Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Fear not!

Reality isn't as scary as some would like us to believe.

Foreign policy professionals and the reporters who cover them have a natural bias towards seeing the world as a dangerous place. After all, if your assessment of a country or an issue is "mostly harmless" (as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy famously described our planet), you're going to lose your audience and some of your funding. I'm not saying this is a conscious decision (at least not in most cases), but fear is to foreign policy as sex is to advertising and Hollywood: It sells.

Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen do a good job of revealing this bias -- and how far it is from reality -- in a recent article in Foreign Affairs.

They point to a survey that shows that 69 percent of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations (the definition of the foreign policy establishment) feel the world is as or more dangerous for the US than it was during the Cold War and recent statements from politicians. Near-certain Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney says the world is growing ever more perilous and President Barack Obama's Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appears to agree, saying in a speech last year that "security, geopolitical, economic, and demographic shifts in the international order (are making) the world more unpredictable, more volatile and, yes, more dangerous."

Yet by every objective measure the world at large is remarkably safe by historical standards. Why the love of fear? Zenko and Cohen argue:

"The disparity between foreign threats and domestic threat-mongering results from a confluence of factors. The most obvious and important is electoral politics. Hyping dangers serves the interests of both political parties. For Republicans, who have long benefited from attacking Democrats for their alleged weakness in the face of foreign threats, there is little incentive to tone down the rhetoric; the notion of a dangerous world plays to perhaps their greatest political advantage. For Democrats, who are fearful of being cast as feckless, acting and sounding tough is a shield against GOP attacks and an insurance policy in case a challenge to the United States materializes into a genuine threat. Warnings about a dangerous world also benefit powerful bureaucratic interests. The specter of looming dangers sustains and justifies the massive budgets of the military and the intelligence agencies, along with the national security infrastructure that exists outside government -- defense contractors, lobbying groups, think tanks, and academic departments."

They write that in the past 20 years, war and terrorism have become much less prevalent and that when the world does fight, it does so with much less ferocity. Al Qaeda is scattered and weakened, and fears of a nuclear Iran are highly exaggerated, particularly when the country does not have a single working warhead or delivery system yet, compared to the thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the US by the Soviet Union (and vice versa) during the Cold War. As for the "war on terrorism"? "Of the 13,186 people killed by terrorist attacks in 2010, only 15, or 0.1 percent, were U.S. citizens. In most places today -- and especially in the United States -- the chances of dying from a terrorist attack or in a military conflict have fallen almost to zero," the authors write.

The next time you turn on the television and get a dose of a "we're all doomed" screaming from a politician or commentator, read the Foreign Affairs piece as an antidote.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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