Delusions of Danger: Geopolitical Fear and Indispensability in U.S. Foreign Policy

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: Deeply held beliefs that the world is dangerous and American power is indispensable for global peacekeeping prevent Americans from accepting the fact that they live in the safest, most peaceful era in history. These misguided beliefs also fuel America's misguided, interventionist foreign policy.

It is an empirical fact that in 2020, Americans are safer than ever before. Wars with great and small powers are infrequent. Countries fall to conquest. Americans face as much danger from baths as they do from terrorism. But despite these facts, very few Americans “inside or outside the foreign policy establishment” seem to accept this reality.

“In part because emotion regularly interferes with reason,” misguided notions and miscalculated threat perceptions tend to rise to the top of the marketplace of ideas, which is really more like a “battlefield of beliefs.”

“The American marketplace of ideas is impoverished by a number of pathological beliefs, which together make it likely that the American people will remain temperamentally disinclined, at least in the short term, to accept the notion that they do not live in a particularly dangerous world.” Unfortunately, many of those misguided ideas go on to shape policy both foreign and domestic.

The reluctance to accept its safety is partially grounded in two fundamental, American beliefs about foreign policy. The first is that the world is a fundamentally dangerous place. The second is that the only thing holding the world together -- and preventing war and strife -- is American military power.

These beliefs are just that: not facts or opinions, but “notions that have become internalized and accepted as true, often without much further analysis.” It’s hard for us to shake our beliefs, even when presented with information that challenges them. “Part of the reason our beliefs are so resistant to change is because they shape the way that new information is interpreted, and they filter out that which appears to be contradictory.”

When it comes to politics and policy, “the masses” tend to draw their beliefs from “the elites.” This is certainly true with regard to foreign policy and the belief that the world is unsafe. Despite elite and populist projections of American courage, the fact is that our political elites hold -- and have propagated -- the belief that the world is a dangerous place. Still, Americans tend to be unafraid on an individual basis. That’s why people tend to be more worried about terrorist attacks on the country in general than about terrorist attacks on their communities.

This belief has existed, and puzzled scholars, since at least World War II. “During the Cold War, the pattern was the same: the United States feared an attack by the Warsaw Pact far more than did its West European allies, who presumably had more to lose if such an event occurred.” This mismatched threat perception is one reason the United States had an easier time selling the Iraq War to the public than did other members of the “Coalition of the Willing.”

If average Americans inherit this belief from elites, why do elites -- who “ought to know better” -- hold it? One reason is because foreign policy elites owe their careers to such inflated threat perceptions. If the country changed its collective mind about the safety of the world and the need for strong American power, the necessity of the military and other institutions as currently constituted would be called into question.

Other factors driving American fear are the country’s high levels of religiosity (which makes people more willing to see the forces of evil at work in the world) and the existence of neoconservatism (which gives fear a prominent place in the marketplace of ideas).

On a broader level, American unipolarity makes the country disposed to fear, because great powers tend to prefer the status quo and fear losing it. Finally, given the combination of these factors, America’s sensationalist media has nothing to gain by countering the narrative of fear, and everything to gain by perpetuating it. So they do.

The aforementioned beliefs prevent Americans from realizing the true level of danger they face. They also support the concurrent belief that American power is necessary to keep the world safe, which in turn shapes American foreign policy. And while “There is precious little evidence to suggest that the United States is responsible for the pacific trends that have swept across the” world, foreign policy elites still hold tight to this “indispensability fallacy.”

The indispensability fallacy is further supported by an American belief that the country is morally superior to the rest of the world. It’s easy to move from such a position to the belief that a strong expression of these morals around the world is the only thing keeping the peace. In other words, Americans believe that spreading their views and defending similar views around the world is a national duty in a way most countries don’t.

In the coming years, “the United States will remain fundamentally safe no matter what it does.” As a result, it may be time for America to rethink its beliefs and reshape its policy accordingly. This may not be as hard as it seems. Foreign policy beliefs are less entrenched than other beliefs at both the elite and public level, in part because few people and politicians outside the foreign policy establishment really understand the subject matter.

Moreover, generational change could bring about a shift in foreign policy beliefs. “Public‐​opinion polling has suggested that the youngest generation of adults, the so‐​called millennials, is less concerned about terrorism and less supportive of an activist foreign policy than are its predecessors.”

Most importantly, if peace continues for years on end, even the most deeply-held belief that America is constantly under threat will begin to give way to reality. A barrage of facts may not convince people that the country isn’t in danger, but years of lived experience to the contrary may.

Read the full publication here.