The American Perception of Substate Threats

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: Since 9/11, the United States has overstated the dangers of terrorist organizations and other “substate” actors. This misperception has hindered U.S. foreign policy for the past two decades, and needs to be corrected.

For most of the country’s history, U.S. foreign policy has contradicted John Quincy Adams’ assertion that the United States “does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” From the end of the Cold War through the beginning of the 21st century, the United States desperately searched for new monsters. The attacks of September 11, 2001 gave the country its latest monster, so-called “substate actors.”

Fueled by the “War on Terror,” for nearly two decades much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has overstated the danger that substate actors pose to the country. “Understanding that disconnect requires a closer examination of [the three] fundamental ways in which substate conflict can endanger U.S. interests.”

First, a substate actor could overthrow a government and install a regime hostile to the United States. Fear of such an occurrence shaped U.S. policy during the Cold War, particularly the “containment” strategy that led to conflict in Southeast Asia. This mentality had certain logical problems within the Cold War context, and it certainly no longer applies today.

For instance, it’s almost impossible to examine a substate actor and “make accurate predictions about the orientation and foreign policy of any regime into which the movement may convert itself in the future.” This is particularly true because there’s no guarantee that an actor’s ends and means will be congruent. Israel, for instance, was formed in part through “terrorism,” and is now one of the United States’ closest allies, while Adolf Hitler took power “peacefully” before becoming one of our greatest enemies.

Moreover, even if the United States could predict what a substate group would do once it took power, it would still be impossible to discern what it would mean for U.S. interests. Tempered by the burdens of governance and incumbency, a seemingly hostile regime could eventually become more beneficial to the United States than the regime it replaced. Particularly in our globalized world, it’s likely that any substate group will temper its actions once it attains state-level power.

Many observers hold that even failed attempts to topple a regime can pose threats to the United States. Civil war caused by substate actors can destabilize countries or entire regions, creating “safe havens” for anti-American actors or causing other countries to topple. But both concerns are overblown. For one, too much chaos will compromise the “safety” of terrorist safe havens, which are largely inconsequential themselves. And it’s as difficult to predict whether or how substate disruption will spill over from one country to another.

Of course, substate actors can pose threats without attempting to topple an existing regime. “It is with regard to that possibility that fears of international terrorism especially dominate American ideas about substate conflict.” But this fear is largely the lingering aftershock of 9/11 -- more indicative or American attitudes than the actual threat of terrorism. There was far more terrorism in the 1970s than there is today. But it was seen as less of a threat because in the 1970s, the Cold War gave Americans plenty of “monsters” to fight.

Today, American misperceptions of terrorism do more harm than good. “The attention and resources devoted to counterterrorism greatly outstrip the damage that is being countered, even when including the off-the-charts 9/11 attacks.” Additionally, the United States focuses too much on “al-Qaeda,” and other “terrorist” groups at the expense of other substate actors that could pose a bigger threat to U.S. foreign policy.

All of this shows “how limited the capacity of the United States is to curb many instances of substate conflict, as well as how easy it is for the United States to be counterproductive or otherwise damaging in its influence.” Recent interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya demonstrate the dangers and difficulty of trying to curb substate violence abroad. Generally speaking, the effort required to resolve these types of internal conflicts largely outpaces U.S. interest in doing so.

Over the past two decades, the American tendency to overstate the threat of substate actors has pushed the United States to devote more time and resources to doomed foreign entanglements. A more balanced appraisal of these threats can serve as the basis for a more prudent foreign policy going forward.

Read the full report here.