The Stupidity of War and the Exaggeration of Threat

John Mueller, prolific author, Professor Emeritus of international relations at Ohio State University and Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, discusses his 2021 book, “The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency“. He assesses the historic decline of international war and the tendency nonetheless to exaggerate national security threats.

Regarding “the case for complacency”, he insists that the most effective thing the US did during the Cold War was — nothing: Between the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as President of the US, the US “went into a sort of containment funk: it effectively adopted a policy of complacency (or perhaps of appeasement) as it watched from the sidelines as the Soviet Union … opportunistically gathered a set of Third World countries into its imperial embrace: Angola in 1976, Mozambique and Ethiopia in 1977, South Yemen and Afghanistan in 1978, Grenada and Nicaragua in 1979.”1 Nearly all became major economic and political drains on the Soviets with Afghanistan being the worst. And their Warsaw Pact allies in Eastern Europe became a severe economic drain and psychic problem.

This suggests a fundamental flaw in the policy of containment of Communism that the US had followed since the beginning of the Cold War: George Kennan liked to say that, “there is nothing more contrary to nature than the attempt to hold in obedience distant provinces”, quoting Edward Gibbon, the eighteenth century author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.2 In essence, the Soviet Union bled to death in the 1980s from its own self-inflicted wounds.  They did not spend themselves into bankruptcy trying to match the new arms race initiated by the US, as the supporters of Ronald Reagan and the military-industrial complex want the public to believe.

Muller has a recent op ed on “The Upside of Putin’s Delusions“: “His failed and spectacularly counterproductive war seems unlikely to augur a new era of interstate war.

He has also recently published discussions of China.  These include a brief monograph on “China: Rise or Demise?” and an op-ed insisting, “The United States Does Not Need to Contain China“.


  1. John Mueller (2021) The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency (Cambridge U. Pr., p. 59).
  2. John Lewis Gaddis (1982) Strategies of Containment (Oxford University Press, p. 47).

Copyright 2023 John Mueller and Spencer Graves:  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) 4.0 International license.

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