Home/Daniel Larison/Unfounded Fears and Threat Inflation (II)

Unfounded Fears and Threat Inflation (II)

Noah Millman continues the discussion about threat inflation, and investigates why Americans are inclined to exaggerate dangers from abroad. Here is one of his explanations:

We think of ourselves as living in a world in which threats are obliterated permanently, not a world in which threats – much more distant threats, to be sure – simply have to be lived with. That dynamic manifested itself as a persistent anxiety during the Cold War, the conviction that if the Soviet Union were not rolled back and ultimately eliminated, that we would never be secure – that, indeed, it was worth contemplating the deaths of hundreds of millions to “secure” the future.

And then the Soviet Union was eliminated. This was the ultimate proof that America’s approach to security – eliminate all threats – can be effectuated on a global scale. How, after a demonstration like that, can you possibly revert to a state where you accept a certain level of risk as normal, some threats as too remote to be worth combatting? How could such a stance do anything but make you feel like you are experiencing decline?

Millman makes many good points in his post. There is something to this idea that many Americans have become accustomed to viewing foreign threats and conflicts in this way. I can see how the dissolution of the USSR could have contributed to it, but I would say that the memory of WWII and the subsequent mythologizing of the war are more significant in explaining why there is a belief that foreign threats can (and therefore must) be eliminated rather than managed. This was the only major conflict in which the U.S. sought and achieved “total” victory, and it was the only time in our modern history that Washington demanded and received unconditional surrender from its main enemies. Instead of seeing this as the extraordinary and extremely rare outcome that it was, many Americans still tend to judge later foreign wars against the standard of WWII. There is also regrettably a very strong tendency to view smaller contemporary threats as if they were new would-be Axis powers, which inspires much more fear of these threats than their power merits. Further, it was WWII that made the U.S. the preeminent power in the world, which in turn led it to adopt a much broader and more ambitious international role than it had ever considered attempting before. This would have exacerbated any existing anxieties about security by adding many new commitments that the U.S. was historically not used to having. Following the end of the Cold War, the U.S. did not scale back its commitments, but continued taking on more, and did so again in the first decade of this century. That presumably gives many additional reasons for being anxious about security, especially when U.S. interests and those of clients are so frequently conflated with one another.

Fettweis comments on American feelings of insecurity in Pathologies of Power:

International politics has its own version, according to Karl Deutsch: insecurity expands along with power. As states get stronger, they identify more interests, and the number of threats they perceive tends to grow. Consequently, the stronger countries are, the more insecure they often feel. Logic might suggest that the opposite should be true, that power and security ought to be directly related, that as state power grows, so to should security. Presumably potential challengers should be emboldened by weakness and deterred by strength. Why, then, do strong states seem to worry more, often about seemingly trivial matters? (p. 25)

The more grandiose and ambitious the role that one imagines for the U.S. in the world, the more that one is going to be alarmed by crises and conflicts that have little or nothing to do with American or even allied security. That means perceiving threats to the U.S. where none exists and exaggerating the ones that do into “existential” threats. As long as the U.S. imagines itself to be global hegemon and the sustainer of global order, Americans will often be encouraged to conflate dangers limited to a particular region with dangers for the U.S. and the entire alliance structure that it has built since WWII. Oddly, this always puts supports of a hyper-active U.S. foreign policy in the role of constantly warning about the fragility and weakness of the system, while critics and opponents of this role for the U.S. are usually more sanguine about foreign threats and frequently much more accurate in their assessments of them. Hegemonists inflate threats because their view of America’s role in the world is greatly inflated, and in some ways can’t acknowledge the limited and minor nature of contemporary threats because this would render a hyper-active foreign policy redundant and undesirable.

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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