Is the world more dangerous than ever?
General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thinks the world is a terribly dangerous place.
April 12th, 2012
12:02 PM ET

Is the world more dangerous than ever?

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on TwitterThe following is reprinted with the permission of

By Micah

On February 15, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee: “I can’t impress upon you that in my personal military judgment, formed over thirty-eight years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” Two weeks later, during a House Budget Committee hearing, when asked to expand upon his earlier statement, he replied:

“There are a wide variety of nonstate actors, super-empowered individuals, terrorist groups, who have acquired capabilities that heretofore were the monopoly of nation states. And so when I said that it’s the most dangerous period in my military career, thirty-eight years, I really meant it. I wake up every morning waiting for that cyber attack or waiting for that terrorist attack or waiting for that nuclear proliferation, waiting for that proliferation of technologies that makes it an increasingly competitive security environment around the globe.”

Under U.S. law, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the “principal military adviser to the President, the National Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense” on a range of issues, including strategic planning, contingency planning and preparedness, budgets, and training. I respect General Dempsey’s responsibility to prepare the armed forces to respond to a number of scenarios and contingencies. Although the chairman cannot order troops into battle, his authority stems from the bully pulpit of the nation’s most senior military official.

However, I respectfully disagree with the assessment that America is in a more dangerous position today than at any other point since 1974, when General Dempsey graduated from West Point.

Take nuclear weapons. As I pointed out previously, for the past sixty-two years, the U.S. intelligence community has continuously assessed the potential for nuclear terrorist attacks on the United States. Despite the expressed interest of three terrorists groups in acquiring a bomb, there is no known instance of a nonstate actor or “super-empowered” individual possessing a nuclear weapon, or the requisite fissile material to build one. Meanwhile, nine states - the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea - have the bomb.

Moreover, the threat of nuclear terrorism is markedly reduced from the early 1990s, when more than thirty thousand nuclear weapons and tons of fissile material were poorly secured at over two hundred facilities throughout the former Soviet Union. After twenty years of U.S.-funded cooperative threat reduction programs that removed, consolidated, and secured nuclear material, Harvard University professor and nuclear security expert Matthew Bunn wrote in April 2010: “Overall, the risk of nuclear theft in Russia has been reduced to a fraction of what it was a decade ago.”

The habitual tendency to overinflate threats facing the United States was the focus of an essay I co-wrote with Michael A. Cohen in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, “Clear and Present Safety: The United States Is More Secure than Washington Thinks.” In stark contrast to the prevailing rhetoric from Washington, we argued that the world today is one with fewer violent conflicts, increased political freedom, and greater economic opportunity than at virtually any other point in human history.

On average, people enjoy longer life expectancy. The United States faces no plausible existential threats and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is indisputably the most powerful in the world, and the U.S. economy remains the largest as well as among the most vibrant and dynamic.

A tremendous number of blog posts and online observations have been written about our piece. In addition, we’ve heard from friends and colleagues in academia, media, think tanks, and the Obama administration, and the responses have been overwhelmingly positive. Unfortunately, despite our hopes of generating a substantive debate, no serious blog post or essay has yet been written that challenges our main thesis.

Ahead of what is sure to be a highly contested election season, U.S. government officials, policymakers, and pundits owe the American people an honest and realistic assessment of the threats facing the country, which can only be realized through a genuine debate that challenges what we believe to be a flawed conventional worldview. It is up to the American citizens and the media to question and contest such over-hyped threats.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Micah Zenko.
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Topics: Global

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. urgent


    Fares Raslan MD

    خبر عاجل وهام جدا جدا ::::::
    تقوم المخابرات العامة في دمشق بأخذ كميات من الدم الفاسد من المشافي الحكومية الى افرع السجون حيث يتم حقن المعتقل بكمية 5 سم من هذا الدم وعلى اثرها يتوفى وفاة طبيعة /يرجى النشر لجمعيات حقوق الانسان/
    By: شبكة اخبار حمص العدية (عاصمة الثورة السورية)
    reliable sources from my collegues syrian doctors in syria .
    the intelligence services in syria are collecting spoiled blood and injecting forcefully prisioners with 5 ml of it to let them die naturally ...please share to human rights watch and all human organizations around the world ....
    also they are sending 50 truks aday since 3 months ago those trucks going to hizboallah south of lebanon , full of weapons , cash, arms, rockets, and some chemical weapons please take a note this is an eye wotness ....why no body is doing any thing to those thugs , war criminal shiia thugs?

    April 12, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  2. krm1007

    American politicians and administration must play their part in controlling the spread of technology of mass destruction. A case in point is the American transfer of nuclear technology to India. Indians can be repaid in other ways by USA for doing its dirty work against China and Pakistan. To transfer nuclear technology to India by Americans is to jeopardize the lives of over 2.5 billion people living in that region. This should not be done in good conscience. So the US Presidential debate will include questions to the candidates of what they are or how they propose to reduce this risk. I for one would propagate the cancellation of all nuclear agreements by USA with India.

    April 12, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • 100% ETHIO STRONGER!

      What is their (Americans) main reason to become President?
      Is it:-
      A) to be remember as a former President?
      B) to satisfied and fulfilled the friends and relatives personal gain?
      C) to secured personal Wealth?
      D) to be protected by highly trained federal securities, for life time?
      E) because the WH is the better place to work and live?
      F) front runner is my dream?
      G) to held a position under God, over others?

      April 12, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • AfisFis

      India already has the bomb, says so in the article.

      April 13, 2012 at 1:57 am |

    " is a dangerous World", do you recall this rock song?
    Of course, it is a dangerous World we are living in.
    In America, the bunch of Law enforcement Agents, can not even track-down and arrest Drug dealers. The same goes to CIA and other Countries Secret Agents, can not secured the Black Market Nuclear Components that keep falling into wrong hands, around the Globe in the Daily base.

    How many Countries have Nuclear Bomb?
    My guess is too many.

    All those....radars, GPS, Satellite Images,....never help US when we kept loosing Thousands of NATO Soldiers.
    Hereafter, few Taliban and Alqeada managed to challenge the NATO Soldiers, who are armed with very highly time permitted Technologies.

    Just, let GOD save US!

    April 12, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  4. Andrey

    We live in interesting times – as in ancient Chinese curse.
    And some people are to slow to realize that it has nothing to do with old threads, they have got too used to. Like the author of this article: what nuclear weapon he talks about? Who cares about nuclear weapons now – that is all thing of the past and Hollywood stuff. It is all about social media and biological weaponry today! Small terrorist organizations today are capable of upsetti and bringing havoc into whole regions, as the "Arab Spring" shows. And the weaponry which is not that expensive to develop and produce this day and so easy to deliver and spread! Stop living in the past! Wake up my fellow!

    April 12, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  5. matt c

    If the national security threats were miraculously reduced to minor spats among most nations, the economic peril and
    impending collapse would by itself lead to increased turmoil.

    You pick your poison and priorities, and hope the lies about money printing and hyperinflation never come to pass.

    April 12, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    I partially agree with General Dempsey. With the growth of the world's population and the self-assertiveness of many individuals, who resort to violence to have their views heard and their presence felt, the threat of danger is there. The world also sees a pattern of behaviour which shows that some people are ready to die, but they want to kill and destroy as much as they can. It's this category of individuals that we have to look out for.

    April 13, 2012 at 4:56 am |
    • Ehsann Ur-Rehman

      I guess Americans and Israelis killing Muslims is not terrorism? When peoples voice is not heard then different types of people react differently i.e. some resort to violent tactics. One way of making this world less dangerous would be to resolve the long standing issues such as Palestine and Kashmir. But why should the West care because balance of power is in their favor whilst Muslim world is on fire with millions already lost their lives.

      April 13, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  7. desert voice

    I agree that the world is becoming more dangerous with each day. It's our own making. When China was poor, since 1953, we barely cared what North Korea did. Today, after we made China strong, North Korea has acquired a powerful protector and supplier. The same with Russia. We helped Russia to change stripes, only to learn, that they are still our enemies ... with different stripes, enemies far more dangerous because allied with the once weak China! I think that there is an urgent need to reassess where we are, and where we are going!

    April 13, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Ehsann Ur-Rehman

      So what are you going to do about it? Nuke em all I guess? That is what yankie problem really is. Everybody is "conspiring against "us" the USA. No more nation has waged more wars and killed more innocent people than the USA. World is a more dangerous place because there is nobody to stop the USA from its criminal activities.

      April 13, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  8. M Homayoun

    Gen Dempsey comments echoes Gen MacArthur fears of communism. In the end, communism self destructed without the help of US nukes. Gen Dempsey is a military man and he can only justify a defense budget (close to a trillion $) as long as he can convince the public opinion that threats to the world security warrants such expenditure. Where threats do not exist they are created, such as the threat from Iran, a country that has not attacked or invaded another country for more than 150 years. The greatest gift to the US defense industry and and their lobby group is the existence of few "rogue" regimes in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Syria, Venezuela, Belarus, and until recently Myanmar. As long as these countries exist in their current form, the US military industry will have their bogeyman and congressional approval to continue to inflate the national debt.

    April 14, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  9. reb

    why should we even help people who only chant anti american slurs and burn our flag and attack our people.
    its rather funny all these countries that hated the usa are now screaming for us to be there savoir.I say let there world crumble.

    April 15, 2012 at 4:12 am |
  10. john

    Had Washington DC listen to MacArthur when he was in North Korea we would not have half the issues we are dealing with today. The US adminstrations for the last 3 decades have been failues. Thye have mis-calculated in many ways. The US is being tested by multiple elements that threaten it's interests and safety. The US has historically built up countries or organizations like the Taliban, al-Queda only to have them eventually turn on the US. It happend with Noriega, with Cuba, Iran, etc. The US must renew it's foriegn policies and further cohesiveness among it's most trusted allies. China is conducting in Africe what the US did in South AMerica for decades. The biggest threat to the US and it's interest is itself. If the US channels it's power in the right dirrection it can further it;s leadership in the world.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  11. pmcdonald

    Dempsey is a milquetoast worry wart. Not what we need as Joint Chiefs Chairman. Don't panic Dempsey!! Don't panic!! get out from under your bed!! Let's not spend a lot of money defending America from threats that don't exist.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  12. rightospeak

    Yes , we are living in the most dangerous time in history and the danger comes from Washington ,D.C. where our leadership follows the Globalist Agenda and cares little for the people it is supposed to represent and protect.

    April 16, 2012 at 11:53 am |

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