Pathological exaggeration of the enemy is more common than complacency, and has inspired overreaction, blunder and national ruin.

In Russia’s strongman president, Chinese autocrats and Iranian clerics, Western leaders face an age-old problem, one that has vexed nearly every leader throughout history: seemingly inscrutable rivals. How much of what others say is the truth, and how much is designed to hide a broader agenda? Can they be trusted? Since leaders never really know just how much danger they face – or where to draw the line between prudence and paranoia – they tend to err on the side of caution. The tendency to assume the worst in others seems to be the rule, rather than the exception, in international politics. 

During the Cold War, political scientists and psychologists devoted a good deal of time to describing the effects of negative assumptions, or the ‘enemy image’, on decision-making.1 International politics breeds suspicion; it is somewhat natural for leaders to reject the simplest explanations for the actions of others as long as other, more nefarious motivations cannot be ruled out. Once established, enemy images are very difficult to change, since they filter and shape the perception of new information. They become self-fulfilling, poisoning relations and sometimes lead to unnecessary, unwanted conflict.2 

The pace of scholarship on this pernicious form of misperception slowed considerably after the collapse of the Soviet Union, perhaps because the urgency of the need to understand its effects decreased alongside the risk of nuclear war. Although academic interest in the enemy image may have waned, however, the prevalence of the misperception has not. Post-Cold War Western leaders have proven no less susceptible to negative images than their predecessors. Serious observers are beginning to warn of the dangers of unwanted or accidental war with Russia, and with China over the South China Sea.3 Others worry that war with Iran will follow if the nuclear deal falls through, or if a new US president annuls it, as some 2016 presidential candidates have promised to do. If there were a way that policymakers could determine when pathological images of the enemy were obscuring their perceptions, exaggerating the belligerence of other states and making unnecessary conflict more likely, decision-making would improve immeasurably. The next major national blunder might even be avoided.

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Christopher J. Fettweis is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University, and the author of The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Making Foreign Policy Decisions (Transactions, 2015).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October-November 2015

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