Delusions of Danger: Geopolitical Fear and Indispensability in U.S. Foreign Policy

  • Beliefs and Foreign Policy
  • Geopolitical Fear
  • The Indispensable Nation
  • Affecting, or Altering, Beliefs
  • Endnotes
  • Related Content

One might think that American society would welcome the news that this is, by all reasonable historical standards, a golden age of peace and security. The great powers seem to have given up fighting one another, the lesser powers rarely go to war either, and levels of internal conflict (civil wars, ethnic conflicts, coups, and major violations of human rights) are at all‐​time lows.1 Terrorism may be the largest security challenge faced by the industrialized world, but it is not on the increase, and it poses less danger for the average American than does a bath.2 The pace of nuclear proliferation has slowed to a crawl, if not yet a complete stop.3 Perhaps most of all, states — no matter how mismanaged, corrupt, or weak — never disappear, because conquest appears to be dead.4 Despite what they may hear from their leaders, and no matter what the various underinformed pundits say, the actual empirical evidence suggests that the American people are safe, at least when compared with any who have come before.5

As those who have tried to spread that kind of information well know, however, large numbers of the American people generally refuse to believe that their basic security is unthreatened. When confronted by the growing mountain of evidence regarding risk in an era far more stable and less violent than any of its predecessors, few inside or outside the foreign policy establishment seem to accept it. Why does that message have such a hard time getting through? Why do so many Americans simply refuse to believe what would seem to be such positive news, that they are essentially safe?

In theory, at least, the “marketplace of ideas,” or the arena of debate in a free society, ought to encourage strong arguments to rise to the surface on the basis of superior logic and evidence and to expose those built on weaker foundations. As John Stuart Mill argued nearly 150 years ago, vigorous public debate should be the ally of truth and wisdom, thus allowing democracies to produce the best policy outcomes.6 Unfortunately, that weeding‐​out process does not always function as well in practice as it does in theory; all too often, the fittest ideas do not survive. Victorious notions, the ones that come to drive policy choices, are just as likely to be those with thin foundations that, nonetheless, proved essentially impervious to alteration by exposure to reason and fact.7

The odds in the marketplace are stacked against many ideas, irrespective of their wisdom, before the competition begins, in part because emotion regularly interferes with reason. Societal debates are not the detached intellectual evaluations of Mill’s imagination, where victory goes to those best supported by evidence and logic, but passionate struggles where entrenched assumptions fight one another for control over decisions (and decisionmakers), and where the outcome is always uncertain. Rather than a marketplace of ideas, in other words, foreign policy debates more closely resemble a battlefield of beliefs.

It is on that battlefield that policy is formed. To explain the behavior of the individual, one should examine his or her beliefs; similarly, to understand the foreign policy actions of a state, collective beliefs are a good place to begin. The triumphs of the United States, as well as its various mistakes, all have their origins in the assumptions that provide the justification for action by shaping the cost–benefit analyses performed before decisions are made. When underconsidered or even pathological beliefs defeat more rational ones, states march toward disaster.

The American marketplace of ideas is impoverished by a number of pathological beliefs, which together make it likely that the American people will remain temperamentally disinclined, at least in the short term, to accept the notion that they do not live in a particularly dangerous world.8 Simple misinformation cannot fully account for that stubborn refusal to acknowledge security. Competing facts are out there, but they often fail to convince the media or elites, both of which are important actors in any society and (more or less) reflect its fundamental attributes. This chapter discusses the reasons for the refusal to recognize safety and explains why belief in a dangerous world simultaneously frightens people and provides a certain level of psychological comfort. That apparent paradox is explicable with an understanding of how beliefs operate and how they help account not only for political behavior but also for all human activity.

Beliefs and Foreign Policy

The effort to get the country to recognize its fundamental safety and adjust its policies accordingly faces a pair of strong opponents. Central to American perceptions of international politics are two core beliefs: one about the nature of the world and the other about the role the United States should play in it. First, there is a widespread, deep‐​seated, visceral understanding that the world is a dangerous place; second, a great many Americans believe that any peace and tranquility is primarily the result of U.S. actions or of the stabilizing power of U.S. forward military presence. The world is a nest of vipers, in other words, that is kept quiet — to the extent that it is — only by the American policeman.

Those are not merely ideas, or cognitive impressions that are still subject to alteration by the introduction of new information. Those two fundamental understandings, one of the security environment and the other of the proper foreign policy to survive and shape it, are beliefs, or notions that have become internalized and accepted as true, often without much further analysis.9 Beliefs are the assumptions that we all work into our lives, the foundation for the prisms through which actors perceive and interpret their surroundings. They essentially shape the set of behavioral options, acting as heuristic devices for those seeking to organize and interpret new information and to respond appropriately.10 A little background on the nature of beliefs might help explain how they drive U.S. foreign policy and why they prevent society from accepting realistic evaluations of risk.

People are not born with their beliefs; their origins are in nurture rather than nature, and they become accepted not through rational analysis but through trust in those who relay them. Few choose their religious beliefs, for example, on the basis of a review of the evidence. Secular beliefs are also sustained by faith as much as by fact, and they are thus distinguished from knowledge (classically, “justified true belief”) by the absence of any stringent requirement for justification. Although they almost always have some basis in reality, beliefs need not pass rigorous tests to prove that they match it. No amount of evidence has been able to convince some people that vaccines do not cause autism, for example, or that the climate is changing because of human activity. Ultimately, as Robert Jervis explains, “We often believe as much in the face of evidence as because of it.“11

Beliefs are more than merely perceptions or intellectual interpretations of the external world. Once internalized, they can quickly become central to an actor’s identity structure or basic sense of self. Beliefs are visceral as much as intellectual. In other words, they are connected to emotion rather than reason: as such, they are nearly impervious to alteration by new information.12 Tolstoy memorably observed that even the most intelligent people “can very seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as to oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty — conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives.“13

Indeed, part of the reason our beliefs are so resistant to change is because they shape the way that new information is interpreted, and they filter out that which appears to be contradictory.14 “People do not have beliefs, see new evidence, then revise those beliefs in light of that evidence,” wrote Jonathan Mercer. “Instead, people use their beliefs to interpret evidence. People revise their beliefs based on evidence they find credible, but the evidence they find credible depends on their beliefs.“15 In practice, that conclusion means that the arena of foreign policy debate is dominated by people who are likely to disagree vehemently and emotionally when their beliefs come into conflict, as they so often do. Facts may change, but beliefs are likely to stay the same.

Once enough members of a group have internalized a belief, it can come to affect collective behavior, thereby becoming part of the conventional wisdom of widely shared assumptions that, since everybody knows, nobody really considers.16 Collective beliefs tend to be even more resistant to change than do those of the individual, because they are continually fortified by broader society. During the Cold War, people did not need to know much about communism to believe that it was antithetical to U.S. values, for example. What everyone knows must be true. By coloring interpretation of new information and framing the options for action in groups, collective beliefs nearly create their own reality, which may or may not match the material world.

Not all beliefs are created equal. On many political issues, the public tends to take its cues from trusted elites.17 Those instances where the dominant political parties are united on a position tend to be especially persuasive to the American people, who defer to the judgment of leaders, widespread contempt for politicians notwithstanding. Although that is not always the case — elites were unable in the late summer of 2013 to convince the public that intervention in Syria was wise, for example — for the most part, public opinion is especially elite‐​driven when it comes to foreign affairs.18 Where the leaders go, the masses follow. To understand the origins of delusions of danger, therefore, one needs to examine the beliefs of the elite, of those in the influential classes who have a disproportionate effect on the formulation of policy. As long as people run countries, beliefs will explain the behavior of states. Their importance is rarely recognized by most traditional scholarship and analysis of U.S. foreign policy, however.19 Nonetheless, it is not difficult to identify the dominant, collective beliefs among elites that together help lay the foundation for U.S. perceptions of both the outside world and the role that America should play in it. Two in particular work to prevent a more accurate understanding of risk and threat from making much headway in the U.S. public. The next sections explain those beliefs and briefly describe their origins; the last discusses how they can be affected or altered.

Geopolitical Fear

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.

The Indispensable Nation

Although geopolitical fear prevents current international empirical realities from receiving a fair evaluation by U.S. society, another belief prescribes a specific approach to foreign policy, one that mandates a far higher level of international activism than would otherwise be warranted. Both are based on thin intellectual foundations, and together they encourage a variety of ill‐​advised policies on the part of the United States. According to what might be considered the indispensability fallacy, many Americans believe that U.S. actions are primarily responsible for any stability that currently exists. “All that stands between civility and genocide, order and mayhem,” explain Lawrence Kaplan and William Kristol, “is American power.“37 That belief is an offshoot, witting or not, of what is known as “hegemonic stability theory,” which proposes that international peace is possible only when one country is strong enough to make and enforce a set of rules.38 Were U.S. leaders to abdicate their responsibilities, that reasoning goes, unchecked conflicts would at the very least bring humanitarian disaster and would quite quickly threaten core U.S. interests.39

Brzezinski is typical in his belief that “outright chaos” and a string of specific horrors could be expected to follow a loss of hegemony, from renewed attempts to build regional empires (by China, Turkey, Russia, and Brazil) to the collapse of the U.S. relationship with Mexico as emboldened nationalists south of the border reassert 150‐​year‐​old territorial claims. Overall, without U.S. dominance, today’s relatively peaceful world would turn “violent and bloodthirsty.“40 The liberal world order that is so beneficial to all would come tumbling down.

Like many believers, proponents of hegemonic stability theory base their view on faith alone.41 There is precious little evidence to suggest that the United States is responsible for the pacific trends that have swept across the system. In fact, the world remained equally peaceful, relatively speaking, while the United States cut its forces throughout the 1990s, as well as while it doubled its military spending in the first decade of the new century.42 Complex statistical methods should not be needed to demonstrate that levels of U.S. military spending have been essentially unrelated to global stability.

Hegemonic stability theory’s flaws go way beyond the absence of simple correlations to support them, however. The theory’s supporters have never been able to explain adequately how precisely 5 percent of the world’s population could force peace on the other 95 percent, unless, of course, the rest of the world was simply not intent on fighting. Most states are quite free to go to war without U.S. involvement but choose not to. The United States can be counted on, especially after Iraq, to steer well clear of most civil wars and ethnic conflicts. It took years, hundreds of thousands of casualties, and the use of chemical weapons to spur even limited interest in the events in Syria, for example; surely internal violence in, say, most of Africa would be unlikely to attract serious attention of the world’s policeman, much less intervention. The continent is, nevertheless, more peaceful today than at any other time in its history, something for which U.S. hegemony cannot take credit.43 Stability exists today in many such places to which U.S. hegemony simply does not extend.

Overall, proponents of the stabilizing power of U.S. hegemony should keep in mind one of the most basic observations from cognitive psychology: rarely are our actions as important to others’ calculations as we perceive them to be.44 The so‐​called egocentric bias, which is essentially ubiquitous in human interaction, suggests that although it may be natural for U.S. policymakers to interpret their role as crucial in the maintenance of world peace, they are almost certainly overestimating their own importance. Washington is probably not as central to the myriad decisions in foreign capitals that help maintain international stability as it thinks it is.

The indispensability fallacy owes its existence to a couple of factors. First, although all people like to bask in the reflected glory of their country’s (or culture’s) unique, nonpareil stature, Americans have long been exceptional in their exceptionalism.45 The short history of the United States, which can easily be read as an almost uninterrupted and certainly unlikely story of success, has led to a (perhaps natural) belief that it is morally, culturally, and politically superior to other, lesser countries. It is no coincidence that the exceptional state would be called on by fate to maintain peace and justice in the world.

Americans have always combined that feeling of divine providence with a sense of mission to spread their ideals around the world and battle evil wherever it lurks. It is that sense of destiny, of being the object of history’s call, that most obviously separates the United States from other countries. Only an American president would claim that by entering World War I, “America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.“46

Although many states are motivated by humanitarian causes, no other seems to consider promoting its values to be a national duty in quite the same way that Americans do. “I believe that God wants everybody to be free,” said George W. Bush in 2004. “That’s what I believe. And that’s one part of my foreign policy.“47 When Madeleine Albright called the United States the “indispensable nation,” she was reflecting a traditional, deeply held belief of the American people.48 Exceptional nations, like exceptional people, have an obligation to assist the merely average.

Many of the factors that contribute to geopolitical fear — Manichaeism, religiosity, various vested interests, and neoconservatism — also help explain American exceptionalism and the indispensability fallacy. And unipolarity makes hegemonic delusions possible. With the great power of the United States comes a sense of great responsibility: to serve and protect humanity, to drive history in positive directions. More than any other single factor, the people of the United States tend to believe that they are indispensable because they are powerful, and power tends to blind states to their limitations. “Wealth shapes our international behavior and our image,” observed Derek Leebaert. “It brings with it the freedom to make wide‐​ranging choices well beyond common sense.“49 It is quite likely that the world does not need the United States to enforce peace. In fact, if virtually any of the overlapping and mutually reinforcing explanations for the current stability are correct, the trends in international security may well prove difficult to reverse. None of the contributing factors that are commonly suggested (economic development, complex interdependence, nuclear weapons, international institutions, democracy, shifting global norms on war) seem poised to disappear any time soon.50 The world will probably continue its peaceful ways for the near future, at the very least, no matter what the United States chooses to do or not do. As Robert Jervis concluded while pondering the likely effects of U.S. restraint on decisions made in foreign capitals, “It is very unlikely that pulling off the American security blanket would lead to thoughts of war.“51 The United States will remain fundamentally safe no matter what it does — in other words, despite widespread beliefs in its inherent indispensability to the contrary.

Affecting, or Altering, Beliefs

The first step in the process of altering beliefs is to arrive at a basic understanding of where they come from; the second is to promote competing sets of beliefs, ones based on firm evidentiary foundations that would lead to better policy outcomes. If a more accurate understanding of national security is to be accepted in the United States and the nation’s behavior is to be adjusted accordingly, the two beliefs described earlier must be confronted and altered, or defeated in the marketplace of ideas.

Changing foreign policy beliefs is no easy task. Once internalized, beliefs quickly become part of an actor’s very identity and are, therefore, far more hardy and persistent than are ideas or theories. Elaborate cognitive defenses protect fragile ideologies against potentially contradictory information. Because any new evidence is interpreted according to extant belief systems, reevaluation of core assumptions is rarely even contemplated.52 Changing one’s mind takes a great deal more cognitive energy than merely ignoring potentially troubling evidence, which places inertia on the side of the ideological status quo. Beliefs are, therefore, nearly immune to the effect of even irrefutable empirical data, much less academic argumentation.

Nearly immune, however, is not immune. Even the most deeply held beliefs find it difficult to survive sustained, long‐​term assaults of contradictory information. Psychologists who have studied evolution in beliefs report that despite occasional epiphanies that instantly change minds, like that of Saul on the road to Damascus, generally speaking the process is very gradual, and sometimes imperceptible.53 Individuals often recognize that a change in their beliefs has occurred after the fact, and they resist admitting that their minds are evolving while the process is under way. There are examples of gradual, even generational evolution of beliefs that can give hope to those seeking to expunge fear and indispensability from U.S. foreign policy.

“Social Darwinism,” for instance, poisoned international politics for decades. The belief that humanity was split into a number of distinct “races” in a perpetual existential struggle where only the fittest survive shaped the worldview of generations of leaders.54 Social Darwinism helped justify any number of pathological policies, from imperialism to the Holocaust, but over time, it collapsed under the weight of rational counterargument and evidence. The identification of DNA and the understanding of the genome allowed science to put social Darwinism and its cousins, eugenics and phrenology, to rest once and for all.55 Previously, internalized beliefs about the inevitability of competition between races were slowly changed by the onslaught of evidence and reason, and the understanding that differences among peoples were cultural rather than genetic. The edifice did not collapse all at once or with equal speed everywhere, but over time arguments based on the foundation of social Darwinism stopped winning popular debates on that “battlefield of beliefs,” and foreign policy behavior changed. Precedent, then, exists for evolution in fundamental beliefs, enough for one to hope that a similar process could eventually change popular perceptions toward modern, counterproductive irrationalities.

Precedent does not supply the only encouragement. Changing the dominant U.S. foreign policy belief system is perhaps not as daunting a challenge as it may at first seem, for a number of reasons. First, as already discussed, only a small number of opinions would have to be altered to have a significant effect. As nice as it is to imagine that the United States runs a democratic foreign policy, in reality not all opinions are equally important. Altering the beliefs of the masses may be quite difficult, but it is those of the elite that are decisive in foreign policy; affecting elites, if only because they are fewer in number, might not prove to be an insurmountable task. As influential as NSC 68 was, for instance, it was an internal document read only by senior government officials, and it remained classified until 1975. The various incarnations of the Committee on Present Danger concentrated their efforts solely on the upper echelons of the foreign policy community, and they were quite successful in affecting foreign policy debate and practice. Success in minimizing pathological foreign policy behavior can occur long before majorities alter their beliefs.

Second, there is reason to believe that foreign policy beliefs are not as entrenched as some others. Many modern American politicians — to say nothing of the people they lead — know very little about foreign policy. The U.S. Congress is a wasteland of parochialism, where members can even be punished for appearing to know too much about the rest of the world.56 Those at the top of the executive branch have been little better. The past three U.S. presidents had no background in foreign affairs before coming into office. Bill Clinton even managed to turn his opponent’s foreign policy expertise into a liability in 1992, claiming that it demonstrated that the elder Bush did not pay adequate attention to domestic concerns. Eight years later, voters were unfazed about George W. Bush’s disinterest in the outside world, as manifest in a record of foreign travel stunningly low for a child of privilege, inability to name leaders of key countries, and devotion of only three pages in his campaign memoir to foreign affairs.57 Although Barack Obama spent large portions of his life abroad, he had no direct foreign policy experience before 2008, and his 2012 opponent had even less. So although 21stcentury U.S. presidents have some predetermined beliefs about foreign policy, their beliefs are probably more malleable than those of presidents who have come to office more seasoned in matters of state. Some of the most important, influential minds may not prove to be those most resistant to change.

A third reason for hope can be found in the early indications from the changeover in generations. Generally speaking, young people are more susceptible to the possibility of change, whereas senior members of any generation are much less likely to admit that their long‐​held theories might be wrong. That is particularly true for senior scholars, as Thomas Kuhn has pointed out in his study of paradigms, because they rarely prove eager to adjust the belief systems that have served them well for so long.58 Junior members of any field are much more likely to adopt new theories and beliefs, because they are not as invested in old ways, and they may gain a certain bit of pleasure in tearing down the old shibboleths.59 Public‐​opinion polling has suggested that the youngest generation of adults, the so‐​called millennials, is less concerned about terrorism and less supportive of an activist foreign policy than are its predecessors. Those between the ages of 18 and 29 are half as likely to be concerned about Islamic fundamentalism as those over 60.60 They also appear to be less patriotic.61 It is often said that racism is going away one funeral at a time; perhaps, too, generational change is necessary to relieve some of the pathological popular pressures in the arena of U.S. foreign policy debate.

Finally, it is worth emphasizing that the target of this work is the marketplace of ideas, not the beliefs of every individual who contributes to it. The United States does not always act pathologically, after all. Rational forces are present alongside pathological ones in all foreign policy discussions, and they often win the battle over the direction of policy. It will not require a complete ideological revolution for the United States to minimize the irrational beliefs that plague its foreign policy behavior. Planting the seeds of doubt in influential minds, seeds that can germinate and grow over time, may well prove to be enough to tilt the balance of national debate toward reason. The task of inspiring gradual improvement in U.S. foreign policy performance, therefore, may not be as daunting as it at first seems. In the long run, there is hope, even if few minds will change any time soon.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “If we think [the people are] not enlightened enough to exercise control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform that discretion.“62 One of the crucial tasks facing policymakers must be to inform the general public, however slowly and indirectly, of the evidence that might force its members to reexamine their foreign policy beliefs. Because an informed public is one of the central sine qua nons of a healthy, functioning democracy, U.S. leaders ought to repeat the facts about the decline of warfare — and of the real risks associated with terrorism — as many times as necessary for them to become accepted.63 Although simply correcting misinformation will not alter beliefs immediately, over time the constituency for reason will grow.64

Though beliefs are exceptionally slow to change, they eventually do. Few people still believe that the earth is at the center of the universe, for instance, or that insults to honor must be answered by a duel to the death. Assuming for a moment that the current pacific trends in international politics turn out to have staying power, empirical realities will eventually trump pathological geopolitical fear. Even the most deeply held collective beliefs find it hard to persist forever in the face of a sustained onslaught of countervailing evidence. Over time — and perhaps with the change of generations — pure reason can win the battle of beliefs, even if its victory is never certain.

Christopher Fettweis

Christopher J. Fettweis is an American political scientist and the Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University.

Notes