Siege Mentality

Daniel Bar-Tal 

Originally published Sept. 2004  "Current Implications" added by Heidi Burgess in August, 2017.

Current Implications

The current implications of this essay could not be more stark, in early August, 2017, as we are watching in horror as President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un trade threats. Indeed, Bar-Tal discusses North Korea's siege mentality in this essay written thirteen years ago, saying that "An example of self-initiated siege mentality is the present case of North Korea which, following the changes that took place in Eastern Europe, isolated itself from the rest of the world, attributing especially negative intentions to capitalist countries. The present leader, Kim Jong-Il, the son of Kim I-sung, explained that." And now Kim Jong-Il's son, Kim Jong-Un is following exactly in the family's footsteps.

More surprising, perhaps, is how many Americans seem to share, to some degree at least, the same siege mentality.  Donald Trump rose to the U.S. Presidency by playing on American's fear of outsiders--particularly Muslims, but all "illegal immigrants," who he framed as threats to America's security and greatness. Similarly, he framed most of the rest of the world--including our allies--as hostile powers who (for example) didn't pay their bills to NATO, didn't agree to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, forced us into unfair trade deals, etc.  He has espoused an isolationism, not entirely unlike that enforced by Kim (though admittedly to a much smaller degree.)  But the notion that the outside world is out to get us is very much apparent in his rhetoric and that of many of his followers.

Look at what Bar-Tal says are results of this mentality:

1. The threatened society with siege beliefs develops negative attitudes towards other societies,

2. The society becomes extremely sensitive to any information and cues transmitted by other societies that may indicate negative intentions. (So what might happen when Donald Trump promises "fire and fury like the world has never seen," then says that "might not have been strong enough," and follows that by saying our military might was "locked and loaded."  (That's where we stand while I write this.) What does a society that is "sensitive to minor threats" do with this one?

3.  The society develops internal mechanisms to cope with the threat by increasing pressure among society members towards conformity, unity and mobilization. North Korea certainly has that!

4. Finally, a society may take a course of action without consideration of international behavioral codes. North Korea has been doing that for years as they continue to pursue their nuclear weapons program despite worldwide condemnation.  A key question here is how strong is the effect of the siege mentality on the United States, and most importantly on Donald Trump.  He hasn't shown any respect for law (domestic or international) so far.  Would he care if a pre-emptive strike on North Korea were illegal according to international law?  I suspect not.

5.  The key question that Bar-Tal leaves unanswered is how the siege mentality can be altered before catastrophe occurs. I hope we get a chance to find out!

--Heidi Burgess   August, 2017.



What the Siege Mentality Is

One of the interesting social-political-psychological phenomenon which can be observed in different societies pertains to the experience of being under siege, i.e., feeling as if the rest of the world has highly negative intentions towards one's own society or that one's own society is surrounded by a hostile world. The focus is on "negative intentions" and "the rest of the world". "Negative intentions" refer to the desire and motivation of the world to inflict harm or to hurt the society, so that they imply a threat to the society's well being.

Especially critical is the view that the "rest of the world" feels this way. This element is unique to siege beliefs; many societies probably believe that at least one other society has negative intentions towards them. But with the "siege mentality," the situation is far more extreme and serious. Members of the society believe that their society is not only in conflict with another group, or surrounded by hostile neighbors, but they believe that the rest of the world, as a whole, is hostile toward them. (The term "world" does not have to be taken literarily, but applies to those nations, which function as reference groups and are relevant to the belief holders.) This creates the tragic observation that one's society is alone in a hostile world.

Usually the described core societal belief occurs with additional societal beliefs such as loneliness, threat to societal existence, lack of trust in other nations, expectations that no nation will extend help in time of need, or having the need to secure the existence of the society without resorting to external help.

Whenever the siege theme is central in the society's repertoire of beliefs, we can say that society members possess a "siege mentality." In this situation, siege beliefs not only feature prominently in the cognitive repertoire of society members and are expressed in various cultural and educational products, but also come with important emotional and behavioral implications, which have a major effect on the life of the society members and on the decisions of their leaders.

The recent past and the present offer a number of examples of societies characterized by societal beliefs about siege: the Soviet society immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Japanese society in the early thirties, the Jewish society in Israel, the Albanese society in the sixties, seventies and eighties, the South African White society prior to the elimination of apartheid, Iraqi society in the 1990s and North Korean and Iranian society today are all examples of societies with a siege mentality.

Causes of the Siege Mentality

The roots of the siege experience in these societies are not, of course, necessarily identical. It is possible to differentiate at least three causes for the development of siege beliefs that are not mutually exclusive.

1. The siege experience can be evoked by the society's leaders who decide to isolate the society from the world for various internal reasons (e. g., Albania and North Korea). This type of siege mentality depends on the leaders' centralized authority and the needs of the society. It may end with the change of the leadership, or of internal needs, as it happened in the case of Albania. An example of self-initiated siege mentality is the present case of North Korea which, following the changes that took place in Eastern Europe, isolated itself from the rest of the world, attributing especially negative intentions to capitalist countries. The present leader, Kim Jong-Il, the son of Kim I-sung, explained that

[Preventing] imperialist ideology and culture from infiltrating into our country remains the key to protecting our socialism and guaranteeing the development of socialist culture. The imperialists are attempting to infiltrate bourgeois culture into the socialist world, thus to paralyze the revolutionary spirit of the people here.[1]

In line with this thesis, North Korea views other countries with extreme suspicion, minimizing relations with them (except with China) by maintaining a "closed door" policy.

2. Alternatively, the siege mentality may stem from perceived maltreatment of the society by the world (e.g., Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution, South Africa during the apartheid). It is possible to assume that in the past, persecuted societies such as Jews, exploited societies such as the Indians in South America, or Blacks in North America, or societies which suffered extermination and genocide such as the Armenian society in Turkey, experienced isolation, and maltreatment by other groups, and thus formed societal beliefs about siege. The traumatic experiences may leave their mark, even when the circumstances change.

It also happens that the international community decides to cut relations with a particular society, and usually such decision is accompanied by punitive actions such as embargoes, boycotts, sanctions or even violent hostile activities. This was the case of South Africa during apartheid, and of Iraq after the Gulf war. In these cases, when the international community changes its isolating actions, the siege beliefs may dissipate, as it happened in the case of South Africa.

3. Finally, the siege beliefs may be maintained because of the imprint left by past collective experiences, something that greatly affects the present perception of the world. In these cases, societal channels, cultural institutions and the educational system, often support the siege mentality and therefore it is extremely difficult to change. Siege beliefs become master symbols and chosen traumas of the society. Then, even under new circumstances, society members search for evidence to validate their societal beliefs about siege and continue to maintain them.

An example of this situation is the Israeli Jewish society, which maintains societal beliefs about siege on the basis of 2000 years of Jewish history.[2] As a result, as Liebman[3] rightly pointed out:

Jewish tradition finds anti-Semitism to be the norm, the natural response of the non-Jew ... The term 'Esau hates Jacob' symbolizes the world, which Jews experience. It is deeply embedded in the Jewish folk tradition. (p. 45).

But of special importance for understanding the Israeli siege mentality is the Holocaust. The fact that six million Jews perished, while "the world" remained indifferent, served crucially to strengthen the siege mentality of the remaining Jews and left its marks on future generations and their experience. In the Jewish point of view, the Holocaust does not stand alone as one grim event, but is a metaphor for Jewish history itself[4] Elon,[5] for example, observed:

"The Holocaust remains a basic trauma of Israeli society. It is impossible to exaggerate its effect on the process of nation-building... There is a latent hysteria in Israeli life that stems directly from this source...The trauma of the Holocaust leaves an indelible mark on the national psychology, the tenor and content of public life, the conduct of foreign affairs, on politics, education, literature and the arts." (pp. 198-199).

In addition, the Israeli-Arab conflict, although very different from the Holocaust, did a great deal to preserve this siege mentality. With the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948, Arab countries tried actively to destroy it. First, it was invaded by five regular armies from Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Later, until the peace treaty with Egypt, all the Arab states closed their borders, declared an embargo, pressed the world to stop relations with Israel and maintained a state of war, refusing to recognize Israel and employing instead the rhetoric of the "liberation of Palestine" and the "liquidation of Zionist aggression". Through its history, Israel fought several major wars with Arab states in which many thousands of Israelis were killed. In addition, Palestinian terrorist attacks against Jews, which have caused many civilian causalities, also boosted siege beliefs. Finally, very often the criticism of the international community regarding Israeli policies serves as evidence of widespread anti-Semitism.

Functions of the Siege Mentality

Societal beliefs about siege fulfill several important functions.

1. They permit society members to define the world in relatively simple and manageable terms. These beliefs are especially functional in equivocal situations in which individuals receive extensive, threatening information about dangers to their personal and societal existence. The siege beliefs facilitate management of cognitive ambiguities by dichotomizing the world through black-white solutions (e.g., rejection of all other groups versus acceptance of own group).

2. Siege beliefs allow fast predictability by preparing society members for the worst in their life. Individuals have a need to live in a world in which future can, to some extent, be predicted. Unpredictable events may cause negative psychological reactions, especially if the events are harmful. In this sense, expectations of negative events prevent disappointment,

3. They satisfy society's need for a firm social identity, differentiating it from other groups. By positioning the society in conflict against the rest of the world, they clearly demarcate the boundaries between one's own society and other groups.[6] The boundary separates the society from the rest of the world, allowing the experience of "pure" identity** and "unadulterated" culture. This function, for example, was directly and continuously exploited by the leaders of Albania.[7]

4. Societal beliefs concerning siege satisfy the needs for solidarity and mobilization that every group has, as it is used in North Korea.

5. The siege beliefs indirectly answer the need for a sense of superiority. The belief that the rest of the world has negative intentions toward the society implies also that the other groups are evil and malevolent; it is indeed a common practice to delegate the responsibility for conflict situations to other groups. In Japan of the 1930s this function was very salient.

6. Siege beliefs help to satisfy the basic needs for freedom of action and for self-reliance. A society that believes the world has negative intentions against it and does not trust other nations, also feels less restricted by the international norms and agreements that usually limit nations' scope of action. It also satisfies needs for self-reliance, which usually function as a source of pride and self-esteem. For example, this function is evident in the behavior of North Korea and Israel.

Consequences of the Siege Mentality

Siege beliefs have emotional and behavioral implications that can have serious consequences for the society, as well as for the international community.

1. The threatened society with siege beliefs develops negative attitudes towards other societies, which may be accompanied with feelings of xenophobia and chauvinism.

2. The society becomes extremely sensitive to any information and cues transmitted by other societies that may indicate negative intentions. This developed sensitivity is based on lack of trust and suspicion that society members feel toward other societies which, in their view, have negative intentions.

3. The society develops internal mechanisms to cope with the threat by increasing pressure among society members towards conformity, unity and mobilization. This pressure can take various forms, like calls for unity, calls for patching-up or concealment of disagreement within the group, as well as threatening (and carrying out) negative sanctions against those who disagree within the group.

4. Finally, a society may take a course of action without consideration of international behavioral codes. A society that feels endangered may decide that its need to survive is so paramount that all means can be used. As a result, it may decide to take a course of action considered extreme and unacceptable by the international community. In this situation, society members may disregard any unfavorable reactions from these other groups, which they consider as their adversaries anyway.

The described four consequences of siege mentality suggest that siege beliefs can have a serious effect on the attitudes and behaviors of the societies that hold them. These beliefs dictate a particular way of life. In the cases we have looked at, they constitute the core beliefs of the societal ethos. It is possible then to characterize the societies of Albania and South Africa until several years ago, and of North Korea, Israel, and Iran today as having an ethos of siege because siege beliefs in these societies played or still play a very important role in the psyche of the society members and their leaders. Thus, any understanding of the behavior of these societies must take into account their siege mentality.

[1] Lee, I.S., Park, J.U., & Rhee, B.J. (1993). North Korea: After Collapse of Socialist Camp. Seoul: Naewoe Press.

[2] Bar-Tal, D., & Antebi, D. (1992). Siege Mentality in Israel. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 16, 251-275.

[3] Liebman, C. (1978). Myth, Tradition and Values in Israeli society. Midstream, 24, 44-53.

[4] Stein, H.F. (1978). Judaism and the Group-Fantasy of Martydom: The Psychodynamic Paradox of Survival Through Persecution. Journal of Psychohistory, 6, 151-210.

[5] Elon, A. (1971). The Israelis. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

[6] Coser, L.A. (1956). The Functions of Social Conflict. NY: Free Press.

[7] Biberaj, E. (1986). Albania Between East and West. Conflict Studies No. 190. London: Institute for the Study of Conflict.

 Use the following to cite this article:
Bar-Tal, Daniel. "Siege Mentality." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2004 <>.