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.