The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs

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From The New York Times's veteran foreign policy editorialist, a lucid and far-reaching analysis of the cumulative harm caused by America's outdated, bipartisan, and increasingly misdirected national security state.

In The Emergency State, leading global affairs commentator David C. Unger reveals the hidden costs of America's obsessive pursuit of absolute national security. In the decades since World War II, presidents from both parties have assumed broad war-making powers never...

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Overview

From The New York Times's veteran foreign policy editorialist, a lucid and far-reaching analysis of the cumulative harm caused by America's outdated, bipartisan, and increasingly misdirected national security state.

In The Emergency State, leading global affairs commentator David C. Unger reveals the hidden costs of America's obsessive pursuit of absolute national security. In the decades since World War II, presidents from both parties have assumed broad war-making powers never intended by the Constitution and intervened abroad to preserve our credibility rather than our security, while trillions of tax dollars have been diverted from essential domestic needs to the Pentagon. Yet ironically, this pursuit has not just damaged our democracy and undermined our economic strength-it has also failed to make us safer.

In a penetrating work of historical analysis, Unger explains how this narrow-minded emphasis on security came to distort our political life and shows how we can change course. As Unger reminds us, in the first 150 years of the American republic, the United States valued limited military intervention abroad and the checks and balances put in place by the founding fathers. Yet American history took a sharp turn during World War II, when we began to build a vast and cumbersome complex of national security institutions, reflexes, and beliefs. Originally designed to wage hot war against Germany and cold war against the Soviet Union, our security bureaucracy is no longer effective at confronting the elusive, nonstatesponsored threats we now face.

The Emergency State traces a series of missed opportunities- from the so-called Year of Intelligence in 1975 to the end of the Cold War to 9/11-when we could have paused to rethink our defense strategy and didn't. We have ultimately failed to dismantle our outdated national security state, Unger argues, because both parties are equally responsible for its expansion. While countless books have exposed the damage wrought by George W. Bush's war on terror, Unger shows it was only the natural culmination of decades of bipartisan emergency state logic-and argues that Obama, along with many previous Democratic presidents, has failed to shift course in any meaningful way.

In this provocative and incisive book, Unger proposes a radically different paradigm that would better address our security needs while also working to reverse the damage done to our democratic institutions and economic vitality.

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Editorial Reviews

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Other countries are interested in their national security, but according to David Unger, the author of this book, the United States is so obsessed with ours that it has led to counterproductive policies. In fact, his new release The Emergency State argues that our insistent quest for absolute security has trampled on our civil liberties; made us enemies where we need friends; de-industrialized America; and skewed our global priorities. To spark debate and neutralize this costly pursuit, the longtime New York Times editorial board member presents ten bipartisan proposals.

Sallye Leventhal

Publishers Weekly
Unger, a longtime member of the editorial board of the New York Times, surveys 70 years of American security policy in this provocative jeremiad. The author contends that modern defense policy, characterized by a “secretive, unaccountable emergency state” and defined by an “overreaching doctrine of global containment” in a permanent global war on terror, is not only unconstitutional but also obsolete and counterproductive. “Originally designed to wage hot war against Nazi Germany and cold war against Soviet-led international Communism” and developed by 13 presidential administrations—from FDR to Barack Obama—the emergency state has in fact made us more vulnerable. Unger further argues that the emergency state has trampled civil liberties, contributed to the deindustrialization of America, alienated the rest of the world, and prevented action on problems like global warming. The author concludes that only “a grass roots democratic revival” can sweep away the bipartisan emergency state, but he is light on the details. He does offer 10 proposals, including restricting the executive’s war-making powers and implementing universal military training, as baseline reforms. Unger’s broad indictment of defense policy—bipartisan if not nonpartisan—is sure to spark considerable and worthy debate. (Feb.)
Library Journal
As reported last year in the Washington Post, national security has become so unwieldy that even those in charge don't know how or whether it works. Unger, long on the New York Times editorial board, argues that our enduring obsession with security issues, fostered by Presidents of both parties, has damaged the country. For your smart political readers.
Kirkus Reviews
A compelling polemic wrapped in a shallow history. Though it certainly has its virtues, the book is a temporal work that may become stale in the near future. New York Times editorial board director Unger bases his arguments on sound principles--the United States has gone awry in its futile attempts to establish an impenetrable society safe from both interior and exterior threats. The author acknowledges the presence of a wide variety of global dangers, but he also recognizes that attempts on the part of the American government--especially the executive branch--to make the American state impermeable has led to substantial overreach. Unger shows how presidents starting with Franklin Roosevelt grasped what power they could under the auspices of keeping America safe, while at the same time holding on tight to what they inherited irrespective of whether or not previous dangers had receded. This process actually accelerated in the post–Vietnam War period when, perhaps paradoxically, the United States was at its most relatively powerful. Though mostly inarguable, the author's case is not wholly original. Unger's problem is not with his argument, but rather with his attempt to impose a historical apparatus upon it. The book is thinly sourced, allowing the author to dig only deep enough to confirm his viewpoint. However, readers who can look past these shortcomings will encounter an important perspective about opportunities missed and roads not taken. Unger writes clearly about the legitimate failings of American security policy, and his prescriptive final chapter in particular lays out possibilities for American practices going forward. Though historians may not particularly value the book, Unger presents clear arguments about the futility of trying to make America invulnerable.
Karen J. Greenberg
…[an] ambitious and valuable overview of 20th-century presidents and national security…
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"Unger's broad indictment of defense policy bipartisan if not nonpartisan is sure to spark considerable and worthy debate." —-Publishers Weekly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594203244
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 2/16/2012
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.72 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

David C. Unger has been on the editorial board of The New York Times for more than thirty years and currently writes about military, foreign policy, and international economic issues from a transatlantic perspective. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a part-time faculty member at the Bologna Center of The Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
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