Threat Perception Essay

Threat perception in international politics is an enduringly important problem that has been somewhat slighted in recent years, in part because cold war rivalries tended to reduce uncertainty about the source of threat. By the end of the twentieth century, however, changes in the international environment—such as the end of the cold war itself, the demise of bipolarity, and the rise of nonstate sources of danger—made the question of how to identify threats increasingly pressing.

Traditionally, threat perception has been linked to national security and defined in terms of the capabilities and intentions of a potential adversary state; these can be further subdivided into such factors as the military balance, geographical proximity, and past and current behavior. A classic statement of the traditional view of threat perception was set down by Eyre Crowe of the British Foreign Office in his 1907 memorandum on British relations with Germany and France:

History shows that the danger threatening the independence of this or that nation has generally arisen, at least in part, out of the momentary predominance of a neighboring State at once militarily powerful, economically efficient, and ambitious to extend its frontiers or spread its influence. The danger being directly proportionate to the degree of its power and efficiency, and to the spontaneity or “inevitableness” of its ambitions.

Those who studied threat perception in the twentieth century, for the most part, adhered to this traditional model, while also developing many of the concepts that emerged in later work. Klaus Knorr, for example, pointed out that despite a common belief that it is relatively easy to perceive threats accurately, there are, in fact, numerous obstacles to doing so. For one thing, information about possible dangers may be

unreliable, owing to its ambiguity or to deliberate attempts to deceive. For another, such information is likely to be interpreted by individuals according to what they already believe. Taking a different approach, Raymond Cohen stressed the importance for the perception of threat of a state’s realization that another state had somehow broken the “rules of the game” of international politics. That is, for Cohen, the violation of a norm serves as a catalyst of threat perception in the sense that such behavior is linked to the expectation of future aggressiveness.

Subsequently, the traditional model of threat perception has received at least one serious challenge, as well as a spirited defense. Neorealists, led by Kenneth Waltz, focused exclusively on capability, holding that it is by far the most reliable indicator of threat and denying the need to be concerned with intentions at all. Given the anarchic structure of the international system, states must assume that those who can do harm, will. This assumption is, of course, likely to reinforce the preexisting tendency of decision makers to engage in worst-case analysis. In contrast to this view, Stephen Walt, while acknowledging the importance of offensive capabilities, theorized that states pay special attention to the aggressiveness of potential opponents, thus focusing the discussion once again on the “crucial role” of intent.

More recently, psychological approaches have contributed a number of insights to the understanding of threat perception. These approaches emphasize the role of the personalities of decision makers and their beliefs, including the cognitive and motivated biases that influence how threat is or is not perceived. In decision theory, threat perception can also be analyzed as part of the general area of problem diagnosis.

With respect to the various psychological biases affecting threat perception, the most compelling cognitive factor is, as Robert Jervis has stressed, the tendency of people’s expectations to color their perceptions. Thus, “the decision maker who thinks that the other side is probably hostile will see ambiguous information as confirming this image, whereas the same information about a country thought to be friendly would be taken more benignly” (Jervis 1985, 18). This type of belief can have many different origins. One of the most important is the impact of international history, especially lessons drawn from a country’s most recent war. Motivated biases may be determined by “the needs of decision makers and their states” (25). Domestic politics is often thought to be the source of this type of motivated bias.

While traditional sources of threat persist, recent developments, particularly the rise of terrorism and nonstate sources of threat that often have no discernible political goals, have made threat perception more difficult to analyze. The recent interdisciplinary interest in studying threat perception is, therefore, a welcome development.


  1. Cohen, Raymond. Threat Perception in International Crisis. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
  2. Crowe, Eyre. “Memorandum on the Present State of British Relations with France and Germany.” In British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898–1914, edited by G. P. Gooch and H.Temperly. London: HMSO.
  3. Jervis, Robert. “Perceiving and Coping with Threat.” In Psychology and Deterrence, edited by Robert Jervis, Richard Ned Lebow, and Janice Gross Stein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
  4. Knorr, Klaus. “Threat Perception.” In Historical Dimensions of National Security Problems, edited by Klaus Knorr. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976.
  5. Walt, Stephen. Origins of Alliances. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Waltz, Kenneth. Theory of International Politics. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

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