Narcissus on the World Stage

Detail from Echo and Narcissus by J.W. Waterhouse

by Diana Ohlbaum

Narcissus? No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. In fact, I don’t want to talk about Trump any more. Frankly, I don’t even want to hear about Trump any more. My outrage meter is broken.

I’m talking about us collectively, the United States. Most Americans perceive their country as a benevolent leader in an increasingly dangerous world, the only power willing and able to keep the forces of evil and chaos at bay, justified in the use of force by what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “the righteous knowledge that our cause is just, special, and built upon America’s core principles.”

It’s an identity that is not only widely held, but deeply deceptive and exceedingly dangerous. The current administration’s terrifying and appalling behavior may leave us less enamored of our own reflection, but this skewed self-image long predates today’s cast of scoundrels.

In his new book, Psychology of a Superpower: Security and Dominance in U.S. Foreign Policy, political scientist Christopher Fettweis examines the connection between power and perception, arguing that America’s peculiar brand of exceptionalism is a pathology of unbalanced, unchecked power. It’s not just the president himself, but the entire foreign policy apparatus that seems to suffer from a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy” (to borrow from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Drawing on the literature of psychology, Fettweis argues that states with extreme power tend to adopt a strange mix of hubris and paranoia. Power makes the United States more vulnerable to exaggerating the essential goodness of its intentions and denying its culpability for damage. It deepens the illusion of control, encouraging Washington to overestimate its ability to bring about preferred outcomes. It expands insecurity, leading the United States to manufacture an ever-expanding list of enemies and inflate small, manageable threats into existential ones. It reduces the need to empathize with others and see events from their point of view. And it promotes an action orientation according to which the risks of intervention are less than those of inaction. A dangerous mix, if ever there was one.

States with unrivaled power, Fettweis also argues, tend to discount the legitimacy, humanity, and rationality of the other side and overstate its fragility, hostility, and capability. Take Iraq. On the one hand, U.S. leaders portrayed its government as implacably hostile, aggressive, barbaric, untrustworthy, and immune to reason—a threat to the very existence of the United States and its allies. At the same time, they insisted that Saddam lacked the support of Iraq’s population, which would rise up to greet U.S. troops as liberators. The paradox, says Fettweis, is that “evil regimes are simultaneously terrifyingly powerful and essentially fragile.”

It’s the same way U.S. leaders have gone on to characterize Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

Much like the “resource curse”—by which vast mineral wealth strongly correlates with authoritarianism, corruption, economic stagnation, and conflict—the accumulation of massive, asymmetric power brings a predictable set of afflictions. Being the sole superpower leads the United States not only to keep on making the same mistakes around the globe, but to misunderstand the reasons for its blunders and to discount alternative approaches.

For instance, even after disastrous losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, foreign policy elites insisted that the United States could have achieved a different and better outcome in Syria if only it had jumped in sooner, sent more advisers and equipment, or developed a clearer strategy. Although senior military leaders acknowledge that “you can’t kill your way out of a terrorism problem,” about 95 percent of the over $2.8 trillion in U.S. counterterrorism spending since 9/11 has been devoted to military operations. Despite breaking, failing to ratify, or withdrawing from treaties, lying to the United Nations, reneging on diplomatic and financial commitments, and committing or being complicit in repeated violations of international law, the United States maintains that it is rational and trustworthy while its rivals are devious and conniving, impervious to reason, and responsive only to the language of force.

These misperceptions are not limited to Republicans or neoconservatives. To a significant degree mainstream Democrats and humanitarian interventionists also believe that the United States is “the indispensable nation” in a world of ever-expanding threats. The sides differ on the proper balance between defense and diplomacy, the importance of protecting corporate profits versus human rights, and the extent to which the United States should work in partnership with other states and international institutions or go it alone. But they agree that the presumed alternative to U.S. global primacy—unmitigated chaos and brutality—is too terrible to contemplate.

From an academic standpoint, applying concepts and lessons drawn from human psychology to nation-states and international systems might not be valid. On the other hand, the portrait Fettweis paints is all too recognizable. The United States is safer, by any conceivable measure, than it was during the Cold War. The world is more peaceful, with fewer conflicts between states and lower death rates from war than at any time in the past century. U.S. hard power dominance is more overwhelming than at any point in history. Yet Americans remain spectacularly fearful about their own safety. This is exactly Fettweis’ point: great power brings great insecurity.

As a solution, Fettweis does not advocate an abdication of U.S. global leadership through unilateral disarmament or isolationism. Rather, he suggests a path of strategic restraint, underpinned by a more accurate assessment of the security environment, a greater awareness of how U.S. actions are perceived by others, and an honest acknowledgement of the limits of U.S. power. Changing perceptions and belief systems is no easy task, however, not only because feelings are so resistant to facts and logic, but because this particular representation of U.S. identity has served powerful interests so well and for so long.

As in any good addiction recovery program, however, the first step is to admit having a problem.

Diana Ohlbaum

Diana Ohlbaum is senior strategist and legislative director for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and chairs the board of the Center for International Policy. She previously served for nearly 20 years as a senior professional staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dr. Ohlbaum holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Russian studies from Amherst College. Follow her on Twitter: @dohlbaum



  1. And, we DO have a problem. I cringe every time I hear ‘Breast-beating WE ARE THE BEST’. We are a specie on a planet – and have big brains (well, some do) … act like it.

  2. Nice piece, Diana Ohlbaum. “I don’t want to talk about Trump any more. Frankly, I don’t even want to hear about Trump any more. My outrage meter is broken.” Many will join you in that! It is now all about getting to January 2021 hoping that not too much will be broken in the china shop.
    But this article correctly points out that a change in administration is unlikely to turn the tide against the excesses arising from “the righteous knowledge that our cause is just, special, and built upon America’s core principles,” because “this particular representation of U.S. identity has served powerful interests so well and for so long.” Probably it will take a new generation of leaders to bend the arc back to where it should be. Let’s hope they are now growing up.

  3. 1-“Most Americans perceive their country as a benevolent leader in an increasingly dangerous world, the only power willing and able to keep the forces of evil and chaos at bay”

    Most Americans, in this respect, have a lot in common with the British – not because of their past colonial history but because of ‘not travelling’ widely outside their respective countries, and even when they do their main aim is tourism, and English being the only ‘language’ they know they hardly mix with ordinary natives to get to know them or to read their newspapers; hence they travel with ‘preconceived’ ideas and images of the natives fed to them by their biased American/British mainstream media and often return home without having understood the Other. And once political crisis erupt the more isolated the other nation the more effective the manipulation of public emotion and the demonization:

    The US impulsive behaviour towards Iran following the 1978-79 Revolution and exposure of the US crimes, including supporting the Shah’s secret police and the CIA 1953 military coup, is the best example in which the irresponsible American mainstream media has played indisputably effective role in the brainwashing of the American People – not just since 1979:

    Before the Iranian Revolution the ordinary Americans and students I had known in America, including my American law professors, had a distorted image of what Iran and Iranians were like, although at the time there were 10s of 1000s of Americans living in Iran. The books written about Iran were also mostly out of touch with our reality – that was why once the Revolution broke out the American politicians, ordinary people and the media were equally shocked, hardly comprehending what was happening in Iran. Ever since, the US media and film industry have kept the American People from travelling to Iran, because it is exactly this human contact, friendship and love that can challenge the official American propaganda that keeps demonizing Iran.

    2-“From an academic standpoint, applying concepts and lessons drawn from human psychology to nation-states and international systems might not be valid”

    This is exactly what we need to do. As I commented last week on Paul Pillar’s ‘Motivations For The Dead-End Policy On Iran’, and reiterate it here: What is missing in all the analyses we have so far seen of the Iran-US-Israel-Saudi conflicts is a serious probing into the American and Israeli-Arab politicians’ personal lives, psychology, mood swing and ‘mental health illness’, especially during their political careers. Governments are not complex machineries or abstract apparatus but made of individuals whose ‘mental health’ can play fateful roles in our lives. For instance, years later did the public learn about Winston Churchill’s ‘manic depression’, extreme ‘alcoholism’ and his love of ‘war’. After all, governments are run by the individuals whose irresponsible impulsive racist mentality, and paranoia, armed with mighty military force and sick media can lead to unprecedented genocides in the name of freedom and a new world order.

  4. Nicely written Ms Diana Ohlbaum. It is interesting that you published this article on the day coinciding with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy 50 years ago. America has changed enormously since then.
    The most generous and the only best behavior of this country in regards to its foreign policy was exhibited following WWII by reconstructing the ruins of Europe. Perhaps this was done because of the common values between the whites in EU and America. Then misbehaving started with deposing of the democratically elected PM in 1953 followed by planting our ruthless stooge as the Shah of Iran. At the same time the inconclusive Korean Peninsula war ended with no tangible and positive outcome. The following decades were the atrocities committed during Vietnam war which was ended with a huge embarrassment for the US. The weary Americans who were tired of all those wars there was a lull period until Reagan was put in the office. Reagan resurrected the wars in South America and supported Saddam Hossien with his attack against the Iranians following their revolution. Unfortunately the aggressions didn’t stop then and even expanded over time to more disastrous wars in Kosovo, Iraq War I, Afghanistan, Iraq War II, Libya and Syria.
    After spending $trillions expanding arm forces this country hasn’t finished one aggression conclusively to erase some the embarrassment caused by the Vietnam war. As you said spending has made people even more insecure about their own security.
    Of course euphoria over the collapse of the Soviet Union reinforced the false sense of “exceptionalism”. Unfortunately the US mismanaging the fall of Soviet it missed a huge opportunity to lead the world in a positive direction. By doing so its unipolar position is on its way out and the world is becoming multipolar.

  5. This narcissistic model might be a pertinent metaphor for America’s relations to other nations–especially with the current president of the United States.. It’s a moment of clarity. But stripped of its metaphoric import, the connection between narcissism and government behavior is difficult to clarify, How does a narcisistic model explain the direction of a foreign policy determinned by the lobbying of special interests (think of Taiwan in fifties and Israel now)?

Comments are closed.