Reassessing Threat Assessment

What makes strategic threat assessment accurate and reliable? While scholars and decision makers have worked to identify and evaluate potential threats to the United States, threat assessment itself remains relatively understudied. We know little about the factors that contribute to an assessment’s accuracy, and it is often difficult to distinguish between reliable assessments and lucky ones. This lack of knowledge undermines our ability to manage an array of security threats, from grand-strategic challenges in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East to broader social, economic, and technological trends that might affect U.S. or global stability.

To identify the processes and principles that contribute to accurate assessments—and determine which practices have been less effective—the Tobin Project is pursuing an inquiry on Reassessing Threat Assessment. This project seeks to conduct a critical re-analysis of past threat assessments and evaluate them in light of their success or failure, with the ultimate goal of improving the reliability of future assessments and equipping the United States to better employ its limited national security resources.

Currently, this initiative is focused on threat assessments from the early era of nuclear technology. By better understanding assessment practices from a period of great geopolitical and technological uncertainty, we hope to encourage additional scholarship on important security challenges and prepare scholars and government officials to address current national security threats. At a May 2016 meeting, Tobin convened around fifty scholars and policymakers in Washington, D.C. to discuss topics related to threat assessment and identify past assessments that could serve as effective case studies capable of informing contemporary security strategy. In March 2017, we gathered fifteen scholars to propose and discuss new research investigating the three decades following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Scholars then presented and workshopped early-stage papers and proposals at an October 2017 meeting led by the initiative’s scholar-leaders: Jeremi Suri (University of Texas at Austin), Benjamin Valentino (Dartmouth), and Arne Westad (Harvard Kennedy School).

Looking forward, the Tobin Project is exploring additional topics in threat assessment. In particular, we are considering possible research on assessments of emerging, dual-use technologies, capable of causing both great benefit and great harm—such as weaponizable biotechnologies, unmanned aircraft, and wireless communication—as well as an inquiry on past assessments of rising economic and political powers.