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The Results of Threat Inflation

Greg Scoblete draws attention to a new Gallup survey of what the American public considers to be the most “critical” threats to “vital” U.S. interests:

Next, I am going to read you a list of possible threats to the vital interests of the United States in the next 10 years. For each one, please tell me if you see this as a critical threat, an important but not critical threat, or not an important threat at all. February 2013 results

What jumps out immediately from this image is that the threat that each thing on this list poses is grossly exaggerated. Is the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea or Iran undesirable? Yes. Are these things potentially a threat to some U.S. interests defined very, very broadly? Probably. Are they critical threats to vital U.S. interests? Certainly not. One has to ignore the meanings of the words critical and vital to reach this conclusion. The fact that four out of five respondents thinks so tells us a lot more about how paranoid Americans have been taught to be about relatively small, manageable security threats on the other side of the planet than it does about the scale of the threat posed to vital U.S. interests.

This isn’t just a matter of threat-hyping about Iran and North Korea. International terrorism is certainly a real and significant threat, but in what sense is it a “critical” one? Looking at the results over the last eight years, I see that the perception of a threat from Russian military power has actually gone up by 11 points since 2004 to 29%. Fortunately, fear of a major Russian threat is relatively low by comparison to the exaggerated sense of the threats from North Korea and Iran, but what has happened in the last eight years that would make anyone to perceive Russia as more of a threat to vital American interests than it was then?

Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko addressed these and other concerns in their important article for Foreign Affairs from last year:

Overblown fears of a nuclear Iran are part of a more generalized American anxiety about the continued potential of nuclear attacks. Obama’s National Security Strategy claims that “the American people face no greater or more urgent danger than a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon.” According to the document, “international peace and security is threatened by proliferation that could lead to a nuclear exchange. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the risk of a nuclear attack has increased.”

If the context is a state-against-state nuclear conflict, the latter assertion is patently false. The demise of the Soviet Union ended the greatest potential for international nuclear conflict. China, with only 72 intercontinental nuclear missiles, is eminently deterrable and not a credible nuclear threat; it has no answer for the United States’ second-strike capability and the more than 2,000 nuclear weapons with which the United States could strike China.

While Republicans are most likely to see all of the potential threats as “critical” ones in the new survey, there is not that much of a difference based on political affiliation for most of these things. Regardless of party, Americans have been led to believe that manageable dangers that can be deterred or thwarted represent “critical” threats to the very most important American interests, which implies a degree of public fear that is entirely unwarranted by the evidence. One way to start correcting this is to keep challenging hawkish and irresponsible demagoguery of potential foreign threats, and to hold reckless politicians accountable when they indulge in it.

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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