Alarums and Excursions: Explaining Threat Inflation in U.S. Foreign Policy

Summary of Study

Bottom line: The United States makes foreign policy like rich people shop: indulging luxurious tastes without much concern about price. U.S. leaders chronically exaggerate the nation’s vulnerability to national security threats in order to protect their expansionist and self-interested prerogatives. Concentrated benefits to the national security establishment and dispersed costs to the public help explain the U.S.'s aggressive foreign policy given the relative lack of threats the country faces.

Because the costs of expansive foreign policy sparsely distribute to everyone as deficits or taxes, few people have an incentive to organize and resist the establishment’s exaggeration of threats. The foreign policy establishment sells its foreign policy vision by amplifying the danger that the American public faces. This effort requires threat inflation, portraying minor skirmishes around the globe as fundamental threats to Americans' national security interests.

Wealth, safety, and deficit spending have limited U.S. exposure to the traditional need for military restraint. Only the U.S. at this period in history could engage in such wantonly aggressive foreign policy with only minor consequences. Expansive defense policies and perception of threats that justify them harm the American public slightly but significantly help the national security establishment.

Expansionist foreign policy is self-reinforcing. Aggressive foreign policy spawns political interests that prefer ambitious military policies abroad. Those interests inflate threats to convince everyone else that those policies serve the national interest.

The threat inflators produce a powerful fear of swirling dangers. Business interests may oppose threat inflation to avoid military spending and keep down taxes, but in general proponents of a less interventionist foreign policy fall victim to a free-rider problem.

Ballooning national healthcare costs will increasingly restrain defense spending, especially as baby boomers age, because they will squeeze the national security budget.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars also encouraged a strong anti-war shift in U.S. public opinion that may rein in expansionist foreign policy. Future economic austerity will also create supporters for lower military spending. Reforms to limit expansionist foreign policy include:

  • Laws limiting presidential war powers
  • Reductions in information classification
  • The extension of military spending caps
  • Empowered budgetary agencies
  • Rules that limit Congress’s ability to fund wars through deficits
  • The revival of the anti-militarist brand of liberal ideology

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