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Our threats are not constructed and you should err toward caution—no self fulfilling prophecy



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Our threats are not constructed and you should err toward caution—no self fulfilling prophecy

Schweller 4 [Randall, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Ohio State University, “Unanswered Threats A Neoclassical Realist Theory of Underbalancing,” International Security 29.2 159-201, Muse]
Despite the historical frequency of underbalancing, little has been written on the subject. Indeed, Geoffrey Blainey's memorable observation that for "every thousand pages published on the causes of wars there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace" could have been made with equal veracity about overreactions to threats as opposed to underreactions to them.92 Library shelves are filled with books on the causes and dangers of exaggerating threats, ranging from studies of domestic politics to bureaucratic politics, to political psychology, to organization theory. By comparison, there have been few studies at any level of analysis or from any theoretical perspective that directly explain why states have with some, if not equal, regularity underestimated dangers to their survival. There may be some cognitive or normative bias at work here. Consider, for instance, that there is a commonly used word, paranoia, for the unwarranted fear that people are, in some way, "out to get you" or are planning to do oneharm. I suspect that just as many people are afflicted with the opposite psychosis: the delusion that everyone loves you when, in fact, they do not even like you. Yet, we do not have a familiar word for this phenomenon. Indeed, I am unaware of any word that describes this pathology (hubris and overconfidence come close, but they plainly define something other than what I have described). That noted, international relations theory does have a frequently used phrase for the pathology of states' underestimation of threats to their survival, the so-called Munich analogy. The term is used, however, in a disparaging way by theorists to ridicule those who employ it. The central claim is that the naïveté associated with Munich and the outbreak of World War II has become an overused and inappropriate analogy because few leaders are as evil and unappeasable as Adolf Hitler. Thus, the analogy either mistakenly causes leaders [End Page 198] to adopt hawkish and overly competitive policies or is deliberately used by leaders to justify such policies and mislead the public. A more compelling explanation for the paucity of studies on underreactions to threats, however, is the tendency of theories to reflect contemporary issues as well as the desire of theorists and journals to provide society with policy- relevant theories that may help resolve or manage urgent security problems. Thus, born in the atomic age with its new balance of terror and an ongoing Cold War, the field of security studies has naturally produced theories of and prescriptions for national security that have had little to say aboutand are, in fact, heavily biased against warnings of—the dangers of underreacting to or underestimating threats. After all, the nuclear revolution was not about overkill but, as Thomas Schelling pointed out, speed of kill and mutual kill.93 Given the apocalyptic consequences of miscalculation, accidents, or inadvertent nuclear war, small wonder that theorists were more concerned about overreacting to threats than underresponding to them. At a time when all of humankind could be wiped out in less than twenty-five minutes, theorists may be excused for stressing the benefits of caution under conditions of uncertainty and erring on the side of inferring from ambiguous actions overly benign assessments of the opponent's intentions. The overwhelming fear was that a crisis "might unleash forces of an essentially military nature that overwhelm the political process and bring on a war thatnobody wants. Many important conclusions about the risk of nuclear war, and thus about the political meaning of nuclear forces, rest on this fundamental idea."94 Now that the Cold War is over, we can begin to redress these biases in the literature. In that spirit, I have offered a domestic politics model to explain why threatened states often fail to adjust in a prudent and coherent way to dangerous changes in their strategic environment. The model fits nicely with recent realist studies on imperial under- and overstretch. Specifically, it is consistent with Fareed Zakaria's analysis of U.S. foreign policy from 1865 to 1889, when, he claims, the United States had the national power and opportunity to expand but failed to do so because it lacked sufficient state power (i.e., the state was weak relative to society).95 Zakaria claims that the United States did [End Page 199] not take advantage of opportunities in its environment to expand because it lacked the institutional state strength to harness resources from society that were needed to do so. I am making a similar argument with respect to balancing rather than expansion: incoherent, fragmented states are unwilling and unable to balance against potentially dangerous threats because elites view the domestic risks as too high, and they are unable to mobilize the required resources from a divided society. The arguments presented here also suggest that elite fragmentation and disagreement within a competitive political process, which Jack Snyder cites as an explanation for overexpansionist policies, are more likely to produce underbalancing than overbalancing behavior among threatened incoherent states.96 This is because a balancing strategy carries certain political costs and risks with few, if any, compensating short-term political gains, and because the strategic environment is always somewhat uncertain. Consequently, logrolling among fragmented elites within threatened states is more likely to generate overly cautious responses to threats than overreactions to them. This dynamic captures the underreaction of democratic states to the rise of Nazi Germany during the interwar period.97 In addition to elite fragmentation, I have suggested some basic domestic-level variables that regularly intervene to thwart balance of power predictions.

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