Threat Inflation

Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen have a smart piece in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs in which they argue that threats to American security are overblown. They write:

Within the foreign policy elite, there exists a pervasive belief that the post–Cold War world is a treacherous place, full of great uncertainty and grave risks…There is just one problem. It is simply wrong. The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful, and even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools.

Zenko and Cohen blame “threat-mongering” for the sense of insecurity that pervades in spite of these positive trends, and they see a few reasons for it (emphasis added):

The disparity between foreign threats and domestic threat-mongering results from a confluence of factors. The most obvious and important is electoral politics. Hyping dangers serves the interests of both political parties…

Warnings about a dangerous world also benefit powerful bureaucratic interests. The specter of looming dangers sustains and justifies the massive budgets of the military and the intelligence agencies, along with the national security infrastructure that exists outside government — defense contractors, lobbying groups, think tanks, and academic departments.

There is also a pernicious feedback loop at work. Because of the chronic exaggeration of the threats facing the United States, Washington overemphasizes military approaches to problems (including many that could best be solved by nonmilitary means). The militarization of foreign policy leads, in turn, to further dark warnings about the potentially harmful effects of any effort to rebalance U.S. national security spending or trim the massive military budget–warnings that are inevitably bolstered by more threat exaggeration.

That’s a good list, but I think Zenko and Cohen’s focus on active “threat-mongering” overlooks the crucial role of innate flaws in how we (humans) think about risk. In fact, cognitive psychologists have shown that we’re pretty lousy at it, and our perceptions of risk are routinely led astray by a subconscious process of substitution. When contemplating rare but scary threats, our minds substitute readily available answers to questions of emotion (How scary is the idea of a terrorist attack?) for hard-to-find answers to questions of fact (How likely is a terrorist attack? How much damage would it actually inflict?). As a result, “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.” (That’s psychologist Jonathan Haidt, as quoted by Daniel Kahneman in Chapter 13 of Thinking, Fast and Slow, my source on this cognitive bias.)

This problem is amplified by incentives inherent in the media marketplace we inhabit. Kahneman (p. 138) makes this point in talking about our misperceptions of the risks of various causes of death:

Estimates of causes of death are warped by media coverage. The coverage is itself biased toward novelty and poignancy. The media do not just shape what the public is interested in, but also are shaped by it. Editors cannot ignore the public’s demands that certain topics and viewpoints receive extensive coverage. Unusual events (such as botulism) attract disproportionate attention and are consequently perceived as less unusual than they really are. The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.

It’s easy to see how stories of things like terrorist sleeper cells, “dirty bomb” attacks, global pandemics, and nuclear strikes from Iran would appeal to editors and consumers seeking novelty and poignancy, and it’s easy to see how those stories would, via substitution, distort our perceptions of the threat those things pose.

Whatever its precise causes, the threat inflation described by Zenko and Cohen has serious consequences for our actual security. Here again the authors:

The most lamentable cost of unceasing threat exaggeration and a focus on military force is that the main global challenges facing the United States today are poorly resourced and given far less attention than “sexier” problems, such as war and terrorism. These include climate change, pandemic diseases, global economic instability, and transnational criminal networks — all of which could serve as catalysts to severe and direct challenges to U.S. security interests. But these concerns are less visceral than alleged threats from terrorism and rogue nuclear states. They require long-term planning and occasionally painful solutions, and they are not constantly hyped by well-financed interest groups. As a result, they are given short shrift in national security discourse and policymaking.

Here’s hoping the publication of their article will help move the needle ever so slightly in a more positive direction.

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