“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address. While this may not be strictly true, especially for a nation in the midst of the Great Depression and less than a decade away from entering World War II, the U.S. has far less to fear today than it did in 1933—and the fact remains that irrational fear as a driving force of a country’s behavior is just as destructive in 2016 as it was back then.
“You often hear people saying, on both sides of the political divide, that the world is a mess,” said Joseph Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund, in Reinvent’s recent video conversation. “The world is not a mess. It’s just messy.” The collapse of the existing order in the Middle East, Cirincione said, is one manifestation of the world’s messiness. “But the world itself is doing pretty darn good. We do not have major powers in conflict. We have small wars. We do not have major wars. Europe, the bloodiest continent in human history, has been at peace for over 70 years now, with a couple of tragic exceptions.”
Our participants largely agreed with this prognosis of the state of our union. While many GOP politicians and cable news networks want us to believe the sky is falling, especially where terrorism is concerned, this outlook obscures the fact that both the U.S. and the world are largely safer and more peaceful today than they have been for decades.
“People think that in their own city, things are okay, but what we hear about the rest of world is that things are going to hell,” said James Fallows, national correspondent at The Atlantic. “Back in the 1970s, crime in American cities was becoming a genuine disaster. In the 1980s and afterwards, crime went down, but fear of crime continued to go up…As things objectively get better, fear gets worse.”
The state of the union (and the world) is strong
Fallows thinks that it’s more obvious to foreigners than Americans how few reasons the U.S. has to worry. “Our wealth is enormous, our physical location is so much better than China’s, or Poland’s, or Russia’s, or anybody else’s, we have immigration,” said Fallows. “To see these signs of ‘fraidy cat-ism’ and political cowardice from the U.S., I think it looks bad. It looks bad to us, and it looks even worse to others.”
Almost half of Americans (46 percent) and 67 percent of Republicans believe the U.S. is “less important and powerful” than it was ten years ago, according to data from Pew. While 54 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is the top economic power, 34 percent believe China is the top economic power. According to Fallows, who spent years living in China, “the reason not to be afraid of China, as anyone who has experience there knows, is that whatever problems the U.S. has, China has to the nth degree. I did an informal survey of some of my foreign friends in Beijing before I left a couple years ago, asking if anybody was afraid of China. Nobody was. They’re afraid for China.”
While the United States’s position in the world remains strong, the globe as a whole has seen a decline in war deaths and violence and an increase in democracies since World War II. Harvard professor Stephen Pinker and author of the 2011 book Better Angels of our Nature has released updated graphs each year since the book’s publication, including graphs depicting declining global battle deaths and the increasing sum of democracy scores.
According to Christopher Fettweis, author of The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory, and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy, there are currently no active conflicts in the Western hemisphere—with the arguable exception of Colombia, which is in the middle of a postponed peace treaty process. The general decrease in war and violence extends past the Western hemisphere. “I did a paper with a colleague of mine a couple years ago pointing out that the last ten years have been the most peaceful in the history of the African continent, that we know of,” said Fettweis. “Europe is completely at peace. But nobody cares. Fewer people are dying in battle, there are fewer civil wars, fewer ethnic conflicts…but people think the threats have just changed.”
If everything is going (relatively) well, why so much fear?
Part of the reason for American fear may paradoxically stem from our role as global superpower. “Throughout history, most of the time, the strongest country also fears more, and fears differently than other countries,” said Fettweis. “Robert Kagan is fond of saying that in the Old West, the outlaw didn’t shoot the saloon keeper, he shot the sheriff. The sheriff worries more, maybe because he thinks it’s his job to worry more. The Romans often feared the next barbarian over the hill, even though they were the safest society in the Mediterranean world. Something about being at top of the hill makes us believe others are trying to get where we are.”
Heather Hulburt, Director of New Models of Policy Change at New America, spoke about the shift in America’s relationship to fear post-urbanization. “There’s some interesting evidence that suggests that what happens post-WWII is conditioned by the urbanization of the population and the change in the way we live,” said Hurlburt, citing American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety by George Mason University Professor Peter Stearns. “If you grow up on a farm, fear is your friend. Fear is a key tool to avoid getting kicked by a cow or run over by a tractor.”
This shifted, Hurlburt said, when parents began trying to protect their children from fear, rather than teaching them to be afraid of things that could hurt them, but weren’t necessarily evil. “When you’re afraid of the bull,” Hurlburt said, “the bull isn’t evil. Now fear and evil go together.”
While fear of terrorism or fear of the U.S. being surpassed by China are frequently blown wildly out of proportion, the U.S. and the world without question face significant challenges, from the refugee crisis to the destabilization of the Middle East. But most of our participants agreed that the world faces only two problems that are truly existential, in that they threaten our way of life.
Humans created climate change and nuclear weapons. Can we eliminate them?
During the Reagan era, there were almost 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Today we have around 15,000. “It’s still 15,000 too many,” said Cirincione, “but we’ve made enormous progress in cutting those arsenals and restricting the number of countries that have nuclear weapons. People think that more and more countries are getting nuclear weapons all the time, but that just isn’t true.”
In the 1960s, there were 23 countries that either had nuclear weapons or had research programs to build them. Today only nine countries have nuclear weapons. More countries have given up nuclear weapons in the last 30 years than have tried to get them, according to Cirincione, and President Obama is the first U.S. president in 24 years to not have a country go nuclear on his watch.
“It shows you that with the right policies, the right plans—and Republicans and Democrats have done this, liberals and conservatives—you can actually reduce one of the threats,” said Cirincione.
Fallows categorized both climate change and nuclear weapons as challenges of the commons, and advocated a rational, rather than fear-based, approach to these problems. “In many ways, I think the U.S. is very well-positioned if it doesn’t limit and harm itself through fearful actions,” said Fallows. “We should act confident in our manifest strength and leverage, aware of these problems, and aware too that the main thing which undercuts our interests is panicky, selfish, cowardly-seeming actions.”
Allowing ourselves to be distracted from the challenges posed by climate change and nuclear weapons, and becoming paralyzed with fear of the terrorist overseas or the economic power of China accomplishes nothing. To quote again from Franklin D. Roosevelt, “there are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.”