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Unfounded Fears and Threat Inflation

In the first chapter of his book, Christopher Fettweis notes that the U.S. is oddly both the most secure country in the world while also being one whose leaders and commentators purport to feel extremely insecure:

For many analysts of U.S. foreign policy, one belief has remained constant at least since World War II: we are living in dangerous times. Many of those who make and/or comment on U.S. foreign policy maintain that the world is full of enemies and evil, so this (whenever this is) is no time to relax….Constant repetition of this idea has over time generated genuine belief in leaders and followers alike, and substantial, sometimes amorphous fear. A 2009 poll found that nearly 60 percent–and full half of the membership of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)–considered the world more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. (p.25)

One of the most constant themes in hawkish arguments is not only that threats are many and great, but that there are more of them than ever and they are more dangerous than they have ever been. The more manageable minor threats are, the more inclined we seem to be as a country to overrate them and overreact to them. The absence of real major threats gives us the luxury of exaggerating existing dangers to the U.S. That habit of exaggerating existing threats then feeds the belief that the world is much more dangerous for us now than when the U.S. faced a hostile superpower, and that it is becoming more so all the time. Because every minor, manageable threat is built up into a menace that it could never actually be, Americans perceive a largely peaceful and secure world as an increasingly chaotic and dangerous one.

When unfounded and excessive, this fear can be especially debilitating and harmful. Fettweis continues:

In practice, states that exhibit unwarranted fear, because they sense danger and enemies everywhere, are far more likely to lash out in what they perceive as self-defense….They are prone to support actions that reason would suggest are unnecessary and often end up doing more harm than good to their objective self-interest. Most basically, they are unlikely to weigh accurately the pros and cons of decisions, raising the danger of blunders and folly. (p. 26)

Threat inflation is not just a failure of analysis, but the cause of serious misunderstandings about the rest of the world that pave the way for unnecessary conflicts and damage to real U.S. interests.

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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