Stephen M. Walt

The threatmonger’s handbook

The United States has the world’s largest economy (so far), and the world’s most powerful conventional military forces. It spends about as much on national security than the rest of the world combined, and nearly nine times more than the No. 2 power (China). It has several thousand operational nuclear weapons, each substantially more powerful ...

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.

The United States has the world’s largest economy (so far), and the world’s most powerful conventional military forces. It spends about as much on national security than the rest of the world combined, and nearly nine times more than the No. 2 power (China). It has several thousand operational nuclear weapons, each substantially more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. America is further protected from conventional military attack by two enormous oceanic moats, there no great powers in the Western hemisphere, and it hasn’t been invaded since the War of 1812. (A few southerners may want to challenge that last statement, but I’m not going to get into that).

9/11 reminded us American security is not absolute, of course, and the strategic advantages I just outlined are no defense against climate change, pandemic disease, or financial collapse. But surely the United States is about as secure as any great power in modern history. Yet Americans continue to fret about national security, continue to spend far more on national security than any other country does, and continue to believe that our way of life will be imperiled if we do not confront an array of much weaker foes on virtually every continent.

One reason Americans exaggerate security fears is the existence of an extensive cottage industry of professional threatmongers, who deploy a well-honed array of arguments to convince us that we are in fact in grave danger. (The United States is hardly the only country that does this, of course, but the phenomenon is more evident here because its overall strategic position is so favorable). Debunking these claims is easier once you know the basics, so I hereby offer as a public service:

The Threatmonger’s Handbook:
(Or, How to Scare Your Fellow Citizens for Fun and Profit.)

Rule #1: Emphasize that small decisions can mark the difference between victory or defeat.

The core logic of threatmongering depends on convincing others that world is highly elastic; that very small policy changes will have dramatic effects on one’s overall position. Threatmongers argue that cancelling some weapons system or failing to take action against some minor danger may leave you vulnerable to a devastating attack. At the same time, spending just a bit more or taking aggressive action now will cause potential threats to dissipate and guarantee security for years to come.

Rule #2: “Everything is connected.”

This principle is a corollary to Rule #1: a good threatmonger wants to convince you that events in one area will have far-reaching effects everywhere else. They portray a world where credibility is fragile, where dominos fall easily and where one’s allies will be quick to jump on the enemy’s bandwagon after a single setback. By the same logic, threatmongers promise that success in one place will quickly lead to further triumphs elsewhere. During the Vietnam War, threatmongers predicted that defeat there would lead to dominos falling all across Southeast Asia and undermine U.S. alliances all over the world (which of course didn’t happen). More recently, the architects of the Iraq war argued that toppling Saddam would trigger a wave of democratic transformations across the Middle East and put dictators on notice elsewhere. In a world where everything is connected to everything else, there are no minor problems and nothing can be safely ignored.

Rule #3: Emphasize threats that are inherently impossible to measure.

This principle was the essence of McCarthyism: his claim that communists were infiltrating the U.S. government was impossible to disprove with 100 percent confidence, and it made many Americans fear that a vast network of subversives were secretly at work across the entire country. The problem is that there’s no way to know for certain if his accusations were true or not: that flag-waving Boy Scout next door might have been an especially cunning Marxist-Leninist with a truly effective disguise. Today, threatmongers try to scare us by portraying all Muslims as potential subversives, and by suggesting that Western civilization itself is under siege from immigration, the internet, cyberterrorism, or some other covert form of infiltration. And don’t forget Rule 3A: when an alleged threat is easy to measure and not really that serious, just classify the information so that nobody finds out.

Rule #4: Portray allies as a liability rather than as an asset.

States normally seek allies in order to pool their assets and make both more secure. Threatmongers see this differently: the more allies you have, the more interests that must be protected and the greater your security requirements actually become. Logically, U.S. defense requirements should be lower because we are allied to some of the world’s wealthiest and well-armed states. But the logic of threatmongering suggests the opposite conclusion: as the United States recruits an ever-increasing network of allies, it has to defend more and more places and must therefore worry about an ever-widening array of problems.

Rule #5: Whenever possible, depict opponents as part of a strong and highly cohesive movement, and preferably one united by strong ideological convictions.

This is the flip side of Rule #4: our allies are weak and feckless, but our opponents are always strong, cunning, resolute, and well-organized. During the Cold War, the enemy was “monolithic communism,” an image that downplayed the deep schisms within the communist world. Under Bill Clinton, the danger was a motley collection of “rogue states” whose combined capabilities were a tiny fraction of our own and who weren’t even in cahoots with one another. George W. Bush went one step further, and placed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and North Korea in a mythical  “axis of evil.” Today, other threatmongers rail about the looming danger of “Islamofascism,” thereby suggesting that all Islamic groups are part of some vast and well-organized conspiracy. In all these cases, the same basic principle is used to make dangers look bigger than they really are.

Rule #6: “We must act now!”

To a skilled threatmonger, trends are always against us and time is always short. If we do not act soon, we are told, the window of opportunity will close and our security will be compromised forever. This is the mindset that drove Germany’s decision to provoke World War I and led the Bush administration to attack Iran in 2003, and those now favor military action against Iran invoke essentially the same logic. They’ve forgotten Bismarck’s warning: preventive war “is committing suicide for fear of death.”

Rule #7: Always describe opponents as irrational, unalterably aggressive, and impossible to deter.

If the enemy is aggressive, irrational, and willing to run great risks, then it will take overwhelming superiority to deter them and even that may not be enough. In fact, if the adversary is as nasty as the threatmongers say, then deterrence or containment probably won’t work and war is probably inevitable. And if war is going to occur sooner or later, we should look for a favorable opportunity to take them out first. Kenneth Pollock of the Brookings Institution used Rule #7 to perfection in his 2002 book The Threatening Storm, thereby helping convince potentially skeptical liberals that invading Iraq was a good idea.

Rule #8:  When it comes to national security, there is no such thing as opportunity costs.

The goal of threatmongering is to convince a country to spend more money on defense or to undertake more aggressive actions in the name of national security. Leaders or citizens may object if they think such a policy might entail real costs or require genuine tradeoffs, so skilled threatmongers often argue that increased military spending will be cost-free (for example, by claiming it will stimulate the economy and create jobs), or by suggesting that military action in one arena will produce lots of positive externalities elsewhere (see Rule #2). At the same time, they will downplay the possibility that military action lead to a costly quagmire or make it impossible to take action elsewhere (see under: Iraq). 

Rule #9: Assume that opponents are able to do anything they say they want to do.

One easy way to scare people is to look at your enemies’ wildest dreams and assume that they have the capacity to actually bring them about.  During the Cold War, threatmongers studied Soviet military writings and argued that the most fantastic Soviet battle plans were an accurate measure of what the Red Army could actually accomplish, even though there were sound military reasons to reject that assessment. Or they took the rabble-rousing rhetoric of revolutionary leaders at face value and assumed that it would be as easy to spread revolution as these radicals thought. Today, threatmongers tell us that Osama bin Laden wants to topple governments throughout the Islamic world and eventually restore the medieval caliphate, even though he is as likely to achieve that goal as I am to win the Wimbledon singles title or make the finals on American Idol. It obviously makes sense to know what an adversary’s objective might be, but only a dedicated threatmonger equates desires with actual capabilities.  

And don’t forget Rule 9B (the Cheney Corollary): if there is a one percent chance that some bad thing might happen, act as if it is a 100 percent certainty. A purer illustration of threatmongering would be difficult to find.

Rule#10: When challenged, immediately question your critics’ patriotism, credentials, or seriousness.

Nothing can disarm critics who claim that the nation is needlessly squandering blood or treasure more effectively than accusing them of being unpatriotic, naïve, excessively idealistic, or insufficiently “serious.” And if that doesn’t work, bring up Neville Chamberlain.

These tried-and-true methods do not work all of the time, of course, but they are undeniably effective. This is partly because a few leaders turn out to be hard to deter, sometimes seemingly minor events do have large consequences, and losing a war or being forced to compromise with an adversary is never a pleasant experience. In short, there are good reasons for any country to national security seriously, which is why realists like me oppose pacifism, radical disarmament, or reflexive appeasement. But squandering resources is never a good idea, and exaggerating dangers can be as harmful to a state’s long-term interests as understating them, especially when it leads to wars of choice that turn out badly. So when you see arguments like this being used to justify hawkish policies, hang onto your skepticism (and your wallet).

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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.