Few Americans would agree with the proposition that they exist in what is essentially a culture of fear. Generally speaking, Americans pride themselves on their courage, especially in the face of the various threats they are told lurk around every corner. Although they may not spend their days actively trembling, however, there is little doubt that the American people — and especially their leaders — harbor what might be thought of as geopolitical fear, or the belief that the world is a dangerous place, full of evil actors seeking to do them harm. That fear, a generalized anxiety about the nature of the outside world, has been passed down through the generations and is visible across the political spectrum.
People can be perfectly rational about their own personal safety while harboring unreasonable fear for their country. In other words, perceptions of individual and collective safety need not match. One consistent finding of post‐9/11 polling is that the public seems to be more worried about terrorist attacks in general than in its own communities.20 That fear has a certain degree of logic to it, because the country is bigger than their communities, and the former includes the latter. It is that collective anxiety regarding threats not to their person but to their society and, more important, to their way of life that helps define geopolitical fear in the United States.
That fear has been consistent since at least World War II. A variety of analysts and scholars have over the years been puzzled and frustrated by the fact that, despite its size and relative safety, the United States routinely perceives its threats to be dire and immediate.21 Whether the issue is Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, failing states, or rogue actors, the United States tends to detect higher levels of danger than does any other state.
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; it worried about the influence of communist China more than South Korea, Japan, and the member states of the Association of Southeast Nations; and it obsessed over the potential pernicious influence of Castro and the Sandinistas more than did its smaller friends in the region.22
In 2002, the other members of the “Coalition of the Willing” had a much harder time selling the invasion of Iraq to their publics than did Washington.23 “After the Cold War, and even after 9/11, Europeans felt relatively secure,” Robert Kagan observed. “Only the Americans were frightened.“24 Despite the fact that the other states in the system are all demonstrably weaker than the United States and are, therefore, presumably more vulnerable to a variety of threats, none seems to worry about its safety nearly as much as does Uncle Sam.
The end of the Cold War hardly affected the belief in the inherent dangers of the outside world; if anything, it exacerbated that geopolitical fear. Polls throughout the 1990s revealed high levels of anxiety in the American people on a wide variety of issues.25 By April 2007, 82 percent of Americans told pollsters that the world was a more dangerous place than it used to be and that it was getting worse. One year later, a similar poll found a “significant majority” of Americans reported being anxious about U.S. security, demonstrating that in the United States, “anxiety remains steady over time.” Only 15 percent were not worried about “the way things are going for the United States in world affairs.“26 Elite anxiety mirrors — and leads — that of the public: a 2009 poll found that fully half of the membership of the Council on Foreign Relations considered the world more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. Another quarter deemed the dangers equivalent.27
Anxiety in the public can be at least partially explained by inadequate information about the level of risk that America faces today and perhaps by the lingering effects of 9/11. The beliefs of those who ought to know better, however, often remain immune to the facts. To take but one example, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was fully aware of the statistics concerning conflict and threats in April 2012 when he gave an address to Harvard’s Kennedy School. The general began by reviewing Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, perhaps the best‐known review of the decline of violence worldwide, and then went on to explain how its findings — although empirically indisputable — are functionally irrelevant. His reexamination of the evidence led Dempsey to argue that although the world “seems less dangerous,” it is “actually more dangerous.” That “security paradox,” as he called it, was due to the proliferation of destructive technologies such as ballistic missiles, exploding fertilizer, and computer viruses. “More people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point of my life,” he argued.28 So although those technologies have yet to affect U.S. security or international politics in any meaningful way, the general believed that catastrophe was right around the corner. The message coming from the top is that danger still exists, so no one should relax.
Dempsey’s remarks might be dismissed as merely the cynical obfuscation of someone with a professional interest in denying safety. Indeed, a number of institutions provide their members with a vested interest in identifying threats and then exaggerating them when necessary. The budget and overall raison d’être of the military, for instance, would be called into question in a fundamentally safe world. The intelligence services issue quarterly assessments of the security environment that regularly foresee drastically worse futures than the present; only the degree and form of chaos change.29 Geopolitical fear has a number of institutional constituencies, in other words, that are professionally inclined to detect threats whether or not they exist. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” Upton Sinclair famously noted, “when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.“30
That statement is not to imply that leaders are always, or even usually, insincere when they issue warnings about the various present dangers. People are quite capable of aligning their political interests with their beliefs about security. “Humans are compulsive rationalizers,” wrote the journalist Daniel Gardner in his review of the psychology literature on that issue. “Self‐interest and sincere belief seldom part company.“31 Even initially disingenuous motivations quickly become the truth, as a result of every human being’s desire to be internally consistent. No matter what President George W. Bush’s initial calculations were regarding Iraq, for example, one should have little doubt that he truly believed (and continues to, despite all evidence to the contrary) that Saddam Hussein represented a clear and present danger and that removing him was the right thing to do. To believe otherwise would be cognitively unacceptable for almost anyone who had ordered men into battle.
Although manipulation of the evidence by elites with vested interests can account for a portion of America’s geopolitical fear, for a complete explanation of its existence one must look elsewhere. The belief in the inherent dangers of the outside world has deep historical roots in the United States. It persists in the post–Cold War era because of a number of factors, at least four of which are worthy of brief mention.
First, their high levels of religiosity compared with the rest of the Western world make the people of the United States more prone to moralism and Manichaeism, as well as more likely to be comfortable with the existence of evil as a palpable force in constant struggle with good.32
Second, because no other state has a political movement quite like neoconservatism in the United States, nowhere else is fear given such promotion in the marketplace of ideas.33 One of the central, defining features of neoconservatives is their enthusiasm for identifying threats. Though hawks exist in every country, no other ideological group advocates quite the same mixture of evangelical faith in democracy and pathological fear of the other. In particular, neoconservatives construct a complex, completely misleading web of danger with every speech they give and op‐ed they write.34
Third, the American media have little incentive to present the public with realistic information on risk when impending catastrophe sells more papers and attracts the most viewers. Glenn Beck, who is almost a parody of the kind of person Richard Hofstadter had in mind when he wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” consistently attracts more listeners than does NPR.35
And fourth, the relative power of the United States predisposes its people to geopolitical fear. Unipolar powers are, by nature, supporters of the status quo, any alteration of which can appear to threaten their position. Rich people worry a great deal about their security. They build tall fences, install motion detectors, and hire private security guards to protect themselves and their belongings from the throngs of have‐nots they assume are plotting to take what is theirs. Wealth creates insecurity in individuals, and it seems to do so in states as well. Those who have more than what could be considered their fair share, perhaps bothered a bit by subconscious guilt, worry about losing what they have more than those who live in relative penury. In international politics, the United States has the most and fears the most too. “America may be uniquely powerful in its global scope,” former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski believes, so as a result “its homeland is also uniquely insecure.“36 That kind of thinking has a certain amount of intuitive appeal, even if it is utterly devoid of logic; if unchecked, it can lead to disaster.
Persistent geopolitical fear filters out of U.S. foreign policy debates any news regarding the decline of warfare, of the miniscule risks to individuals from terrorism, of the deep divides among even Islamic fundamentalists, and of the essential safety of the United States. The notion that the world is a fundamentally dangerous place has long ago passed into the realm of belief, especially among foreign policy elites, where it is rarely subjected to evaluation. Mere reviews of facts are unlikely to change minds on that issue. Those who matter most in the foreign policy process — the elites across the political and strategic spectra, inside and outside of government — rarely give the possibility of fundamental safety much of a hearing. For them, the world is likely to remain a dark place, full of terrors.