Operational Code Beliefs and Threat Perceptions by US Presidents

Collin J. Kazazis


The primary focus in this chapter is to examine the effect that threat perception has on the decision to use, or not use, military force. In international relations, the topic that has always received maximum attention and research has been the area of war and other uses of military force. War at a basic level is devastating to the international system. It can lead to a massive loss of life, the breakup and change of territorial lines, and it can disrupt normal flows of trade and people. While a large literature is dedicated to the actual fighting of wars, there is also a large amount of research into determining why countries choose to go to war. These explanations range across realist perspectives, political psychology, the security dilemma, and others (Midlarsky 2011).

One of the more interesting explanations for why countries choose to go to war is threat perception (Holsti, North, and Brody 1968; Jervis 1976; Lebow 1981). This explanation has been in the literature for many years and has had multiple hypotheses as to how threat perception operates. Threat perception is the amount that a leader perceives another country’s military strength and intent of action to be threatening to their own territory or strategic interests. While this may seem straightforward, it has been difficult to find a reliable measure, or variable, for threat perception. For that reason, this present study will investigate a way to quantify threat perception in the hopes that a reliable measure can be applied to future cases. Before proceeding to the specifics of this study, it is necessary to further introduce the concept of threat perception, as well as a few concepts from other aspects of political psychology.

Literature Review

It is important to understand the development of threat perception in the literature. Threat perception can take on many different meanings depending on how it is defined. While earlier studies have dealt with objective measures of threat, later studies have shifted the focus back to perception. This review will look at several different studies to understand how the concept of threat perception has changed over time. While threat perception was not formally studied until the 1900s, there are several instances in history where threat perception has been discussed. The first study of threat perception is often linked to the Greek Historian Thucydides, who examined the Peloponnesian War that took place between Sparta and Athens.

As Thucydides (1976, 49) examined the conflict, he noted, “what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”. The important parts of this statement for threat perception is the identification of an opposing power and the emotional response this caused. Sparta perceived an increasing threat from Athens, whether correct or not, and responded with an action they deemed appropriate. In a more recent analysis, Allison (2017) examined the “Thucydides Trap” emerging between China and the United States. His analysis substitutes China for Athens and the United States for Sparta in the quote from Thucydides regarding the increase in the probability of war between a rising power and its rival. Overall, Thucydides introduced an aspect of decision-making that was previously not widely considered in terms of the study of war.

The next early study of threat perception comes from Machiavelli and his work, The Prince. Throughout his work, Machiavelli stresses the importance of material factors, such as wealth and military strength, in assessing the strength of a country. By this standard, a leader must always be aware of situations that may threaten his or her own wealth, military strength, or interests. Additionally, he argues that leaders should always be prepared for war and pursue any opportunity that may bring monetary gains (Machiavelli 1532/1981). Machiavelli stressed the importance of objective factors and was primarily concerned with preserving and increasing a state’s power at any cost.

The first major work in the study of threat perception in the modern era was done by Singer (1958). In his work, Singer examined the ways in which certain actions can be seen as threatening to other countries. By looking at several case studies, Singer was able to identify a working formula for threat perception as the product of estimated capability and estimated intent. While the first part of the formula is objective, the second part relies on how an action will be perceived. This perception mainly relies on image theory (Boulding 1956) as a military move by an ally may be seen as mutual defense, while a similar military move by an enemy may be seen as an indication for an upcoming attack. Although there were some limitations as his study relied on case studies, Singer’s study was important in creating and continuing the conversation about threat perception and war. He was also responsible for the subsequent creation of the Correlates of War (COW) project, which is still the main dataset for analyzing the origins of war in the post-1814 international system (Singer 1972).

Pruitt (1965) focused his study of threat perception on the initial “predispositions” that a leader may hold of another country. From these predispositions, leaders are able to understand the actions of another more clearly. From there, Pruitt argues that there is “evidence of intent” that can be studied in order to understand threat perception more clearly. The “evidence of intent” involves capability (amount of arms that a state may possess), actions, statements, and conditions faced by other nations (Pruitt 1965). Though this provides an expanded view of Singer’s focus on threat perception, it still has the problem of actually identifying the process of what causes a leader to experience threat perception.

Cohen (1978, 1979) argues that threat perception is a two-step process consisting of observation and appraisal. The first step is objective and involves the basic components of the action that has just happened. The second part is the subject meaning that is added to the news that informs a person of the intent of the action. The important addition to this understanding of threat perception is that it introduces the presence of active thought within a person (Cohen 1978, 1979). However, this study focuses more on defining actions that can be seen as threatening cues rather than the internal processes of a person’s perception. Put another way, the units of measure are actions rather than psychological concepts. This gap was fulfilled by Jervis (1976) who reviewed the psychological literature to identify various information-processing mechanisms identified by psychologists that generate misperceptions, such as environmental stressors, motivated biases, and cognitive heuristics.

The study of threat perception subsequently branched out into multiple areas as it became used as a medium in the explanation of other phenomena. While image theory was mentioned earlier with Singer’s study, another area where threat perception was used is the study of the security dilemma (Herz 1951). This concept was employed by Jervis (1978), who argued in the context of nuclear deterrence theory that a state’s need to maintain a balance of power means that any imbalance created by an increase in arms in another state must be met with an increase in your own state. The end result of such an occurrence is that both states are captured in an arms race as a conflict spiral (Jervis 1976), which greatly increases the likelihood of an eventual outbreak of conflict. Threat perception plays a role in the dilemma, as it is possible that a leader may misperceive the amount that an opposing side increases their military or the actual intention for the military buildup. This important distinction can greatly impact the cycle of the security dilemma and can increase the severity of the cycle (Glaser 1997; He 2012).

Finally, emotion is another area of research where threat perception by elites can play a big role. The main emotion that has been examined is fear and the effect that it plays on threat perception (Page 1931). In multiple cases, it has been shown that fear of an outside state can lead to a heightened sense of threat perception. This, in turn, leads to a subscription to harsher policies to deal with the possibility of a threat (Riek, Mania, and Gaertner 2006; Stein 2013; Dunwoody and McFarland 2018; Obaidi et al. 2018; Semenova and Winter 2019).

There is also a growing group of recent studies that examine the existence of threat perception among the general public. This is often encapsulated within studies that examine views of Islam and terrorism. These studies utilize surveys targeted at people in the general population of a country to understand their attitudes and feelings toward other groups. They also focus on the distinction between realistic threats (territory and resources) and symbolic threats (beliefs and values), as the target of a threat may alter a person’s reaction to it (Riek et al. 2006; Obaidi et al. 2018). Additionally, there is some research to suggest that a person’s level of religiosity may atfect their threat perception as they view certain events (Hampton 2013).

While it may be interesting to view current levels of threat perception in the general public to understand the support of authoritarian policies, it is important to understand that these people are not directly involved in the decision-making process. Furthermore, it is hard to determine the actual psychological levels of threat perception from a survey where people may alter their true answers to please the examiner. The main point to take away from a review of the threat perception literature is that most studies do not actually study threat perception as it is often conceptualized. Studies will either focus on public opinion or on structural variables that are removed from the leader making the decision.

Therefore, threat perception is often studied through proxy variables that do not actually measure threat perception as a psychological process attributed directly to a leader. In spite of this shortcoming, there are still several important things to consider in this review. The first is that threat perception deals with hostile views of opposing countries. Threat perception also involves an understanding that the opposing country will generally impede on a state’s strategic interests. Finally, there is a sense that leaders will often view threatening actions as outside of their own immediate control. Considering these aspects, this study will attempt to introduce a variable that measures threat perception within leaders.

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