One of the controversial arguments I made in my Foreign Affairs essay “This Time Is Different” is that the foreign policy community got a fair amount right during the Cold War and post-Cold War era. It’s controversial for a variety of reasons. One is that it’s open season on foreign policy elites. Which, you know, fair enough. It’s not as though other elites are not being criticized as well.
Another reason is that in talking about the foreign policy past, I may be suffering from retrospection bias — the belief that the past was better than it actually was. This kind of nostalgia is often married to declinism; if we think the past was better, it follows that we are uncertain whether the future can match it. When I talked about the 1990s as the best foreign policy decade of my life, I need to acknowledge the possibility of some nostalgia at work.
According to Foreign Policy’s Micah Zenko, nostalgia is a disease that pervades foreign policy cognoscenti:
Within the U.S. foreign-policy community, the Cold War is particularly notable for being compressed and selectively remembered as global ideological battleground where “we” won over communism. This collective nostalgia — which overlooks the greater number of genocides and mass starvations, mass casualty wars of all types, and the 72 regime changes the United States attempted between 1947 and 1989 — makes the Cold War seem stable and the outcomes obvious. By comparison, the international landscape is forever becoming more and more violent, complex, and threatening.
Zenko has skin in this game. His latest book with Michael A. Cohen, “Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans,” argues that American foreign policy thinkers are founding members of the “Threat-Industrial Complex.” Retrospection bias about the Cold War would be one way this threat inflation manifests. If yesteryear looks pretty good, then today’s anxieties must be really bad.
Some of my own research backs up Zenko and Cohen. My review of geopolitical and economic forecasting revealed contrasting biases. If economists persistently predicted higher economic growth than reality produced, international relations analysts skewed in the opposite direction, predicting calamity after calamity.
With my “Season of Doom” essay series, am I perpetuating the declinism that Zenko and Cohen describe? Do I suffer from retrospection bias? It is certainly possible. There are other psychological biases that should be considered, however, and they nudge humans in a different direction.
In the winter 2018-2019 issue of International Security, Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney make a different argument to Cohen and Zenko. Johnson and Tierney argue in “Bad World: The Negativity Bias in International Politics” that there exists “a wider puzzle in international relations in which negative phenomena have stronger effects on judgment and decision-making than do positive phenomena.” Indeed, they go so far as to argue that “negativity bias” has a far stronger hold on our psyche: “Many years of diverse and independent research in experimental psychology, now comprising hundreds of studies, have converged around a common theme: the asymmetry of positive and negative phenomena, where negative phenomena are systematically more potent.” In U.S. foreign policy circles, there seems to be much more focus on big mistakes (Iraq) than structural successes (the creation of the WTO, for example).
Just as Zenko and Cohen use retrospection bias to explain threat inflation, Johnson and Tierney do the same with negativity bias. Their argument is that because human beings are hard-wired to focus more on threats than opportunities, the elimination of a major threat merely allows observers to focus on lesser threats without considering a reduction in magnitude.
Can these two contrasting be reconciled? Sure, because both arguments say that their bias exacerbates threat inflation. Johnson and Tierney get at this when they write that, “People privilege negative information about the external environment and other actors, but positive information about themselves.”
So am I engaging in threat inflation when I write essays claiming this time is different or that trade wars could trigger actual wars? I wish, but I don’t think so. In both of these warnings, I am not claiming that there is an external actor looking to muck things up. My assessment of the external environment is not all that vexing. My concern is not about everyone else, but the United States. The only actors that can truly trigger worst-case scenarios reside in Washington. And I have precious little faith in them.