Threat Inflation in a Time of Peace and Stability

Paul Robinson
November 30, 2014
When Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1932 that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was trying to buck up America’s spirits during the depths of the Great Depression. It’s hard to imagine Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying anything quite like that in the context of today’s fears about terrorism, Russian aggression, and other national and international security threats. If anything, the PM seems to think we’re not fearful enough. But he, and all of us, should relax, writes Paul Robinson, because we’re actually living in a time of unprecedented peace, stability and security.

Threat Inflation in a Time of Peace and Stability

Paul Robinson
November 30, 2014
When Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1932 that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was trying to buck up America’s spirits during the depths of the Great Depression. It’s hard to imagine Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying anything quite like that in the context of today’s fears about terrorism, Russian aggression, and other national and international security threats. If anything, the PM seems to think we’re not fearful enough. But he, and all of us, should relax, writes Paul Robinson, because we’re actually living in a time of unprecedented peace, stability and security.
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Robinson - Bush and Hussein

“In this year much of our world has become a darker place,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in late October following the murders of two Canadian soldiers in Quebec and Ottawa, “and certainly it has become more dangerous.” Some gap between perception and reality is inevitable, but Harper’s words show how public discourse on international security has not merely diverged from reality, but has become completely unhinged from it. It is now widely assumed that the world is becoming, as Harper says, “more dangerous.” But this assumption is just plain wrong.

Compared with the Cold War era, the last 20 years have seen less armed conflict worldwide, less terrorism, and more political stability. Unfortunately, a refusal to recognize this reality has led to repeated demands for more aggressive security policies to combat supposedly growing threats. These policies have included greater powers for the police and security services and military interventions overseas which have been costly in blood and treasure but have brought few, if any, benefits. In general these policies have proven counter-productive, undermining the West’s moral authority and creating unnecessary enemies. The greatest danger facing Canada and the Western world is not any of the dangers about which we currently worry, but self-inflicted threat inflation.

Today’s threat is a serial shapeshifter, repeatedly metamorphosing into something different every time we cease to be scared. In its first post-Cold War manifestation it took the form of overpopulation causing ecological disaster, social collapse, and violent conflict. As Robert Kaplan put it in his 1994 article and later book The Coming Anarchy, “The crime and lawlessness of West Africa is a model of what future life could become everywhere.”

U.S. President Bill Clinton was so taken by Kaplan’s book that he recommended it to his staff, but its central thesis was too preposterous to scare people for long, and following the wars in the Balkans the threat shifted its shape to something else – ethnic cleansing. This was now the scourge of the future, the prevention of which required military action and larger defence budgets.

Ethnic conflict soon ran its course. It was too remote geographically, besides which, with the exception of the Rwandan genocide, there wasn’t actually that much of it. By the late 1990s, rogue states had supplanted it as the new danger, and North Korea featured as the occasional enemy in Western military exercises.

After 9-11, terrorism became the thing, along with so-called “weapons of mass destruction”. The gradual revelation that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was based on false premises did not dent the fearmongering one bit. In fact, the ensuing insurgency in Iraq pumped it up, for there was suddenly a new terrorist danger created by the invasion. “Failed states” replaced “rogue states” as the greatest threat to world peace.

Today, though, failed states are competing with overly powerful ones to be global public enemy number one. In this regard, a report submitted to the Secretary General of NATO in June 2014 by a panel of experts was quite intriguing. The report opened with a startling claim, saying: “In 2010, there were no clear and immediate threats to European security. … International terrorism persisted, but did not evolve into an existential threat. The direct impacts of new security risks … appeared distant.” In other words, all the previous claims of a more dangerous world were false. But not to worry, for the report went on to find a new threat – Russian aggression. Because of the Russians, the authors claimed, “Today, there can be no faith in the continuation of a relatively benign security context.” The report wrapped up with a section entitled, predictably, “The Emergence of a More Dangerous World.”

After all this it is hard to know what the real threat is: big states, rogue states, failed states, large international terrorist organizations, individual homegrown radicals, weapons of mass destruction, lone lunatics with rifles, or all of them simultaneously. Take your pick. Whichever you choose, the outcome is the same – the threat in question is more deadly than any before it. In February 2012, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was born in 1952 during the Korean War and who was ten years old when the world stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, declared, “I can’t impress upon you enough that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” And Senator John McCain explained in July 2014 that the world is “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime,” a remarkable statement for someone who was born in 1936, lived through the Second World War, and was later a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

If we are to believe all this, the world in 2014 is more dangerous than it was at the time of the previous more dangerous, which in turn was more dangerous than the more dangerous before that, and so on. It is frankly amazing that we are still here.

The reason that we are here is quite simple. The world is not more dangerous than ten years ago, or fifteen years ago, let alone than during the Cold War. Every statistical analysis of international conflict shows a sharp decline in conflict in the past 20 years. For nearly two decades Professor Monty G. Marshall has been assembling data on international conflict for the University of Maryland and more recently the independent research organization Center for Systemic Peace. His statistics indicate that today there are fewer wars and fewer people being killed in wars than at any time since the 1950s, as shown by Chart 1 indicating changes in the numbers of states experiencing armed conflicts from 1946 to 2013.

Robinson - Inset 1- Chart 1 - States Experiencing Warfare, 1946-2013
Chart 1. States Experiencing Warfare, 1945-2013 (Source: Center for Systemic Peace)

Nor has terrorism replaced war as an existential threat. Terrorism peaked worldwide in the mid-1980s, and in North America a little earlier, around 1970 when groups such as the Front de Liberation du Québec in Canada and the Black Panthers and Weathermen in the U.S. were active. As Chart 2 shows, the incidence of terrorism within North America has declined dramatically in the past 40 years. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 11 September 2001 were unique in scale and although there was an increase in the number of terrorist incidents worldwide in 2013, this was due almost exclusively to the wars in Syria and Iraq. Five countries – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Nigeria – accounted for 80 percent of all terrorism-related deaths. If you live in Canada or the United States your chances of being killed by terrorism are almost zero. As Stephen Pinker concludes at the end of his 2012 book The Better Angels of Human Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, “we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”

Robinson - Inset 2 - Chart 2 - Number of Terrorist Incidents in North America,1970-2013
Chart 2. Number of terrorist incidents in North America, 1970-2013 (Source: Global Terrorism Database)

Furthermore, there is more political stability than before: fewer revolutions, fewer coups, and less crime. As Chart 3 shows, since the end of the Cold War the number of autocracies worldwide has dramatically declined, while the number of democracies and anocracies (states somewhere between autocracy and democracy) has increased. Today’s international security environment is by all historical standards extraordinarily benign.

Robinson - Inset 2 - Chart 3 - Global Trends in Governance, 1800-2010
Chart 3: Global Trends in Governance, 1800-2010 (Source: Center for Systemic Peace)

Statistics are dry and boring. Psychological research shows that they have little emotional impact, whereas highly publicized stories of terrorism and war hit home. This makes us exaggerate the danger posed by unusual events and distant conflicts, a tendency accentuated by the fact that bad news outsells good news. This has led to ill-considered policies with a number of negative outcomes, including: radicalization of elements of the Canadian population; costly and unnecessary wars; destabilization of various regions of the world; alienation from the West of the inhabitants of those regions; and curtailment of the civil liberties of Canadians.

The radicalization of a handful of Canadians is the most troublesome domestic outcome. Radicalization has many causes, and it cannot simply be reduced to a reaction to Western foreign policy. Nevertheless, foreign policy is a factor. A decade of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya has undoubtedly contributed to the problem, and increased the possibility of home-grown terrorism.

One could argue that this is just the price we pay for the achievement of important security objectives – that a slightly increased terrorist threat at home is compensated for by the elimination of a greater threat overseas. However, the price has been out of proportion to any benefit. We spent $10 billion fighting in Afghanistan and sacrificed 158 precious Canadian lives. Yet the Taliban continue to control parts of the country, while opium production is at an all-time high, and it’s hard to see how we have made either Afghanistan or Canada much safer.

The same could be said of the 2011 bombing of Libya. By removing a dictator from power we thought that we would turn Libya from a rogue state into a model member of the international community. Instead, we turned it into a region of chaos which has exported terrorists southwards into Mali and eastwards into Syria and Iraq.

The anarchy that the West has regularly left in its wake in the past two decades has brought some to believe that we are creating chaos as a deliberate strategy. So many of our security policies so obviously fail to enhance our security that some people have concluded that they aren’t meant to. Russians are a prime example. Even many liberal Russians see the West’s support for the overthrow of Ukraine’s elected president Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014 as part of a Western plot to create a ring of anarchy around Russia.

To us this may seem like paranoid nonsense, but to them it is perfectly logical. It fits with what they see as a pattern of Western behaviour. For instance, in 2001, in order to pursue its plans for national missile defence, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, antagonizing Russia. Now NATO is pushing hard for a missile defence system to defend Europe against the threat of Iranian nuclear missiles. Yet in 2007 a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in 2010, Lieutenant General Ronald L. Burgess Jr., affirmed that “the bottom-line assessments of the [2007] NIE still hold true. We have not seen indication that the [Iranian] government has made the decision to move ahead with the program.”

Threat is a combination of capability and intent. While Iran could theoretically produce a nuclear weapon, it currently has no intent to do so, according to top U.S. security officials. Imagine how this looks to Moscow. Knowing that the supposed Iranian nuclear missile threat to Europe does not exist, the only explanation Russians can come up with for NATO’s actions is that the missile shield is directed against them. As Vladimir Putin told the Russian parliament in December 2013, “It was the Iranian nuclear program that at one time served as the main argument for deployment of the missile defence system. Now what’s happening? The Iranian nuclear program is going away, but the missile defence system stays. … [It] is a significant component of a strategic offensive potential.” By needlessly exaggerating the danger from rogue state nuclear missiles we have inflated the paranoia of a powerful and important country and strengthened the political hand of its leader. We are worse off as a result.

At the same time, by inflating threats we are harming ourselves at home. The past decade has witnessed a significant expansion in the size and budgets of both the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Communications Security Establishment Canada. Canadians pay for this in more than just higher taxes. Edward Snowden’s revelations indicate that innocent Canadian citizens cannot feel certain that their private movements and communications are only being tracked with good cause. And sadly, we cannot trust that our intelligence and security agencies will always act responsibly, as shown by a 2013 Federal Court judgement that CSIS had breached its duty of candour by failing to reveal the full scope of its activities when seeking a warrant. Had the Canadian government strengthened oversight of its security agencies, there might be less cause for alarm, but instead it has done the opposite, abolishing the position of the Inspector General of CSIS in 2012. Given the decline in domestic and international terrorism, it is not obvious that the increased powers and budgets of our police, security, and intelligence services, and the resultant reduction in the civil liberties of Canadians, are justified.

The world has not become a “darker place” filled with threats. If it seems that way, it is because we keep our eyes half shut, and so bump into things we can’t see properly. We live in a particularly safe region of a world which, compared with all of recorded history, is remarkably peaceful. If we were to open our eyes we would find it easier to navigate around the real obstacles to an even more peaceful future.


Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Russian history, military history, military ethics, and international security, and he blogs at

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