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opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Are threats to US bigger than ever? No

Most countries adhere to a basic set of global rules and norms, participate in international institutions, and are integrated into an interdependent global economy. Pictured: The United Nations General Assembly last year. AP/file

RAY ODIERNO is kind of a scary dude.

No, I don’t mean the fact that the US Army chief of staff is an intimidating, 6-foot-6, medal-festooned package of intimidation.

Rather, I’m referring to what he told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week. “I believe this is the most uncertain I have seen the national security environment in my nearly 40 years of service,” said Odierno.

He claimed in his written statement that “we no longer live in a world where we have the luxury of time and distance to respond to threats facing our nation.”

That does sound pretty scary. In reality, though, it’s absurd. A world more uncertain than the autumn of 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and in rapid succession took the Communist governments of Eastern Europe along with it? A world where the United States has no “luxury of time” to respond to threats and yet hasn’t seen a terrorist attack on its soil since 9/11 and faces no serious military competitor?

The reality is that international affairs these days are actually pretty easy. There are fewer wars. Inter-state war has virtually disappeared. Granted, Vladimir Putin’s decision to seize Crimea and send Russian troops into Eastern Ukraine upset that good track record. But the international community’s ability to punish Russia for it actions, both diplomatically and economically, indicates there are many more tools to limit and prevent conflict — particularly war between countries — than ever before.


Part of the reason is the lack of uncertainty. More countries around the world are democratic; more provide basic services like health care, clean water, and immunizations to their citizens; most adhere to a basic set of global rules and norms, participate in international institutions, and are integrated into an interdependent global economy. Of the 10 largest militaries in the world (after the United States), all but two are allied with or partner with the US military. That’s a very different world than the one that existed when Odierno began his service four decades ago.


Yet the most striking thing about Odierno’s historically inaccurate statement is that it’s not striking at all.

Here was James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, last January: “Looking back over my more than half a century in intelligence, I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.” Amazingly he made almost the exact same statement the year earlier . . . and also the year before that.

And here was Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in front of Congress in February 2012: “I can’t impress upon you enough that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” Pretty heady stuff from a guy who lived through the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Cold War.

Dempsey, however, has nothing on John McCain, who said recently, “We are probably in the most serious period of turmoil in our lifetime.” Keep in mind McCain grew up during a global conflict that killed more than 100 million people.

Why do otherwise intelligent people keep saying such silly things? In the case of Odierno, it’s about money. The Army chief was testifying about the impact of budget cuts on military readiness and there is no better way to convince Congress to spend more money on defense than to tell it the sky is falling. As for the others, warnings about a “dangerous,’’ “complex,’’ or “uncertain’’ world is practically a pro forma exercise in Washington. After all, the most effective way to convince otherwise indifferent Americans that they should care about foreign policy — and maintain America’s nearly limitless definition of its national interests — is by describing the world as a hotbed of lurking dangers.


If the world today is actually safer, freer, more prosperous, better educated, and healthier than at pretty much any point in human history, then perhaps America doesn’t need such a large military or global presence. Of course, that’s not a scary story; it just happens to be the truth.


Stephen Kinzer: Overreaction to terrorism is the true threat

Alan M. Dershowitz: War of principles

Nicholas Burns: Obama’s daunting new year

The Internationalist: Foreign policy wins Obama could still pull off

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.