Sunday 21 November 2021
When the issue of threat perception is discussed, an examination of how one state sees another state is the focus. The Balance of Threat theory was proposed by Walt (1985), whom reformed the neorealist Balance of Power theory by separating power from threat. Walt contends that states will either balance power by allying against a perceived threat or (less commonly) respond through ‘bandwagoning’ (p.10). Walt (1985) identifies four criteria states use to evaluate the threat posed by another state: its aggregate strength (size, population, and economic capabilities); its geographic proximity; its offensive capabilities; and, its offensive intentions (pp. 10- 12). The premise of this theory is that the more other states view a rising state as possessing these qualities, the more likely they are to view it as a threat.
The concept and theories surrounding threat perception and its influences are vast. In the field of International Relations, threat perception has been a key element underpinning theories of war, alliances and conflict resolution. However, foundational texts on threat assessment (i.e. Thucydides) equated threat to power, particularly to military power, and scholars wove between ‘objective’ measures of power to threat assessment, presuming uniformity between the two (Stein 2013, p.2). It is only relatively recently (over the last several decades) that scholars begun to regard ‘intention’ as an independent source of threat; namely, a separate entity to military capabilities; consequently, models that focused explicitly on ‘intention’ in their explanations of the causes of war emerged (Walt, 1985).
Attaching meaning to threats is dependent upon the perception of the target. Perception is the process of apprehending by means of the senses and recognising and interpreting what is processed and is the basis for learning, understanding, and knowing the catalyst for action taken. As Boulding (1969, p. 422) states ‘it is what we think the world is like, not what it is really like, that determines our behavior.’ At the collective level, threats are largely socially constructed within and among private and public conversations of experts, political leaders, and publics. However, perception at the individual level must also be acknowledged. Rousseau (2006), argues that individuals construct identities for their own states and also construct subjective identities for other states. For example, if a respective state identifies the two states in question as sharing a common set of traits, beliefs or values (e.g. religion or political structure), the respective state is likely to feel a shared identity between the two states – which, in-turn decreases the perception that the other state is a potential threat.
Threat Perception “Exaggeration”
The ‘Bomber Gap’ refers to the US fear of intercontinental bomber superiority of the Soviets during the Cold War in 1959-1960 and the Americans feared the ‘missile gap.’ Namely, as the Soviets could launch a missile using a satellite and the intercontinental nuclear missile the pressure on the-then US President, Eisenhower was greatly increased. The threat perceptions in this regard were found to be irrational and the truth was in fact the opposite. This example points to the fact that action based purely on threat perceptions is unjustifiable and there is increased need for assessing the extent of threat from different dimensions. This example in fact substantiates the influence of threat perceptions and the activities or strategies and hence there is need for designing appropriate techniques for rightly evaluating the factors associated with the threat at all levels.
There is a need to assess the threat perception of the immediate neighbours as well as to identify whether there exists any major disparity between perception and reality. Such an exploration into identifying the gaps between reality and perceptions are a must in devising appropriate strategies for dealing with the issue. However, if threat is not assessed properly it will lead to dire consequences and could even result in war-like situations. For example, after the formation of the Republic of China in 1950, Jawaharlal Nehru, the-then Prime Minister of India, tried to maintain and establish good relations with it and tried to act as an intermediary between Western countries and communist countries even after the Chinese invaded Tibet. Good relations were established and maintained by Nehru based on his perception that China being a socialist country will not attack another socialist country and China will not be able to infiltrate the Himalayas. But these perceptions proved wrong and led to a pre-emptive attack by China in the northeast of India. Indeed, strategies and policy decisions need to be taken only after proper assessments and evaluations and not based on the intuitions of the authorities. With regard to security issues, there is a need to develop proper balance with aspects like physical evidence, psychological factors and intelligence from reliable sources.
Another example for exaggerating the threat perceptions of neighbours includes the Chinese perceptions of Japanese threats after the Cold War era. The only logic for the Chinese to have perceived the Japanese to be an emerging and rising threat was the strategic alliance that existed between the US and Japan. According to Lind (2008, p. 5), ‘apologetic remembrance’ makes a country’s intentions appear less malign, whereas, ‘unapologetic remembrance’, sends signals of malign intentions and increases perceptions of threat. Based on the assessments by Lind (2008), the threats by Japan can be viewed to have been exaggerated, probably as the result of unapologetic remembrance. Consequently, in most of the cases it is quite difficult to align threat perceptions with the real-time situation, perhaps because of greater amount of subjectivity associated with these perceptions. Developing perceptions without basing them on systematic analysis can lead to unhealthy relationships and collateral damage at various levels.
Internal Characteristics of a State
On the other hand, Saunders (2008) argues that the internal characteristics of a state influence the perceptions to a certain extent. In fact, the various perceptions of threat play a decisive role even in planning the military interventions carried out by the states – indeed, leaders who consider internal matters as the major source of threat, prefer to adopt a ‘transformative’ intervention, which is intended to change the internal institutions of those states and thereby reduce the capabilities of the identified sources. Conversely, leaders who perceive that the sources of threats are linked to external factors and foreign policies, tend to pursue ‘non-transformative’ strategies, which are aimed at resolving conflict without interfering in their domestic affairs. Nonetheless, threat perception seems to be influenced by both external and internal factors and hence there is need to adopt appropriate strategies for dealing with the sources of threat in its entirety and thereby provide a stable and secure environment.
In the case of Israel, it has always perceived its Arab neighbours as enemies and the strategies adopted by Israel were mostly aimed at reducing these perceived threats. Although, some of the perceived threats were undeniably real, such as those posed by Palestine, certain conflict-like situations could have been avoided if Israel had possibly evaluated their threat perception in the light of reality. Whilst there is a chance that threat perception might get exaggerated beyond reality, it is almost inevitable to perceive threats such as these to form the basis of strategic planning particularly with regard to security and related aspects.
Nonetheless, threats and threat perceptions would also vary in relation to changes such as: regime changes; the creation of new alliances; modifications in the international system; wars; and, peace treaties, which in tandem, influence the security policies (Civcik, 2004, p. 12). Hence, any planning based only on threat perception might bring about unrealistic exaggerations. Certainly, it is better to adopt appropriate measures for rightly assessing the threats from all dimensions before making any progress strategically.
Misperception and Sources of Information
The perceptions are developed based on unconfirmed information from different sources or based on intelligence reports. The possibility for misapprehensions about a subject matter are greater when the topic is not quite familiar to some of the concerned people and this can be true for matters associated with nuclear weapons. That is, chances for misrepresentation are more in the case of sensitive and complicated issues such as these. Intentional falsification of the information is also a possibility in these cases and hence there is greater relevance for proper validation of different data and information associated with these matters in order to come up with realistic pictures (Butler et al, 2004). But such validations would be difficult and cumbersome if the sources are diverse and secretive. With regard to issues such as the Iranian nuclear programme, it is difficult to perform a multi-dimensional assessment as there appears to be a wide margin of secrecy associated with the subject matter. It is quite difficult to gather evidences in this regard and hence assessments based on secondary sources need to be heavily relied upon, making the possibility of error is high compared to a less sensitive and less secretive matter.
An example of building a misperception based on inaccurate intelligence reports is such as those related to the Khashoggi case, as the American report blames the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Intelligence Community Assessment, 2021). However, the intelligence report as a whole was not based on any concrete evidence, but rather just speculation or intuition of the authorities, which in turn lead to destabilizing the US-Saudi relations, marginalizing the latter in the international arena, and destabilizing its relations and alliances with countries across the globe.
Yet, Butler et al (2004, p. 22), proffer that intelligence is productive if it can create its own positive momentum, as action based on valid and sound intelligence would be highly decisive in exposing reality as intelligence forms a major type of information that can be used for assessment, providing safeguards to ensure the reliability and credibility of the sources are put in place. As a result, special efforts need to be directed for assessing the intelligence channels and networks of the sources that are used for collecting intelligence messages.
In sum, there is a need to assess threat perception and determine whether there is any significant discrepancy between perception and reality. We cannot perceive the threat perception process to a state in isolation from the rest of the other factors that would contribute to the formation of this true perception or misconception, and there are several levels of analysis through which the state’s behavior is analyzed and the reliability of intelligence sources is verified, so that leaders can implement an appropriate threat strategy to avoid serious consequences.