establish what's really worth worrying about and you have some kind of hierarchy, it's important to understand the policy tools available. Managing a problem is often a better approach than trying to solve it, if by solving it you actually make the problem worse. We've seen that play out tragically a number of times in recent years.

I do not envy a President of the United States who has this enormous military power at his disposal. In any given instance, any given crisis, he appears to have the ability to address it, and if he chooses not to, he will only be criticized for not using that instrument. But he can't use it everywhere. We're not omnipotent. He's inevitably going to make choices.

We need a rigorous process, and a fairly transparent process, where we lay out what we've chosen to do in each instance, and why. Hopefully that would inform peoples' responses in the future. Our allies could say, "In the last case the US chose to not engage, and therefore we should expect them to do that in the future, so maybe we should be in a position to do more instead of expecting the US to deal with it."