Micah Zenko on the Dangers of the US Threat-Industrial Complex

Why the U.S. public is being fed a steady diet of inflated foreign threats to the country’s national security.

Micah Zenko on the Dangers of the US Threat-Industrial Complex
Credit: Rose Hogan

The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady talks to Micah Zenko about his latest book (co-authored with Michael A. Cohen) Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans, which outlines how and why the American public has been bombarded with inflated overseas menaces and perennial national security crises by a so-called Threat-Industrial Complex.

The book argues that threats by states such as Iran, North Korea, and the growing military power of China and Russia have been exaggerated, while other threats to U.S. democracy and the American way of life — rising economic inequality, declining public health and the growing national debt, among others — have comparatively received less attention by national security experts.

Micah Zenko is Whitehead Senior Fellow in the U.S. and the Americas Program at Chatham House. Previously, he worked at the U.S. State Department’s Office of Policy Planning, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and as a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Diplomat: In your book you and Michael A. Cohen write that many Americans are unaware of the political, economic, and social progress that has taken place in virtually every corner of the world over the past three decades. Instead, the U.S.  public is being fed, “a steady diet of threat inflation that has made them deeply fearful of the world outside their borders,” convincing them “that overseas menaces are perpetually becoming more likely, lethal, and complex.” Why is that so?

Micah Zenko: The answer, in part, is found in the cognitive biases that have evolved within our minds. Humans are hardwired to care first and foremost about our survival, passing on inherited genetic traits, and ensuring the safety of children and grandchildren. Threatening information or imagery imprints far deeper on the brain and is more readily recalled than is nonthreatening information. Compounding these innate human tendencies is the fact that positive global developments and the undisputed realities of human progress go unmentioned by America’s leaders or media outlets. So, unless you make an extraordinary effort to read things like World Health Organization reports, you will naturally believe the world is always getting worse and worse.

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How do you define the Threat-Industrial Complex?

It is an informal constellation of actors that bears similarities to the “military-industrial complex” and “its acquisition of unwarranted influence” that President Eisenhower famously warned of in his farewell address in 1961. It consists of Pentagon officials and generals who roll in and out of the defense industry faster than ever; defense contractors eager to sell weapons systems and services; politicians who weaponize purported foreign threats to pass favored legislation; pundits and think tank fellows; and screenwriters and directors who receive guidance and technical support from the CIA and Armed Services. Supporting these entities are journalists and mainstream media, which simplify and amplify threatening images and information without historical context or perspective. The defining attribute of the Threat-Industrial Complex is the overwhelming tendency to exaggerate the volume and consequences of foreign threats on behalf of personal or organizational self-interests, while virtually never acknowledging any reduction in those threats or positive global trends.

You don’t advocate isolationism in your book, but at the same time you criticize the militarization of U.S. foreign policy and the inclination for military intervention by the foreign policy establishment of both major U.S. parties. Can you cite one or two examples where you would reduce U.S. military involvement in the world?

The Trump administration’s explicit regime change policy in Venezuela is the latest example where appeasement-like dynamics are being played out. The United States plays an outsized external role in generating a crisis within a country, while calling for the current political leader to step down from power. Now, with domestic and foreign audiences watching, the United States has placed its own credibility on the line to assure this demand is met. The Trump administration can either back down, and be charged with appeasing a brutal dictator, or continue escalating the diplomatic pressures, shows of military force, and undoubtedly covert activities. It is the self-induced pressures to do “something,” which far too often leads decisionmakers to call upon America’s most demonstrable and responsive tool — military force.

Do you see the Threat-Industrial Complex at work when it comes to emerging technologies? For example, once again there is talk that the U.S. is falling behind in the technological race, this time for hypersonic weapons and artificial intelligence.

One prominent example with newer technologies is the practice of prominent cybersecurity firms, which have a disproportionate influence on how policymakers and citizens perceive digital vulnerabilities. These firms publish research reports about state-based hacking groups or digital forensic accounts of consequential data breaches. While the hacking threats covered in such reports are real (if overstated), these same firms also sell services and software to protect against those hacks.

These reports then serve as the basis for technology journalists’ stories. But if you read those stories, they never contain any disclaimer about that firm’s financial motivations to produce the reports in the first place. It would be like a Lasik surgery doctor publishing reports about the alleged harms caused by eyeglasses. No journalist would report this without noting the conflict of interest, but when it comes to cybersecurity firms they do this constantly.

In your book you seem to suggest that “nation building at home,” as U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized in 2011, should be the top priority for U.S. policymakers. Could you elaborate?

The core thesis of our book is that U.S. leaders make a strategic misdiagnosis about what threatens Americans, and how best to prevent or mitigate against those threats. The greatest threats, risks, and harms that Americans face each day do not originate from abroad, but rather our neighborhoods and communities. Our book has a chapter, “That Which Harms Us,” which documents these many growing threats, and the relatively low-cost policy interventions that would diminish them. When the CDC [Center for Disease Control] announced in November that life expectancy in the United States had fallen for three straight years — the last time this happened was during the height of the Spanish Flu a century ago — it should have catalyzed an immediate and sustained response to confront this national crisis. But, it went largely unnoticed because dealing with domestic challenges is apportioned far less funding and attention than foreign ones.

The Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) funding is slated to rise to an unprecedented $174 billion in fiscal year 2019. What do you think this says about the institutionalization of threat inflation in the U.S. government?

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The Pentagon has spent $1.8 trillion in OCO funding since September 11, 2001, so Congress and the American public have generally become inured to these staggering expenditures.

Moving beyond the United States, while the U.S. political establishment appears to be permeated by threat inflation, political elites in allied countries suffer from threat deflation. For example, Germany does not see Russia as a large threat to its national security, nor is there much awareness about growing Chinese influence on the European continent. And while the government of Shinzo Abe has been pushing Japan to become a more assertive military actor in East Asia, the Japanese public and the majority of the country’s political class remain aloof to foreign threats. Do you think threat inflation by the U.S.-based Threat-Industrial Complex is a response to or compensation for the unwillingness of allies to do more for their own national security?

The foundation of U.S. foreign threat inflation is its expansive construction of foreign interests. At one time or another, almost the entire earth has been declared a “national interest.”  From the Monroe Doctrine, to the Carter Doctrine, to mutual defense treaty allies, to more vague concepts, such as unstable regions or ungoverned spaces, as well as outer space and cyberspace — No other country has such explicit global interests, which is why foreign threat inflation is comparatively unique to the United States. So, it is not just allies, but non-allied partner countries, commercial space operators, private sector critical infrastructure firms, and others, who play a role. Over time, these entities have spent greater or lesser amounts on their defensive capabilities, but those spending levels have little impact on U.S. threat perceptions.

Related to this, public polling in allied countries has shown that the U.S. is often seen as just as much of a threat to national security by the public in those respective countries than perceived adversaries. This was the case even before the presidency of the Donald Trump and can be traced back to a number of factors including the legacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2008 Financial Crisis, and the perceived U.S. hypocrisy of touting a rule-based international order whose rules apparently do not apply to the United States.  This has made it often difficult to defend U.S. actions abroad. Do you think this is an overlooked aspect and something that indeed will harm U.S. national security in the long run?

Great question. I do not think U.S. officials make much of a sincere effort to defend its actions abroad, outside of fora where these issues come up, such as the UN Human Rights Council and the Security Council. When presidents and diplomats defend or justify U.S. policies abroad, it has all the characteristics of a staged performance. They read an elaborate script, but large majorities of the audience perceive it a work of fiction. Of course, claiming to uphold principles and norms that you and your allies violate is not exclusively an American practice; rather it is common of all great powers.

State governments cooperate (or not) with the United States, based upon their shared interests at the time. But those interests are constructed and prone to shifting based upon domestic political pressures and regional or global norms. When the United States most needs cooperation that is overt and visible to public scrutiny, that is when poor global opinion of U.S. foreign policy can be detrimental.

Can you name two concrete proposals how to reduce the influence of the Threat-Industrial  Complex?

The mainstream media should promote a more balanced and accurate depiction of the world, which would feature the countless positive trends of recent human progress. Try to find one such story on cable news or in a newspaper. You won’t.

The most active and essential members of the Threat-Industrial-Complex are all of us. Given their long history of mischaracterizations or outright lies about foreign threats, citizens should question the purported claims of their political leaders. Critical thinking is the only reliable defense against misinformation. In addition, we recommend a dozen free websites that provide nonpartisan, factual information about the world.

Our World in Data, Gapminder, OECD Library, Wikipedia, Human Security Report Project, Uppsala Conflict Data Program, World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Center for Systematic Peace, Gun Violence Archive, Global Terrorism Database, and HumanProgress. These are free, constantly updated, and accurate characterization of domestic and international affairs that are often misrepresented by the Threat-Industrial Complex.