High Anxiety: How Washington’s Exaggerated Sense of Danger Harms Us All

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: Various perverse incentives encourage the U.S. foreign policy establishment to act as if America is under constant threat, even though we live in incredibly safe times.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the most peaceful era in all of human history. Experts say that since “since World War II, the chance that a given state would suffer a conquest fell from once in a lifetime to once or twice a millennium.” Terrorism is also less common and deadly today than it was in the 1970s and 80s.

Still, the United States, like many nations throughout history, has fallen prey to the temptation of “threat inflation” wherein policymakers “initiate risky, unnecessary, or counterproductive wars to eliminate exaggerated dangers.”

The American tendency towards threat inflation has its roots in World War II. After misreading the threat of Hitler and the other Axis Powers, U.S. leaders decided that “potential threats had to be confronted early and relentlessly.”

The foreign policy establishment stuck to this attitude throughout the Cold War, which led leaders to exaggerate the Russian threat and further engrain threat inflation in U.S. foreign policy.

Many see the Cold War guidance document NSC-68, which laid out this exaggerated case for the clear and present danger of the Russian threat, as a good roadmap for grand strategy, but it is really “extreme agitation laced with paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and a cavalier disregard to empirical truth.”

Threat inflation defined the foreign policy elites’ approach in the relatively peaceful post-Cold War era. The events of 9/11 subsequently shocked the national security establishment into thinking every credible threat needed to be taken seriously, and reinforced their past attitudes.

The increased threat inflation surrounding terrorism influenced the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Indeed, “The case for war against Iraq was created to mislead the American people. This often involved hyping the threat and politicizing or circumventing the considered judgments of intelligence professionals and regional experts.”

Threat inflation persists today for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the attitude has become a sort of ideology for the foreign policy establishment, and a source of benefits for the public and private entities who draw power from the establishment.

The scope of U.S. power makes it realistic for members of the establishment to call for extreme responses to perceived threats, and since Americans are physically isolated and insulated from the cost of engagement, it’s hard to whip up domestic political opposition to responses to inflated threats. The media also encourages this attitude, operating under the old mantra “if it bleeds, it leads.” Together, these factors come together to give “the advantage to hawks.”

Read the full report here.