Stephen M. Walt

“SCARY MONSTERS”: A Halloween Tribute List

Halloween is a big event in my neighborhood, and tomorrow night our street will be filled with lots of scary monsters. They aren’t really monsters, of course; it will just be a bunch of kids trying to look as frightening as possible. And that got me thinking: what are the “scary monsters” that have haunted ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Schoolchildren wear masks and present many varieties of ghoulish characters during a costume party to celebrate Halloween at Taman Rama International School in Jimbaran on the resort island of Bali on October 30, 2009. Halloween, which falls annually on October 31, is widely celerated amongst the expatriate community in Indonesia as part of an effort to recreate traditions from their homes. AFP PHOTO/ SONNY TUMBELAKA (Photo credit should read SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

Halloween is a big event in my neighborhood, and tomorrow night our street will be filled with lots of scary monsters. They aren’t really monsters, of course; it will just be a bunch of kids trying to look as frightening as possible. And that got me thinking: what are the “scary monsters” that have haunted foreign policy debates in the past, and which turned out to be not so scary after all?

So, in honor of tomorrow night’s revels, here’s my Halloween list of “scary monsters:” those overblown threats, dubious nightmares, and (mostly) fictitious demons that people dreamed up to frighten us unnecessarily.

1. The “Domino Theory.”  This hardy perennial posits that a single defeat in one area will trigger a cascade of similar defeats elsewhere, either because allies “bandwagon” with the enemy, enemies become emboldened, or status quo forces become disheartened. It was famously used to justify prolonged U.S. involvement in Indochina, but variants were also invoked in Central America and the basic idea is making something of a comeback in debates about the war in Afghanistan. If we win, Islamic radicals will be on the run everywhere; if we lose, it will be hailed as a great victory and will spawn new troubles throughout the region and beyond. As Jerome Slater and others showed, both the internal logic and the empirical evidence for the theory was always paltry, but the idea that the fate of the entire free world might hinge on a single marginal event in some far-away land was an effective way to scare people into overstating the importance of otherwise peripheral conflicts.

2. Y2K. Remember the widespread fear that the world’s computers would simply stop working at midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, when their internal clocks ran out of digits? Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre called it “the computer equivalent of El Nino” and said there would be “nasty surprises” around the world. In fact, it was a virtual non-event, even in countries that hadn’t taken significant precautions. It’s one of those episodees that makes me suspect that the growing hype over “cyberwarfare” and “cyberterror” is being exaggerated too. It’s a legitimate concern, but watch it get over-sold in the months and years to come.

3. “Rogue States.”  This phrase become popular in the 1990s, in a period when the U.S. faced essentially no significant great power threats. So national security worriers started to talk about the threat from “rogue states” like Cuba, Libya, Syria, Iran, or Iraq, even though their combined capabilities were paltry compared with the United States (let alone the U.S. plus its allies).  Specifically, the combined GDP of all the potential “rogues” was less than the size of the U.S. defense budget, and most of these states weren’t even in cahoots with each other. The same was true (but even more so) for the Bush administration’s famous “Axis of Evil,” a conceptual monstrosity intended solely to scare the American people into launching an unnecessary and tragic war.

4. “Monolithic Communism.”  The Cold War was a fertile source of exaggerated dangers, and this dubious idea was one of the best. Many people in the West believed that all Marxists (and maybe even a few socialists) were reliable tools of the Kremlin, despite the abundant evidence of deep rifts within the international Communist movement and the repeated tensions between Moscow and its various clients. The belief that the Kremlin controlled a potent world-wide revolutionary movement fueled the insane fear of communist subversion during the McCarthy period, and even led some highly placed U.S. officials to view the Sino-Soviet split as a clever communist plot to lull us into a false sense of security. Not only did we exaggerate the threat, but we missed opportunities to wean leftists away from Moscow and fought foolish wars in places that didn’t matter, like Indochina.

5. “Strategic Minerals and Resource Dependence.”  The United States and other industrial powers have repeatedly exaggerated their dependence on so-called strategic minerals (cobalt, chromium, manganese, platinum, etc.), and used the fear of cartels or cutoffs to justify a more interventionist foreign policy and greater power-projection capabilities. Alarmists point to the fact the United States imports most of its consumption of these materials from Africa and other conflict-ridden places, but this simplistic view ignores the reasons why this is the case and the various options we have for dealing with possibility of a cutoff. One option is stockpiles (which the U.S. possesses), and another is the fact that additional supplies often exist, albeit at higher prices. We import most of our consumption because these sources are the cheapest, not because they are the only ones available. Moreover, the danger of a complete and lasting cutoff is remote. With the (partial) exception of oil, strategic minerals are an issue that deserves a modest degree of attention, but are hardly cause for alarm.

6. Immigration.  Throughout U.S. history, people who had made it here from abroad have tended to panic over the next group to arrive after them.  The Anglo-Americans opposed the large-scale German migration in the mid-19th century, and every subsequent group — Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews, Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Muslims,. etc. — seems to have provoked nativist alarm declaring that this latest group will never assimilate and will gradually destroy whatever it is that past immigrants have come to value. This sort of thing can even lead formerly sensible people like newsman Lou Dobbs to rail against illegal immigration now, and it inspires militia groups seeking to patrol our southern borders.

In fact, immigration has long been a great source of strength for the United States, and it will probably remain so for many years to come.  And the dirty little secret here is that American society — and especially certain American businesses — aren’t upset at all about having a low-wage workforce to exploit.  Keeping a lot more people out of the United States wouldn’t be that difficult if we really wanted to do it-but we don’t.  That’s a good thing, by the way, because it means the United States won’t face the same demographic problems that Japan, Europe, and Russia will (i.e., a shrinking and progressively older population).

7. Soviet Military Power. Don’t get me wrong: the Soviet Union was a serious adversary and it possessed considerable military power. But lots of people tended to portray it as a monster that was ten feet tall, and capable of seemingly magical feats of military deering-do. Richard Pipes famously told readers that the Soviet leadership genuinely believed it “could fight and win a nuclear war,” other hawks seriously declared that the Red Army could easily defeat NATO and overrun Western Europe (in perhaps as little as two weeks), and Caspar Weinberger’s Pentagon used to use U.S. tax dollars to produce a glossy document — Soviet Military Powercontaining various ominous descriptions of Soviet weaponry and capabilities, much of it exaggerated.  Of course, what they portrayed as the ultimate scary monster turned out to be a colossus with feet of clay.

8. “Bogeymen from Latin America”  As befits a regional hegemon, the United States has long exaggerated the threat from various not-very-powerful forces in the Western hemisphere.  The list of bogeymen is a long one: Venustiano Carranza and Pancho Villa in Mexico, Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua,  Fidel Castro in Cuba, Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Salvador Allende in Chile, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, etc., etc., right on up to Hugo Chavez in contemporary Venezuela. One might concede that some of these individuals or groups were an annoyance or even a regional problem, but U.S. officials often depicted them as mortal threats to U.S. security. Remember when Ronald Reagan declared that the Sandinistas were but “a two-day march from Harlingen, Texas?”  In other words, we were supposed to fear an invasion from an impoverished country whose total population was less than that of New York City. What’s really scary is that some of Reagan’s listeners probably believed him.

9.  “Declinism.”  Fueled by books like Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, many Americans thought that “imperial overstretch” in the 1980s was going to lead to the rapid erosion in America’s global position.  A corollary to this argument was the fear of Japanese dominance, as illustrated by Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One and other similar works.  This view even infected the international relations literature, as when Robert Keohane called his major work on institutions After Hegemony and realist Robert Gilpin offered a similarly gloomy forecast in War and Change in World Politics.

Of course, we now know that it was the Soviet Union whose decline was imminent (as others realists, notably Kenneth Waltz, had foreseen) and the Japanese Godzilla that many feared soon succumbed to a combination of speculative bubble at home and a sclerotic political system.  But might one sound a cautionary note: were these fears dead wrong, or just premature? I’d say wrong, unless we keep doing a lot of stupid things abroad and don’t get our economic house in order back home.

10. “Islamofascism.”   No list of scary monsters would be complete without neoconservativism’s bedrock bogeyman: the claim that there is a powerful, cohesive, ideologically united movement of Islamic radicals, backed by assorted Islamic governments, seeking to re-establish the medieval caliphate, subjugate the West, and impose Islam on all of us. One thing is clear: the people who make this claim don’t understand Islam very well and don’t understand fascism at all; “Islamofascism” may in fact be the most misleading neologism in contemporary political discourse.  

Sure, some Islamic radicals harbor wild fantasies about transforming and uniting the entire Muslim world under their banner; the good news is that they are as likely to accomplish this goal as I am to flap my arms and fly to the moon.  Let’s remember that Osama bin Laden isn’t leading an vast army of followers to overthrow the existing Arab governments; he’s hiding in some remote part of Pakistan and praying we don’t find him. And surveys suggest that Al Qaeda’s efforts aren’t winning them any mass support; just recruits among a small number of disaffected.  But the more we fear this monster and overreact to it, the more sympathy they may win and the more trouble they can cause….even if its nowhere near the amount they would like.


I could go on and discuss the fear of fluoridation and flu vaccines, paranoia about foreign ownership of U.S. assets, the “window of vulnerability,” China’s “foreign aid offensive” in Africa, the fear of subversion that led to the shameful incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and so forth.   But I’ll stop with these ten, and just make two final points. 

First, we are often told that international politics is a dangerous business, and that it makes sense to prepare for the worst case. This is nonsense, because there are real costs to exaggerating various potential threats. Not only may this policy lead us to ignore more likely and more legitimate problems and to waste resources addressing fantasies, but it can also lead a country to take active steps that either make minor problems worse or lead to enormous self-inflicted wounds (see under: Iraq). Fixating on scary monsters can leave you ill-prepared when real problems arise.

Second, even if these foolish fears led us to undertake various boneheaded policies on occasion, we should nonetheless be thankful that these various monsters turned out to be far less fearsome than we often believed. But given that Nov. 26 is the official day to give thanks this year, maybe I’ll just hold that thought until that holiday arrives.


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

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