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How leaders understand and experience security threats

Last June, NATO leaders gathered in Brussels. At the closing Press Conference, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg used different labels to refer to Moscow and Beijing. While Russia’s actions were designated a threat to security, China’s growing clout and policies presented only a challenge to the Alliance. He also asserted that “NATO does not see China as the new enemy or an adversary.”

Yet, a closer reading of Stoltenberg’s unscripted answers to follow-up questions by journalists at the conference, suggests otherwise. Using a unique framework to describe how humans understand and experience danger in the world, I argue that if we consider his unprepared remarks at the conference as genuine, then Stoltenberg already perceives China as dangerous.

This matters a great deal. From allocating resources, to strategic planning, mutual distrust and even conflict, whether and how leaders perceive entities as security threats have consequences. Yet despite it being a crucial factor in both the study and practice of international relations, we still have a limited understanding of how leaders both understand and experience security threats.

By integrating insights from Conceptual Semantics – an overall framework for the theory of meaning formulated by linguist Ray Jackendoff – I aim to trace what goes on inside leaders' heads when they understand and experience various kinds of dangers in the international system. With a better understanding of threat perception, it is my hope that we might be able to reduce instances of unwarranted escalation between actors.


Understanding and experiencing the world

The central hypothesis of Conceptual Semantics is that underlying thought and meaning is a basic level of mental representation. This level of mental representation consists of two “data structures”: a conceptual structure and a spatial structure.


The conceptual structure is closely related to language. It encodes information associated with the individuals/entities we know, assigning objects and relationships to categories, dissecting events into the actions of their characters, as well as the encoding of Topic, Focus, and Common Ground. It further instantiates sentence meanings and serves as the basis for inference and for connection with world knowledge and perception.


The spatial structure is closely related to vision. It encodes information such as three-dimensional object shape, size, and position, as well as spatial layout, motion, and force, and it does so in geometric/topological terms. It integrates information derived from vision, but also from auditory localisation, touch, proprioception (the sense of our body’s position) and action representations (eg, moving our muscles).


The conceptual and spatial structures are inter-connected: otherwise, we would not be able to talk about what we see. For example, if a certain word denotes physical space (say, ‘China’), then it involves pieces of conceptual structure e.g., that China is a state, it has the largest population in the world, etc, and pieces of spatial structure – what China looks like on the map, etc.


We need both the conceptual and spatial structures to explain thought and meaning because while conceptual structure encodes information which cannot be represented visually/spatially, such as aspects of thought such as possibility, cause and effect, and social relations, spatial structure enables us to make sense of aspects of visual/spatial information that cannot be expressed in language.


So, our understanding of the world is encoded in terms of interlinked conceptual and spatial structures. But in addition to understanding the world, we also experience it. Philosophers use the term “qualia” to denote the form in which consciousness presents itself. An example of “qualia” is the “hurtfulness” of pain, - i.e., what this experience is like.


Jackendoff suggests there has been no serious attempt to describe how experience is structured outside of vision – how qualia are organised into the conscious field, across different faculties of the mind (language, proprioception), including, as I suggest below – the danger faculty which shapes how leaders perceive threats.


Jackendoff proposes to divide the features of experience into two major classes, the “content features” and “character tags.” The content features give experience its form – its qualia. The character tags give the experienced entities their feel. Importantly, these character tags cut across the various faculties of the mind. Some examples are:

  • external reality vs internal imagery.
    • For an example with language, I can identify speech as external to me hearing my partner call from the living room, or as internal linguistic imagery that I “hear” in my mind.
  • meaningful vs meaningless.
    • For an example with vision, think about the moment when visual stimulus changes from a pattern of splotches into a picture of a Dalmatian.
  • familiar vs novel.
    • For an example with language, think about the difference between “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and “there is evidence for multiple fear circuits in relation to the content of threat.” The first sentence conjures a feeling of familiarity, the second less so.
  • controlled vs no-control.
    • For an example with proprioception, think about the difference between lying in bed feeling as if you can move or cannot (as in ‘sleep paralysis).
  • Does it matter? Positive vs negative.
    • For an example with language, think of that feeling of ‘liking’ certain words and ‘disliking’ others without necessarily understanding why.


So how does all of this relate to threat perception in international relations? First, I propose that our understanding of security threats is governed by the conceptual and spatial structures. For example, once we assign an entity, say China, to the category of adversary, this piece of conceptual structure further links to a piece of spatial structure. Spatially, the danger posed by the adversary is now “visualised” in three-dimensional space: it can grow or contract, move towards the observer or away from it.


Second, I propose that our experience of threats is structured in a manner like Jackendoff’s content features and character tags. While linguistic experience draw its form from perceived sound, the experience of danger draws its form from the simulation of harm. Whether it is a military buildup near our borders or a bad dream about someone chasing your loved one, the simulation of harm is necessary for danger-qualia. I summarise the rudiments of what I call the danger framework in the table below.


Danger Framework: How individuals understand and experience security threats


Conceptual structure

Closely related to language. It encodes information associated with the individuals/states we know, assigning objects to categories, etc. [CONCEPTUAL]

Spatial structure

Closely related to vision. It encodes information such as three-dimensional object shape, size, and position, as well as spatial layout, motion, and force. [SPATIAL]


Content features

Simulation of harm/pain [HARM]

Character tags

Sense of reality

Is this future harm out there in the world [REAL] or is it solely in my head [IMAGERY]?


Is this future harm meaningful [MEANINGFUL] in the sense that it fulfills a certain pattern/plan/goal, or meaningless [MEANINGLESS]?


Is this future harm new [NOVEL] or familiar [FAMILIAR]?


Does it feel like I/we can do something about this simulated harm [CONTROL] or are we helpless about it [NO-CONTROL]?


Does this future harm matter? If so, is it pleasant [POSITIVE] or unpleasant [NEGATIVE]?


Let me demonstrate how this framework helps us make sense of Stoltenberg’s view of China. I note the relevant features by [BRACKETING] them.

Asked about the lines that China would need to cross to be upgraded from a challenge to a threat, Stoltenberg responded by saying that:

“We aren't in the business of defining exact lines, but we are just addressing together the fact that China is soon the biggest economy in the world [CONCEPTUAL]. They already have the biggest, sorry, the second biggest defence budget [CONCEPTUAL], and already the biggest Navy [CONCEPTUAL], and they are investing heavily in new modern capabilities [CONCEPTUAL and NOVEL], including by investing in new disruptive technologies such as autonomous systems, facial recognition and artificial intelligence [CONCEPTUAL, NEGATIVE and NOVEL], and putting them into different weapon systems that they are really in the process of changing the nature of warfare [CONCEPTUAL MEANINGFUL], in a way we have hardly seen before, or perhaps ever seen before.” [NOVEL]

Stoltenberg was then asked about NATO’s plans for holding a constructive dialogue with China. After briefly describing NATO’s contacts with China, he put forward the most remarkable testimony of the spatial understanding of threat I have read in a while:

“…If I can add one more thing. This is very much about what we do at home [CONTROL]. And this is about taking care of a core responsibility to be able to protect and defend [CONTROL] all allies against any threats from any direction [SPATIAL], because we know that [REAL], we see that [SPATIAL], China's coming closer to us in cyberspace [SPATIAL]. We see them in Africa [SPATIAL], we see them in the Arctic [SPATIAL], we see them trying to control our infrastructure [SPATIAL, NEGATIVE and MEANINGFUL] ... “

Despite Stoltenberg’s assertions to the contrary, many of the features of the danger-framework outlined above are “present” in his remarks. The danger posed by China has taken on conceptual and spatial/visual dimensions. It is experientially real in the sense that it exists “out there” in the world; it is coherent in the sense that the Chinese are attempting to bring about change in warfare; it is novel as the Chinese do stuff in ways hardly seen before; it can be addressed by the allies’ agency; and it matters in a negative way – the technologies are “disruptive” and the attempt to control allies’ infrastructure is unwanted.


The danger-framework is an important addition to our interpretive toolkit for three primary reasons. First, it enables us to move beyond official linguistic labels such as threat or challenge and gauge whether and how influential individuals perceive entities in the international system as dangerous. Second, it enables us to pay closer attention to how the experience of danger is structured – both its form and feel. Third, it makes it possible to draw linkages between the threat perception in international relations and the study of danger in other disciplines such as risk perception, where some of the character tags identified by Jackendoff have interesting similarities. Overall, the danger-framework helps us explore what is going on in the heads of leaders when they perceive security threats.

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Eitan Oren

Eitan Oren

Lecturer in War Studies Education

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