Kristian Skrede Gleditsch
University of Essex & PRIO
Mueller argues that American foreign policy has been dominated by undue alarmism and inflation of greatly exaggerated and often non-existent threats. During the Cold War, the ‘apparent capacity’ of the Soviet Union was taken as proof that it must also have ‘desperate intent’. After the Cold War, the ‘apparent intent’ of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda has been used to justify that it must have ‘desperate capacity’ to attack, despite the limited actual threat posed by their activities. Threats have often self-destructed or disappeared because people stopped worrying about them, and military responses have been largely ineffective, or counterproductive, suggesting that ‘complacency’ would often be a wiser policy. The book is engaging, with detailed analyses of past and current US foreign policy concerns and a wealth of source material, although many points have been made in his previous books. The book is less detailed in whether wars are stupid from the point of view of plausible US antagonists, and many may wonder how events after publication in early 2021 sit with the core thesis. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan seems largely comparable to the non-disaster of ‘failure’ in the Vietnam war (despite Holbrook’s claim that ‘without any shadow of a doubt, al-Qaeda would move back’ if the Taliban were to return). The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems a more serious challenge but does not undermine the core thesis. Leaders may still use military force even when ‘stupid’ to most others, and threat inflation and odd beliefs about the consequences of military force will likely figure prominently in future analyses of why Putin decided to invade Ukraine.