Paul Pillar

Why We Exaggerate Dangers

Well worth a read is an article by Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen in the latest Foreign Affairs about the pervasive overstatement of threats facing the United States today. The world is not nearly as dangerous now as politicians and intelligentsia alike habitually make it out to be. The overestimation of dangers, argue Zenko and Cohen, badly skews the direction and priorities of U.S. policies, such as with the overmilitarization of America's approach to the world.

Most of Zenko and Cohen's piece surveys how posited threats ranging from Islamist terrorism to the rise of China do not threaten U.S. interests nearly as much as commonly supposed. They also offer some explanations for the proclivity to exaggerate threats. An obvious one is political interest, with Republicans—especially out-of-power Republicans—playing up what they see as a traditional partisan advantage for their party and Democrats anxious to show that they are not wimps on national security. Another explanation is budgetary and financial self-interest, although this applies more to the private sector portions of the military-industrial complex than to government bureaucracies. The bureaucracies' role in the exaggeration process is less a matter of pecuniary interests than of engrained expectations. The biggest annual presentation that the director of national intelligence, for example, is required by law to make to Congress is supposed to be about worldwide threats. So naturally he describes a world that appears to consist mainly of threats.

Additional reasons, beyond the ones Zenko and Cohen offer, also account for the tendency to exaggerate dangers. One is the tendency to perceive as new problems things that really aren't new and we have been dealing with well for some time. A dominant theme in the two decades since the end of the Cold War has been the supposed plethora of “new” and more complex threats. But the theme reflects amnesia about the Cold War, regarding both the relative magnitude of threats then and now and the fact that many of the “new” complexities have been around for some time.

Another reason is a nationalism-based need for foreign enemies. We define who we are in large part by whom we are against, and by implication who we perceive to be against us. Grand strategists floundered in the first decade after the end of the Cold War because, whether we admit it or not, we really missed the good old Soviet menace as a kind of national-security lodestar. The neocons helped to get us out of that strategic anomie by talking up a war with Iraq several years before they got the political opportunity to put their talk into action.

Simple habit in talking about certain supposed dangers is another factor, along with the associated hazard of being seen as out of step with well-entrenched conventional wisdom about such dangers. This has been well in evidence for years with the specter of nuclear terrorism. In one of the candidates' debates in a previous presidential election, when both candidates were asked what they regarded as the biggest national-security concern, both said nuclear terrorism. If the same question is asked of the nominees this fall, they probably will give the same answer. The entrenched expectations mean a candidate would be taking a political risk by giving any other answer. And this is true even though there is ample reason, and ample experience during the nuclear age, to conclude that the risk of this particular danger materializing is miniscule.

This is related to yet another set of explanations, which concerns certain psychological patterns that behavioral economists could tell us about and that account for why a Dick Cheney could tell us to spare no effort to confront even a danger that had only a 1 percent chance of materializing. One such pattern is the tendency to overestimate the probability of unlikely events (especially contingencies that have a vivid or sexy scenario attached to them, such as ones involving unconventional weapons). Something that has even less than a 1 percent chance of occurring we are apt to see as having more than a 1 percent chance. A related common tendency is the overestimation of the probability of a contingency that requires all of several independent events to occur (e.g., if a country can make fissile material and develop delivery systems and have reason to use a nuclear weapon and cannot be deterred, etc.)

With multiple political, cultural and psychological factors at work, it would be hard to kick the habit of exaggerating threats. Awareness of the exaggeration is a first step toward at least minimizing the habit. Zenko and Cohen describe some of the damaging or at least wasteful policy consequences. They say, for example, that “American foreign policy needs fewer people who can jump out of airplanes and more who can convene roundtable discussions and lead negotiations.” The main lesson is that in thinking about different contingencies with different probabilities, we should orient foreign policy at least as much toward the 99 percent as toward the one percent. Sort of like what we need in domestic fiscal and economic policy.

Image: Jaybear