Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly last week -- accompanied by his puzzling cartoon bomb -- Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a dire threat not only to Israel, but to the entire world, and he declared that preventing this outcome was the "duty of every responsible leader who wants to preserve world peace." In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: "The free world must not accept [a nuclear Iran]. We must all do whatever we can to prevent it." And, in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urged the creation of "a coalition of democracies who believe in the danger, led by United States, in order to put pressure upon Iran."
In each of these examples, Israeli political leaders engaged in a time-honored diplomatic strategy: telling other states what they should be threatened by, and what policies they should implement to counter that threat. The objective of this gambit is to harness the capabilities of other states to counter a threat, which is more severe and imminent than previously understood, in order to share the burden. However, this strategy of projecting threat perceptions onto other states is both underexplored by academics and poorly executed by policymakers. In an era when it is increasingly difficult for any state to unilaterally deal with its foreign policy challenges, projecting threat perceptions has never been more important.
The modern understanding of threat perceptions emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, when the economist Thomas Schelling developed and popularized a statistical model to describe how adversarial states interact when "communication is incomplete or impossible." He and others drew heavily on game theory to predict how states perceive threats from one another. As the political scientist -- and founder of the Correlates of War datasets -- J. David Singer wrote in 1958, "To state the relationship in quasi-mathematical form: Threat-Perception = Estimated Capability x Estimated Intent." However, Schelling, Singer, and other game theorists never attempted to quantify "intent."
In 1985, many years before he was a prominent Foreign Policy blogger, international relations scholar Stephen Walt offered four factors for how states perceive the threat level of other states: aggregate power, proximity, offensive capability, and offensive intentions. While the first three are determined by relatively objective indicators, the last is highly subjective. Yet, according to Walt, "The more aggressive or expansionist a state appears, the more likely it is to trigger an opposing coalition." More recently, political scientist Randall Schweller argued that states require a consensus among elites about the extent and nature of a threat in order to mobilize the resources to effectively combat it.
But recent history suggests that projecting threat perceptions rarely works. In early 2003, President George W. Bush rejected bilateral negotiations with North Korea in favor of the six-party talks. Since then, U.S. policy for containing and rolling back the North Korean nuclear program has been to convince China of the threat posed by its nuclear neighbor so that Beijing will pressure Pyongyang to verifiably disarm. As Bush told Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 2003: "This isn't a problem for us. This is a problem for you, because it's your region that's going to have to react to a North Korean nuclear weapon." As National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice later told David Sanger, "That got Jiang Zemin's attention." It is unlikely that is true, though, since neither Jiang nor his successors have acted upon persistent U.S. fear-mongering about North Korea to use their leverage, presumably because Beijing prefers the status quo on the Korean Peninsula to the unknown risks of change.
At the same time, since 2003 a constant stream of American military and intelligence officials have visited Islamabad to inform their Pakistani counterparts of the increasing threat of violent extremism, which places both U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani people in grave danger. Several times each year for the past decade, a senior U.S. official has asked the Pakistani army to initiate a ground offensive against the Taliban and Haqqani networks' safe havens. In August, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that he understood that such an offensive would finally commence in the "near future." Whether the Pakistani military is unwilling or unable to undertake such an operation -- with the intensity and long-term impact hoped for by U.S. officials -- remains a matter of debate. Nevertheless, no one could say with a straight face that the U.S. policy of reiterating the threats posed by extremism in Pakistan has succeeded.
Efforts to alter threat perceptions tend to take three forms. First, states can offer the targeted government positive inducements in the form of diplomatic support, financial aid, foreign trade, weapons, and direct military and intelligence assistance. Since September 11, 2001, for example, the United States has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in overt and covert assistance to Yemen to counter the threat of transnational terrorism. As the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin, noted in a Senate hearing in 2010: "I think that the deeper our engagement gets, the greater our opportunity to influence their threat perception will be." Conversely, states can impose negative inducements by way of diplomatic pressure, suspension of aid, economic sanctions, arms embargoes, or coercive threats.