One of the enduring puzzles in security studies is why the United States downplays its relative strength and occupies itself with the challenge of weak or failed states. This is important given the considerable risks associated with maintaining dozens of treaty allies and a non-exclusive list of security partners such as Georgia, Kenya, and Thailand. After all, there are unforeseen costs to engaging globally and significant risks associated with a broad concept of national security. 

To be sure, the United States conceptualizes its national security in global terms, so what happens in Yemen or El Salvador is assumed to affect American interests. Given an urgency to confront a budget deficit and the ongoing presidential campaign, there is an opportunity to reconsider this notion. 

Harvard’s Stephen Walt recently challenged the interdependence assumption , wondering “why the mighty United States gets its knickers in a twist over lots of security issues in lots of unimportant places.” He added, “Americans are constantly fretting about supposedly grave threats in far-flung corners of the world…it makes one wonder if the national security establishment in this country is even capable of a careful, sober, even-tempered analysis anymore.” 

Recent testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper exemplified this concern, giving the impression that every problem constitutes a national security threat: 

The United States no longer faces–as in the Cold War–one dominant threat. Rather, it is the multiplicity and interconnectedness of potential threats-and the actors behind them-that constitute our biggest challenge. Indeed, even the four categories noted above [counterterrorism, counter proliferation, cyber security, and counterintelligence] are also inextricably linked, reflecting a rapidly changing international environment of rising new powers, rapid diffusion of power to non-state actors and ever greater access by individuals and small groups to lethal technologies.

In his 30-page testimony, Clapper outlined the range of threats in the United States’ strategic landscape that include a rising China, water scarcity, and nuclear proliferation. While the assessment is balanced, any list thirty pages long is likely to leave the impression the US is far from secure. 

As an alternative to the official assessment, Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen offer the contrary view in their recent Foreign Affairs article “Clear and Present Safety.” They write: 

[T]he 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 United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near term competition for the role of global hegemon. [Yet] this reality is barely reflected in US national security strategy or in American foreign policy debates.

The contrast of perspectives on threats to national security could not be starker. America cannot be simultaneously remarkably secure and yet threatened by a multiplicity of interconnected threatsor dominant and on the decline. Reconciling these views is important since conceptualizing the strategic landscape undergirds strategic approaches used to advance and defend national interests. If the United States or any country downplays emerging powers or overemphasizes weak states, it will be unprepared for the future.  

Likewise, emphasizing the uncertainty of the future is equally unhelpful to those charged with developing strategy and allocating defense resources. Threat perceptions underpin national security decisions; the inability to gauge threats or properly characterize threats undermines the goal of strategy to guide choices under constrained resources. As Frederick the Great reminded us long ago, he who attempts to defend everything, defends nothing.

Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a Professor of National Security Affairs and the EMC Informationist Chair at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.