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DAVID JUDSON > When nostalgia rivals threat exaggeration

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So the world’s a mess. The view from Istanbul across Asia to Mumbai is one of chaos and despair. Hundreds of thousands of refugees flee neighboring Iraq and Syria while Iran stands at the center of the world’s geopolitical stage. The spring is out of the step of the Arab Spring. Europe is in financial meltdown. The most intelligent thing to say about the American presidential campaign is that it is simply dumb.

There is Boko Haram in Nigeria, FARC in Colombia, narco-terrorists in Mexico and Japan is far from cleaning up Fukushima as weird weather everywhere reminds us of the imminent threat of climate change. The polar ice caps are melting. The rain forests are disappearing.

But if you lament the long lost “good old days,” as I admit I often do, a lengthy essay in the new edition of Foreign Affairs is worth a look. It’s a long examination of the state of the world by researchers Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen at the Council on Foreign Relations. Yes, they say, the “foreign policy elite” of the world may be scaring us to death. And why not? The Pentagon, with a budget greater than the next largest 14 national defense budgets combined, would still like to have more.

But a few bare bones facts I culled paint a more nuanced picture.

In 1992, there were 53 armed conflicts raging in 39 countries around the world. In 2010, there were 30 armed conflicts in 25 countries. In fact, worldwide, the first decade of this century witnessed fewer deaths from war than any decade in the last century.

Terrorism remains a scourge, as Turkey well knows. But worldwide, between 2006 and 2010, the total number of terrorist attacks declined by almost 20 percent, and the number of deaths caused by terrorism fell by 35 percent.

When the Cold War ended there were 69 electoral democracies. Today there are 117. The number of autocracies, meanwhile, has declined from 62 to 48.

In 2010, the number of AIDS-related deaths declined for the third year in a row. The rates of tuberculosis, polio and malaria have also fallen. In 1970, the global child mortality rate was 141 per 1,000 births. Now it is 57. In 1970, global average life expectancy was 59. Today is about 70.

Two decades ago the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal was dispersed across all of Russia’s 11 time zones, all 15 former Soviet republics, and much of Eastern Europe. Since then, international efforts have consolidated those weapons at far fewer sites making the possibility of theft or diversion unlikely. 

“Indeed, the most lamentable cost of unceasing threat exaggeration and a focus on military force is that the main global challenges facing the United States today are poorly resourced and given far less attention than ‘sexier’ problems, such as war and terrorism,” the authors write. “These include climate change, pandemic diseases, global economic instability, and transnational criminal networks - all of which could serve as catalysts to severe and direct challenges to U.S. security interests.”

Or ponder this: America’s response in the past 10 years to the murder of 3,000 on Sept. 11 has cost more than $3 trillion. Between 2000 and 2006, meanwhile, 137,000 Americans have died prematurely because they lack health insurance.

March/01/2012

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