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The Distorting Effects of Threat Inflation

These public threat perceptions are driven almost entirely by the country that the president and other political leaders choose to cast as the bogeyman of the moment.

A recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds that many Americans have a bizarre and distorted view of which country poses the greatest threat to the U.S.:

The percentage of Americans who say Iran is the country that poses the greatest threat to US security has increased from 10 percent last year to 34 percent in January 2020. Among a list of six countries, Russia (28%) now comes second to Iran as the one posing the greatest threat to US security, followed by China (16%) and North Korea (13%). In February 2019, Russia was named most frequently as the country posing the greatest threat (with 39%); in 2017, North Korea had that distinction (59%).

These wild fluctuations in public perceptions of the greatest threat to U.S. security obviously have no connection to changes in the capabilities or intentions of the states in question. Iran has not magically become more of a threat to the U.S. than China overnight, and the idea that it poses more of a threat to us than a nuclear-armed Russia is laughable. As far as I can tell, these public threat perceptions are driven almost entirely by the country that the president and other political leaders choose to cast as the bogeyman of the moment. If a third of Americans now consider Iran to be the greatest threat to our security when almost no one (6%) thought that three years ago, that unfortunately shows how easy it is to rile up a large portion of the public into believing in a threat that doesn’t exist. By all rights, Iran shouldn’t even be on the list of options, but thanks to a steady dose of administration propaganda and the usual hype from infotainment outlets it has catapulted to the top.

The dramatic change in the perception of the threat from North Korea is probably the most startling evidence of how much fear-mongering and threat inflation can distort things. In 2017, 59% said they saw North Korea as the greatest threat. Three years later, only 13% say the same. That huge decrease is not a measure of a reduction in the threat North Korea poses, but rather an indication of how much less attention the administration is paying to North Korea. As result, it measures how much less fear-mongering the public is exposed to. Once the “fire and fury” rhetoric subsided, the public perception of the North Korean threat faded as well. That’s not because North Korea suddenly posed less of a threat than it had before, but that in the absence of threat inflation from political leaders the perception of the threat dropped back to a much lower and more reasonable level. As the Trump administration’s Iran obsession has taken over and dominated their messaging over the last year and a half, the public perception of the supposed threat from Iran has grown quickly. The administration’s increasingly confrontational Iran policy drove the number up from 10% last February to 34% now. As the administration’s attention focused almost entirely on Iran to the exclusion of everything else, the other perceived threats diminished.

These sudden ups and downs in public threat perception show how divorced from reality Americans’ assumptions about foreign threats are. Neither Iran nor North Korea has any business being classed alongside major powers in the first place, and the idea that either one of them is more threatening to the U.S. than Russia or China is nonsense. Hard-liners that want to pursue aggressive and confrontational policies against these weaker states have every incentive to promote and indulge unfounded fears about the threat that they pose in order to scare people into supporting them. This has the effect of horribly distorting our foreign policy and causing the U.S. to neglect potentially much more serious problems while obsessing over manageable or non-existent threats.



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