LONDON -- Vice-Admiral Herbert Browne, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, lives in a dangerous world. Some of its 'rogue states' are so viciously anti-American and so deeply sneaky, he believes, that they might even try to trick the United States into using up all its precious anti-missile interceptors by attacking Canada first. Then, after the U.S. has given its all to defend Ottawa, the wicked Iranians, North Koreans, Iraqis or whoever would strike their real target: Detroit.
But Herbert Browne won't fall for that one. If the feckless Canadians do not buy into the vast National Missile Defense project that is now the favorite boondoggle of the U.S. military-industrial complex, then, warned the admiral on May 2, "we would have absolutely no obligation to defend" Ottawa from a nuclear attack. Cue terrified Canadians begging to be allowed under the sheltering U.S. umbrella.
Browne was a bit ahead of reality in his threat, since the deployment of a missile defense system has not yet been officially approved by the U.S. government, nor has the technology even been shown to work (not that that will stop them). He was only trying to scare Canada into providing some diplomatic cover for this technological monstrosity, which every U.S. ally regards as treaty-breaking lunacy, and he will doubtless be offered a lucrative post-retirement job by a grateful defense industry as a reward.
But what was truly revealing of the American military mind-set was Browne's naive assumption that Canadians also believe that "rogue states" and assorted terrorists' pose a dire threat to their safety, and can be frightened into compliance with the interests of the defense industry by threats to withhold U.S. protection from them.
It's not just the representatives of the military-industrial complex who think this way. The day after Browne's foray into geopolitics, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned a mass meeting of State Department officials not to let their guard down. "Forget that the Cold War ended. Spy novelists may be having trouble thinking up plots, but our nation still has enemies, our secrets still need protecting, and the threats we face are more varied and less predictable than ever."
Technically, there is some smidgen of truth in this. There are still a few countries that actively regard the U.S. as an enemy (though none of them is big enough to hurt it seriously). There must be some secrets in the government's possession that are truly worth protecting (though probably no more than a dozen or so). It is even true that the threats the U.S. faces are more varied and less predictable than they were during the Cold War. But Albright omitted to mention that they are also very much smaller.
For Americans (and for many other people as well), the world is actually a far safer place since the end of the Cold War. Not only are they no longer exposed every day to the small but real risk that a crisis somewhere in the world will end up with some 20,000 nuclear warheads falling out of the sky and exterminating them. They no longer even face the same level of risk (tiny though it always was) of being hijacked by terrorists or blown up by a terrorist bomb: there has been a sharp fall in such incidents since the heyday of the international terrorist groups in the '70s and '80s.
As for 'rogue states' and their alleged plans to fire a couple of nuclear warheads at the United States, there are three reasons to doubt this threat.
First, the leadership of such a state would require a strong collective death wish, since it would instantly be obliterated by massive American retaliation.
Second, the governments of the "rogue states" are likely to change long before a workable missile defense system can be devised and deployed (if it ever can).
Besides, why develop an expensive ballistic missile to shoot at the United States when it would be so much easier just to smuggle in a nuclear weapon in the hold of a freighter?
Yet national anxiety about foreign and terrorist threats, while vague and unfocused, has probably never been higher. Last year's fashion, for example, was monthly scares about anthrax attacks. Why?
The military-industrial complex works hard at keeping the level of threat perception up, of course, but that is not enough to explain it. The national obsession with reducing risks -- give up coffee and cigarettes, jog daily, and eat low-fat foods, and maybe you'll live forever -- also plays its part. So does the generalized suspicion of foreigners that comes naturally to a people living in splendid geographical isolation.
But the main reason, one suspects, is that nothing really bad has happened to the United States since the Civil War. There have been no foreign troops on U.S. soil since 1814, and American casualties in subsequent foreign wars have been remarkably low by world standards.
Today's Americans therefore have no standard of comparison which would lead them to conclude that their present situation is one of almost unprecedented safety from any foreign threat. Even compared to their allies in Europe and Asia, who are also enjoying a level of security that is very uncommon historically, Americans are almost uniquely blessed. But you'd never think so to hear them talk.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.
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