The Dangerous Exaggeration of the Threat

Photograph Source: TIGER500 – CC BY 2.0

Threat perception is central to decision making regarding war and the use of force; alliance politics; and the role of deterrence. Exaggerations of threat make war more likely and  weaken the ability of an alliance to function effectively and rationally.  Since the end of World War II, the United States has consistently exaggerated the threat, particularly with regard to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  Once again, the United States is embarking on a campaign of exaggerated threat perception as politicians and pundits exaggerate the “threat” of a so-called “resurgent” Russia and a so-called “aggressive” China.

Nations judge potential adversaries on the basis of intentions and capabilities.  Soon after World War II, the United States formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) due to an exaggerated fear of Soviet intentions and capabilities as well as the fear that Joseph Stalin was another Adolf Hitler.  Six years after the creation of NATO, the Soviets formed the Warsaw Pact, which institutionalized the Cold War between East and West.  Ironically, many European nations supported the creation of NATO because they feared a German revival rather than a Soviet challenge.  Similarly, the Soviets formed the Warsaw Pact because they questioned the loyalty and support of their East European neighbors more than they feared a threat from the West.

In addition to exaggerating threats, the United States has tended to exaggerate its own skill and power in the resolution of tensions. Even when Stalin demonstrated his fear of another war in Europe by backing down from the Berlin blockade, U.S. policymakers considered his retreat the triumph of allied agility and military unity.  Years later, the United States believed that its military power solved the problem of the Cuban missile crisis, when a secret agreement involving the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey had been central to the agreement.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States used phony “bomber” gaps and “missile” gaps against the Soviet Union in order to increase defense spending and fuel the Soviet-American rivalry and the arms race.  The Cuban missile crisis turned out to be a turning point as leaders in Washington and Moscow realized how close we came to a military confrontation that could have involved nuclear weaponry.  The nuclear element led to the creation of the “hot line” between Moscow and Washington as well as the first major arms control agreement to limit nuclear testing.  Arms control paved the way to detente.  The collapse of the Soviet Union should have paved the way to a geopolitical realignment of Washington’s policy priorities.

The realignment never took place, and today we are focused on perceived threats from the  restoration of the Taliban in Afghanistan to the so-called Russian “threat” to Ukraine and the so-called Chinese “threat” to the South China Sea.  We should be focused on the strategically significant ties between Russia and China and the need for strategic diplomacy.  As the Biden administration becomes increasingly boxed in by the demands of continuing the “global war on terror,” the United States is indulging another round of dangerous exaggeration of the threat in the East and West.  Our rhetoric and posturing are creating unnecessary frictions with the Kremlin, and making it difficult to seek a diplomatic solution to the current contretemps with Beijing.

President John F. Kennedy’s successful diplomatic resolution of the Cuban missile crisis should be the model for resolving current Russian-American differences over the future of Ukraine.  There is no indication of any Russian intentions to use direct military force against Ukraine, which would create serious political and military problems for the Kremlin.  Furthermore, the United States has underplayed its own contributions to tensions in the region, particularly the expansion of NATO to include former Soviet republics; the deployment of  missile defenses in Poland and Romania; and the deployment of armored vehicles in the Baltic States and Poland.  U.S. references to Ukraine as a “strategic partner” are not helpful.

When Russia and Belarus conducted a military exercise last week, the mainstream media treated the exercise as a threat to “NATO’s border” and the creation of a “security deficit in the region” for NATO.  But it is NATO that has doubled its membership for the past 20 years, and it is the United States that has betrayed its commitment to not “leap frog” over East Germany in the wake of Moscow’s withdrawal of forces 30 years ago.  U.S. designs on including Ukraine and Georgia in NATO, after all, are the primary reasons for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertive steps in East Europe and the Caucasus.

The mainstream media persists in referring to the South China Sea as the “future of conflict.”  We are constantly bombarded with assessments that wrongly state the balance of power in the region is shifting against the United States, and that Washington must defend its credibility in the region by deploying more weaponry in the region.  China’s economic growth is dependent in part on its shipping through the Malacca Strait, and Beijing’s strategic interests would not be served by a military conflict in the South China Sea.  If China has a key security interest in the South China Sea, it would be to avoid an arms race in the area, let alone a military conflict.

The United States has the opportunity to improve relations with key states in the region, particularly the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, which favor a continued U.S. presence to balance China.  The U.S. retreat from Afghanistan is being treated as a loss of U.S. credibility in the region, but adroit diplomacy should make it certain that the United States will continue to protect the free flow of trade in the world’s seas.  Diplomacy is the correct tool for managing the balance of power in the region; additional military deployments would be counterproductive.

The issues surrounding Ukraine and the South China Sea are eminently manageable, but nothing is being done at the National Security Council or the Department of State to resolve the differences or to avoid conflict.  Bilateral talks with the Kremlin should include the willingness of the United States to signal no interest in including Ukraine (or Georgia for that matter) in NATO, but President Joe Biden used talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to keep the issue alive.  Talks with China should include discussions regarding accidental naval conflicts in contentious areas such as the South China Sea.

Unfortunately, the current political climate in the United States supports greater defense spending and military deployments.  Ten years ago, the United States unwisely proclaimed the need to “pivot” military power from the Middle East to the Pacific, and thus far we seem to be stuck on this petard.  The failures of the past two decades require the United States to reassess its foreign policy assumptions.  We must stop operating under Bill Clinton’s dictum from 20 years ago that “When people are insecure, they’d rather have someone who is strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.”  The existential threats are at home; in going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” we have simply created more monsters.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for