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The Poisonous Fruits of Threat Inflation

Constant threat inflation and fear-mongering take their toll on public opinion:

A majority of Americans support military action against North Korea if economic and diplomatic efforts fail, according to a Gallup poll released on Friday amid rising tension over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and recent missile launches.

The wording of the Gallup survey cited here leaves something to be desired, but we can compare the latest survey with results from 2003 when the same question was asked. Fourteen years ago, North Korea had neither nuclear weapons nor the means to deliver them. At that time, 47% supported military action and 48% opposed it. That level of support for war was already worryingly high. Today, North Korea has nuclear weapons and appears to have the means to launch them at both allied and U.S. targets, and yet support for attacking North Korea has actually jumped up by 11 points to 58%. Even though the costs of military action against North Korea have become unacceptably high and would very likely lead to a nuclear exchange, more Americans claim to favor this option if “the United States does not accomplish its goals regarding North Korea with economic and diplomatic efforts.” Unfortunately, those “goals” are never defined in any of the questions, so it isn’t entirely clear how low the threshold for starting a war is for most Americans.

I very much hope that the respondents don’t know or weren’t thinking about the disastrous consequences that would follow from a U.S. attack on North Korea. It would be interesting to see how much of a difference that information might make. I am more sure that support for war with North Korea has risen in the last decade and a half because media portrayals of North Korea and its weapons program consistently hype the dangers they supposedly pose to the U.S. while minimizing or ignoring the costs of a new Korean war. Instead of presenting North Korea’s arsenal as a manageable problem similar to one that the U.S. has handled successfully in the past, most reporting of the situation discusses it in the most alarmist fashion. Because there is little or no pushback against this alarmism, most Americans are being misled into thinking that a military option is feasible and desirable. Because our foreign policy discourse is riddled with exaggerated claims about foreign threats and reflexive demands for “action,” there are very few people that write or speak on these issues that can effectively counter the fear-mongering that is clearly driving public opinion on this question.

I also suspect that this apparent majority support for attacking North Korea would vanish almost immediately once Americans and Koreans (and probably others as well) started suffering from the horrible effects of the war. Americans have become far too accustomed to expecting minimal costs from our foreign wars, and the question of whether to attack other countries isn’t treated with anything like the gravity it deserves. The immediate, high costs of war with North Korea would come as a major shock. It is imperative that members of Congress and analysts do more to explain to the public just how high those costs would be and why starting a war with North Korea ought to be unthinkable.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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