I explained that for much of my life, the United States and the Soviet Union had 20,000 nuclear warheads aimed at each other. I recollected that each day during the Cold War, we awoke with the possibility, as remote as it was, that our world could be changed drastically by dinner.
I was reminded again of how much more safe and secure life is today while reading an article in the April/May edition of Foreign Affairs, titled “Clear and Present Safety,” by Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen.
The authors point out that we face real challenges — terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, revolutions, economic crisis in Europe, the rise of new powers, global warming, and pandemic diseases.
Compared to the past, however, Zenko and Cohen conclude, “The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history.”
The great ideological contests of the 20th century, the confrontations with fascism and communism, are settled.
Not everyone on the planet enjoys the benefits of life in a republic, but the ideal of democratic government, elected parliaments and congresses, mixed private enterprise economies, and the rule of law are universally admired, even where not practiced.
The world is enjoying greater economic prosperity, more emerging democratic governments, better health, increasing life expectancy, and less violence.
The United States currently has no competitors for world leadership, faces no existential threats, and boasts a military more powerful than all of the next dozen or so biggest militaries combined, and most of those are our allies.
The authors of the Foreign Affairs article report on four global trends.
The first is the reduction of violent hostilities.
In 1992 there were 53 armed conflicts ongoing in 35 countries. By 2010, that number had decreased to 30 in 25 countries. The number killed in each conflict was also declining.
We have also witnessed the spread of political freedom and prosperity. There were 69 elected democracies at the end of the Cold War. Today, there are 117.
Zenko and Cohen note the improvement in public health. The incidence of diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and polio has diminished dramatically, along with water- and food-borne illnesses and many tropical diseases.
The mortality rate of children under age 5 has fallen from 141 in 1,000 in 1970, to 57 in 1,000 in 2010. Global life expectancy has risen from age 59 over that period to 70.
And then, there is the diminishing incidence of terrorism. From 2006 to 2010 there has been a 20 percent drop in terrorist attacks and a 35 percent reduction in deaths.
The authors claim that terrorism is, in fact, a “phantom menace.” While terrorism continues to be a concern, the fear, “is completely out of proportion to both the capabilities of terrorist organizations and the United State’s vulnerabilities.”
Both political parties and many private interests have participated in hyping the level of security challenges to the United States. The exaggeration of military threats distorts our priorities such that too much of our spending is concentrated on defense industries and not enough on other broader national threats.
While non of the above should be taken as a rationale for complacency, Zenko and Cohen conclude, “More than 60 years of U.S. diplomatic and military efforts have helped create a world that is freer and more secure.
“The United States, in other words, has won.”
• Mickey McGuire, a retired high school social studies teacher, is among a select group of local residents with columns in the Tracy Press.