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Psychological Rationales For Threat Inflation

Daniel Larison is spending this morning talking about the absurd level of threat inflation in our national dialogue. I’d like to throw my own 2c into the conversation by asking the question, why does this phenomenon obtain? Why is our national commentary so consistent in representing threats as much larger than they truly are? I have a […]

Daniel Larison is spending this morning talking about the absurd level of threat inflation in our national dialogue. I’d like to throw my own 2c into the conversation by asking the question, why does this phenomenon obtain? Why is our national commentary so consistent in representing threats as much larger than they truly are?

I have a few ideas.

First of all, this is a very natural if perverse consequence of our position as a continental power with no local enemies. Consider: the power differential between the United States and its immediate neighbors is more lopsidedly favorable than it is for any other power in the world, by a considerable margin. The United States, over the course of its history, set out to dominate overwhelmingly its continent and even its hemisphere. We achieved this goal, and we achieved it substantially through violence: wars and threats of wars with our former colonial master, wars with our neighbors, wars to prevent the rise of new rivals by fission, small wars to sustain our dominance over small states, etc.

Now, if that is your standard for security, by definition the mere existence of threats that cannot be eliminated utterly makes you feel insecure. 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?

Which brings me to my second reason.

Relative decline is an inevitability for any entity that achieves a certain level of prominence. Once Microsoft controlled 90% of the operating system market, it could not grow relatively more dominant. Even if its absolute profits grew, its relative market power would inevitably decline either due to the rise of new rivals in its core market, or changes in the structure of the business that made its core market less important than it once had been. Or, as it turned out, both.

The United States, at the end of World War II and even more dramatically at the end of the Cold War, was the overwhelmingly dominant power on the planet. We could, of course, grow still more powerful – a larger population, a larger economy, new technologies of warfare, etc. But on a relative basis, it is hard to see how we could grow even more dominant.

As a consequence, we are haunted by a narrative of relative decline, which makes it difficult to perceive when a development is a genuine threat. The rise of India, for example, doesn’t provoke much in the way of anxiety when we think, “that’s ok; they are on our side.” But as soon as our interests diverge materially (as they do persistently over Iran, and periodically over relations with Russia and other matters), we grow distressed: we can’t even keep our allies in line. Ditto for Germany, Japan, Brazil. Rivals like Russia or China provoke even greater anxiety.

The threat of acute and catastrophic loss isn’t particularly realistic, unless we create the situation ourselves, by destroying our national patrimony in a vain effort to maintain an unrealistic level of dominance. (And that could happen; it’s what happened to Britain with the entry into World War I.) But the threat of steady erosion of our dominant position is not only realistic but likely. And where does that erosion stop? Hence the anxiety that fuels threat inflation.

Related to the above is the changing demographic character of the global landscape. The United States was founded by white Europeans, and for most of our history we thought of ourselves as a white power. Moreover, for the first century and a half of our history, the dominance of the European powers over the globe – in terms of economic power, military power, and sheer demographic weight – increased in an accelerating fashion.

None of that is the case any longer. Decolonization reduced the power of our European rivals, but the former colonies did not all line up in the American file. The rise of Japan was followed by the rise of smaller east Asian states and now the rise of the Asian mega-states, China and India. Latin America and the Muslim Middle East have grown into substantial regions, demographically and economically, and are no longer obviously under Western control (or even influence). Africa’s demographic momentum, meanwhile, will carry that continent to far greater prominence by the end of the century than it has ever achieved before. And immigration has changed the demographic character of both the United States and the various European states.

The United States has the ability to adapt to this changed global (and domestic) environment, but it is not surprising that there are substantial attendant anxieties.

Meanwhile, add to all of the above the fact that, as the globally-dominant power, we are the inevitable foil for any power wishing to distinguish itself, and the inevitable object of petitions from any power seeking assistance against a local rival. Our experience of the world, to a considerable extent, is of other countries and movements within countries either denouncing us or asking us for help. We have been important in enough places for long enough that we don’t have to stick our noses in to be involved; we will be dragged in, rhetorically at least, and then we have to decide how to respond. That’s not the way China, India or Brazil experiences the world.

Finally, there’s the question of our identification with those petitioners – the small powers who may be referred to either as “allies” or “clients” depending on the emotional valence of the relationship for the speaker. The United States was once a small country that grew to global dominance, and thinks of itself (rightly or wrongly) as a liberal and magnanimous hegemon. Deep down, we still think of ourselves as the underdog, and even when we remember our overwhelming power we remember where we came from and identify with underdogs – at least when they are asking for our help rather than fighting against us.

So when the question gets raised, “is it in our interest to help?” there’s a part of us that feels such a question is churlish; when the question gets raised, “can we actually be of help?” there’s a part of us that feels such a question is insulting. Are we really suggesting that this little pipsqueak country – whether it’s Israel or Taiwan or Georgia or whatever – has the guts to stand up for itself, but we, the great big superpower, are afraid to stand with them? Or aren’t sure it’s worth the bother? And this, in turn, creates a need for threat inflation – because these sentiments only go so far on their own in motivating action. It’s better if we are convinced that what we want to do is also what we need  to do.

So it’s not surprising that we, the strongest and arguably most secure large country on earth, are obsessed with threats to our security. We’re like professional-class helicopter parents with their children: we’re terrified of risk because we’ve had so little experience of it; terrified of downward-mobility because we’re so well entrenched on our high rung on the ladder; terrified that our little ones won’t forgive us if we fail to protect them from making the necessary accommodations with the finite nature of life.



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