Why Using the Word “Threat” Gets Progressives Up in Arms

Note to selves: Don’t start a conversation among progressives about how to change American foreign policy by asking about future “threats.”

“I want to be wary of taking threats as the starting point,” said Robert Naiman, the policy director at Just Foreign Policy, in a recent Reinvent roundtable.

“Rather than starting from ‘what do we have to be scared about?’ we should start from ‘what should the U.S. be trying to do?” said Heather Hurlburt, director of New Models of Policy Change at New America.

Editor-in-Chief of TruthDig Robert Scheer added later, “I object to the language that’s being used about threats. Threat immediately implies a military problem, immediately summons up an idea of force, and inevitably gives rise to threat inflation and the demonization of others.”

Naiman suggested that the continual use of the language of “threats” in government circles and society at large fuels an artificially high level of threat mobilization. “We face no threat that’s like the threat of Nazi Germany,” said Naiman. “We face no threat that’s of the same magnitude as the threat of Soviet Russia…The idea that we should move from one threat to another while maintaining the same level of threat mobilization is harmful. If you’re not in a state of emergency, then you can afford to have a longer horizon.”

The word “threat” is clearly a very loaded one among progressives desperate to move away from a trigger-happy approach to foreign policy. Our discussion focused less on security and the military (except to agree that its use should be diminished in foreign policy) and more on pressing global challenges that will require innovation, diplomacy, and a spirit of collaboration.

“The reason we’re struggling a bit with the construct you have here is that talking about threats and security is very much a paradigm that we all think we know what it means,” said Hurlburt. “We think it means ‘let’s talk about Afghanistan, let’s talk about Vietnam, let’s argue about drones.'” Hurlburt suggested that the frame not only of this conversation but also of the larger societal conversation, should shift in focus from threats to opportunities.

“Americans do better when they’re given something hopeful to think about,” said Hurlburt. “The risk that we run is that we know really well how to turn any issue into a security issue and hand it off to the Pentagon. The Pentagon is very good at killing people and breaking things. If we don’t think the way to fix something is to kill people and break things, then we don’t want to frame it as a security-based threat, because our society has built a straight conveyor belt to the Pentagon for it.”

According to Charles Knight, senior fellow at the Project for Defense Alternatives, the top three threats to the United States are climate change, economic inequality, and the regulation of international finance. Independent investigative journalist Gareth Porter suggested that climate change should be at the top of the hierarchy of threats the U.S. is facing.

Robert Scheer, who is very much in favor of a much smaller American military and global presence, believes the U.S. needs to continue to engage with the world, partly because the U.S. caused or contributed to the global problems that Knight named. “We have worldwide problems of income inequality, racism, religious fanaticism, and climate change,” said Scheer, “and we have to address them in a spirit that does not rely on the military option, does not demonize others, and recognizes our common humanity.”

Hurlburt expressed optimism that our society’s approach to threats are slowly beginning to change. She mentioned the forthcoming Paris climate talks, which will be devoid of our traditional tools for dealing with threats: guns, bullets, and missiles. “Even those of us who think of ourselves as the alternative, we’re not used to thinking that way,” said Hurlburt. Naiman brought up another alternative to the use of force: the multilateral diplomacy that resulted in the Iran Deal.

There was widespread disagreement among participants about what might be too utopian and naive, and what might be actionable, in a vision for a new American foreign policy. However, there was also widespread consensus that foreign policymaking needs to change through new methods of oversight, a greater diversity of decision-makers, and a focus on diplomacy rather than military action.

“I worry enormously about how the growing size of the national security state with the tools that it has, and the willingness of our political elites to yield power to it without oversight is an enormous threat to our democracy,” said Hurlburt. “The way forward in American foreign policy, as in American democracy writ large, is to give all of our fellow citizens credit for being rational actors, for making the best decisions they can with the information they have, and within the systems they have to work. And frankly, making sure we spend more time communicating across military/civilian, expert/non-expert, elite/non-elite, in government/out of government, generational boundaries to think about what it is we want to be doing in the world and how we want to be doing it.”