The Untold Side of a Fear Card

What makes a fear card work and what does not in US foreign policy?

“Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” said Niccolò Machiavelli, an Italian diplomate and politician. On the other side of the earth, Mencius, one of the most renowned Chinese philosophers, from more than 1700 years ago, shared a similar point of view, “life springs from sorrow and calamity, death comes from ease and pleasure”. Later, the doctrines of Mencius were adopted, refined, expanded to serve numerous emperors in Chinese history. The power of fear, acknowledged by rulers of both western and eastern ancient regimes, still puzzles and sometimes overwhelms governments all over the world till today.

A POW-MIA flag flies over the White House, Sept. 16, 2011. (Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Fear, as the natural response to any threat or danger detected by brain, is evolutionarily conserved among all animals. Although often viewed as a negative word in the eyes of the public, “fear” is indispensable for the survival of a being, the prosperity of a species, and the effective operation of a community. A government, as the common system to govern an organized community, has to learn how to play the fear card effectively in both domestic and international affairs. It’s not difficult to find examples of success and failures in the history of every nation, including America, how governments either refined their appeals to address fears from people or cultivated popular fears to gain support for their policies. However, those cases themselves wont’ come together to answer the ultimate question: how to play a fear card effectively? On the opposite of the common myth that playing fear cards is dangerous and unscrupulous, the fact was that it has been more commonly utilized by the government than one might even notice and has achieved the scale of success that other approach simply can’t compete with. I will look into the impact of fear on American policy making by dissecting

successful and failed cases of the U.S. government exploiting fear cards, and lay out the crucial factors required for a successful fear card “game”, and what home messages Trump administration should take away.

An effective fear card has to play a constructive role

First of all, it’s crucial to distinguish fear cards as thoughtful strategies from fear as unavoidable consequences coming along with certain policy. The later sometimes was falsely viewed as the intention of the government to stir panic and uncertainty among its people, allies, or rivals. For example, President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S from the Paris Climate Agreement should be viewed as an isolationist movement, instead of a game of fear card, even though his announcement indeed threatened the international cooperation on global warming. The ultimate objective of an effective fear card should be: thrive in fear, not perish in ease. The climate of fear has to serve a constructive role to either unite people, or to crystalize policies to tackle an international danger; otherwise, fear would only shake the foundation of the society, and even provoke counter-productive responses towards both domestic and international policies.

Fear cards in wartime vs. peacetime

If we carefully assess American history, we will notice that the government has utilized fear cards more frequently as well as harvested more success in wartime. The public fear for its own survival and wealth, as well as for the nation’s prosperity and democracy always peak during wartime. For instance, the Bush administration used to play the fear card with remarkable effectiveness. In 2002 and into 2003, Bush used the public fear of weapons of mass destruction to initiate a war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and then continued his second term of presidency with the help of another fear card: Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. However, fear depreciates fast. As a natural response to potential threats or danger, fear can be replaced by anger after being deceived, distain of exaggerated panic, and distrust of the government, if the potential threats were falsely casted or handled ineffectively. That’s exactly what happened after a series of failures of U.S. military in the Iraq War. Nowadays, Iraqi invasion has been viewed as a big mistake by the majority of American people, even though the original political intention was to protect their safety and wellbeing from terrorism.

Playing fear cards in peacetime requires more thoughtful calculation as often comes along with a more practical goal. The democracy system of the U.S. restrains the impact of fear cards. The democratic government simply shouldn’t expect the same scale of influence of fear cards played by dictatorial or undemocratic governments. Poll-driven politics creates a much more stringent time frame as well as a more demanding outcome when a government tries to play fear cards.

The fear has to be addressed or at least mitigated within the four-year term of presidency, and the delivering result will be constantly challenged by the other party. Trump has successfully sowed fear in American voters: fear of immigrants and refugees, fear of Muslims, fear of crime and terrorism, and fear of globalization and specifically China.  “Trump has set the table well,” said Stephen Hadley (in the DC trip). Trump might have a good chance to win the second term, as long as he can address some of those fears during his term or shows his determination and capability to continue working on those issues. However, often in peacetime, a nation’s short-term interests might not be aligned with its long-term interests. A government shouldn’t be as short-sighted as its people, and have to balance between pursing long term goals and addressing short term benefits. Trump “American first” policy followed with a series of actions in WHO fund cutting, NATO budget cuts and US-China trade war, might mobilize more resources to address domestic issues in short term, but it is the future government and American people bearing the upcoming consequences. Whenever a fear card is drawn out and certain stakes need to be put on table, the president should always ask himself: whether his duty is to serve his voters in these 4 years, or the wellbeing of his nation in the long run?

Who is on the other side of the table?

The impact of fear on American policymaking and policy outcomes varies case by case, largely due to players on the other side of the table: American people, allies, or rivals? Identifying the right target and cultivating fear in a manageable scale can’t be more important for any successful play of a fear card. Otherwise, the government would only stimulate panic but not harvest expected constructive impacts.

  • Playing fear cards to American people

The public voice is often just an intervening factor affecting foreign policy making, instead of independent or decisive variable. Just as Laura Rosenberger (during the DC trip) said, “foreign policy and national security are largely shaped by the president, because the public simply has less interests in those issues.” Consequently, fear cards towards American people are often used to serve presidential elections. Often during the election period, the world suddenly becomes a much more dangerous and violent place than ever. Even though more Americans are killed each year by furniture than terrorism, the terrorism fear card is still very effective to gain public support. By keeping people “vigilant” with potential terrorist attacks, the government successfully poured tremendous amount of money into the bottomless budget of national security and homeland defense.

However, the fear of the public sometimes can be shifting, elusive, and even false, while those irrational concerns still have to be addressed. Even though Trump had addressed again and again his immigration reform would only restrain illegal immigrants, as his voters have asked for, the undeniable outcome is that the working status of both legal and undocumented immigrants is in threats, so is a variety of related business sectors in America.

Moreover, when a government plays fear cards, press and media are the channels to distribute those fears. Besides serving their own interests in seizing customers, press and media have helped circulate and sometimes even boost fears to a new level. However, given the tricky relationship between Trump administration and main stream media, playing the fear card has been more challenging than before. On one hand, they lack sufficient channels (except tweeter) to distribute fears to the public; on the other hand, their fear cards can be easily diminished by the mass media, and their corresponding efforts to address those fears will always be devalued by the press. It would be wise to put re-establishing a strong relationship with press and media on Trump’s future agenda.

  • Playing fear cards to American allies

Nowadays, global issues like terrorism, cybersecurity, nuclear proliferation, simply can’t be solved by unilateral efforts. Although cooperation based on mutual respect with American allies is necessary, history has showed that fear cards towards allies could serve constructive roles as well. American deterrence strategy of nuclear weapons not only works for rivals, but also allies. For example, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea all gave up their nuclear weapons under the pressure of America. Denuclearization of allies is, if not more, at least as important as denuclearization of rivals for American global leadership. Other countries’ fear of being abandoned or punished by America has consolidated the ally relationships with America, and has brought tremendously conveniences when America exerting its foreign policies in international affairs, including economic sanctions and military actions.

However, American government should be aware how the rise of China will affect its relationship with allies. When America is THE most powerful country in the world, playing fear cards will gain recognition and submission from allies; when American is only ONE of the most powerful countries, fear cards might push allies to the other great power. In 2015, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, ignored the objection from US, joined the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, set up by China, which becomes a potential rival to the World Bank. Whether and how to play fear cards to its allies, needs to be more thoughtful than ever, especially when China is welcoming collaboration with those nations. Under such circumstances, the priority of the U.S. should be to stay as a reliable and trustworthy leader, instead of threatening its allies for short term benefits and conveniences.

  • Playing fear cards to American rivals

One of the most successful fear cards in American history was drawn out in the Cold War. Soviet Union was dragged in the endless arm race with America. The fear of losing military competition exhausted the whole country by filling various “gaps”: troop-strength gap, missile gap, antimissile gap, nuclear weapon gap, defense-spending gap, and etc. Intriguingly, the effectiveness of fear cards is tightly related to information inefficiency. Fear, often exaggerated to phobia, exerted a bigger scale of impact on rival policymaking process during the Cold War. However, this kind of information inequality has largely vanished in the Internet Era.

Nowadays fear cards have become a less effective tool towards rivals. First of all, fear cards never worked for terrorists, and on the contrary, ISIS and Al-Qaida know better how to intensify public fear and create a dreadful atmosphere. Secondly, great powers like Russia and China merely won’t buy American fear cards. Economic sanctions and deterrence strategy to those two countries seldom brought America any tangible benefits outcompeting the cost. Actually, economic sanctions to small countries like North Korea didn’t work well either. Moreover, American aggression has made China rise more rapidly, with a more assertive response to global issues, such as the recent U.S-China trading war. Trump boosted fears of a looming trade war between U.S. and China, but how well the fear card will work this time? After all, the success of playing a fear card should be measure by whether any constructive impacts are made, not by the scale of panic it stirs.

The president and American government will soon realize that it’s more difficult than ever to play fear cards towards rivals. The global political system has been shifting from unilateral superpower to bilateral/multilateral superpowers. In a more complicated political environment, there is neither forever ally nor forever rival. Leaders have to play fear cards with extreme cautions, to avoid the situations below: it might either not work at all (to rivals), or cause drastic and unexpected shift of power balance (to allies).


History has shown that proper use of fear cards can bring constructive results when crystalizing policies and gaining public support. However, it’s important for the government to understand what makes a fear card effective and what does not. The government need to have a clear idea who is on the other side of the table, and what stakes will be put in the game. If we look at unsuccessful cases of governments playing fear cards, it’s easy to find that crucial factors have been neglected, and cues been taking wrong.

Unfortunately, fear cards at many occasions are more effective towards domestic people of a government, than allies or rivals, and probably will be so in the future as well. It’s not surprising, since cultural and political elites possess more power and knowledge to manipulate fear to strengthen a government’s authority, while each government in every nation knows this very strategy. Periodic crisis and fear will be reoccurring with the cycle of elections, serving as a powerful tool to win votes and to consolidate policies. However, fear depreciates fast. Instead of keeping investing in the maintenance and replacement of its fear supply to the public, it’s more important for the government to realize when to stop playing the fear card. Fear cards work best for wartime, and short-term political goals. It would be irrational to drag the public to the lasting climate of fear and cause counter-productive responses.

Another fact shouldn’t be neglected: social polarization leads to political polarization. The ideological division exists not only between Democrats and Republican, but also between American elites and grassroots. They are simply afraid of different things: for a blue-collar worker, losing a job at any given time is much scarier than environment pollution or unrecognized gay marriage. An effective fear card to elites, won’t work for grassroots, and vice versa. In a divided society, the government has to evaluate whose fear values more, before drawing out a fear card towards its people.

Playing fear cards to American allies and rivals has become more challenging than ever. However, there is a bright side of this fact: the world today has fewer violent conflicts, increased political freedom, and more economic opportunity than any other period in human history. Mutual respects and global cooperation has been gradually replacing fear cards and unequal treatments. This trend is unstoppable. It’s time for America to rethink its fear card strategy in international affairs, and to embrace this vibrant and dynamic word with an open mind.

YQ Chen in May 2018


This is an essay I completed in 24hrs for a US foreign policy course. I was very proud of my efficiency but definitely not the quality. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun to debate with professionals in public affairs with my very limited knowledge.

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