Narcissism as Key American Value

[Mar 04, 2015]  Realism and Reality By Anatol Lieven

 January 1, 2006 | The American Prospect | New America Foundation

Review of: The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the 21st Century by Michael Mandelbaum (Public Affairs, 320 pages, $26.00)

Michael Mandelbaum's latest book is a superficial symptom of a grave, even potentially deadly disease: the inability of the overwhelming majority of the U.S. establishment to contemplate a limited scaling down of America's struggle for world dominance, even when the maximalist version of that goal has been clearly shown to be unsustainable. The neoconservatives represent only an extreme and crude version of this ambition. To a greater or lesser extent, it is shared by the leaders of both political parties and by a large majority of American politicians, soldiers, bureaucrats, and Washington policy intellectuals.

Unlike the neoconservatives, Mandelbaum has always been thought to belong to the realist tradition. Indeed, while in the Democrat camp in the 1990s he clashed bitterly with the Clinton administration's professed commitment to nation building and the spread of democracy, summing up his critique in the damning phrase "foreign policy as social work." The realist side of Mandelbaum is still evident in the emphasis that he gives to order, trade, and the prevention of security threats, relative to humanitarian intervention and the spreading of democracy and human rights.

Yet in the name of these goals Mandelbaum makes a claim more breathtakingly ambitious than any advanced by any previous realist, from any country -- assuming, that is, that Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler are to be classified as ideological fanatics rather than extreme realists. His argument is that the United States not only ought to be, but actually is in vital respects the government of the whole planet. He chooses as his symbolic figure for this power the biblical giant Goliath.

In Mandelbaum's words,

As portrayed in the pages that follow, [America's world role] has something in common with the sun's relationship to the rest of the solar system. Both confer benefits on the entities with which they are in regular contact. The sun keeps the planets in their orbits by the force of gravity and radiates the heat and light that make life possible on one of them. Similarly, the United States furnishes services to other countries, the same services, as it happens, that governments provide within sovereign states to the people they govern. The United States therefore functions as the world's government.

Actually, there was a realist who once made a similar claim, though about himself rather than his country: I was forgetting Louis XIV, the "Sun King" of France.

Mandelbaum's vision dangerously extends the common realist argument that the international system benefits from the existence of a "hegemon," or superpower, capable of imposing a certain degree of order. Although there is a great deal to be said for U.S. leadership, the Iraq disaster should have made absolutely clear--long before Mandelbaum finished this book--that the level of global domination aspired to by the Bush administration, and by thinkers like Mandelbaum, is not only beyond America's resources but, if pursued, will bring even the beneficial aspects of America's global role to an early end.

Mandelbaum's first argument in support of his thesis concerns security, which is indeed the first and oldest function of every state. He suggests that just as the United States used nuclear deterrence to defend the non-Communist world and its own interests during the Cold War, so it now provides "reassurance" to the democratic world.

Across most of the globe, in Mandelbaum's analysis, the United States deters potential aggressors, preserves peace, and thus provides the essential basis for economic development. By preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons, especially to "rogue states," the United States performs an essential service not only for its own interests but for those of humanity in general. This aim, Mandelbaum suggests, continues to justify the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. The United States, of course, also combats international terrorism, though this is a threat that Mandelbaum puts second to traditional dangers of conflict between states.

Mandelbaum argues that the United States also fulfills a central function of government in the economic sphere: "The dollar serves as the world's money," he writes. American military deployments ensure the safety of trade in general and of the world's access to Middle Eastern oil in particular. U.S. power, expressed in part through international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is essential to the functioning of the international market system and the avoidance of major crises.

Finally, the United States is the world government in that, like national governments, it acts to encourage high levels of consumption. The United States primes the pump of the world's economy by maintaining high demand in its population for foreign products, thereby fueling Chinese economic growth and directly or indirectly maintaining the economic stability of many other states.

These claims are of greatly varying validity. That the dollar serves in a sense as the world's currency is entirely correct. For both good and evil, the United States also does exert great influence--though not governmental power--through the IMF. In the past, it has also played an important part in securing the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, though the time may be fast approaching when U.S. policies in the region may be more of a threat than a help to the world's energy security.

There is no question that American consumers have fueled China's industrial boom, but it is more than a stretch to describe this effect as equivalent to the role of a government. Furthermore, due to America's resulting trade deficit, its role as the most voracious source of global demand is beginning to conflict directly with the task of maintaining a strong and stable dollar as the world's reserve currency.

Mandelbaum advances as evidence of America's fundamental "benignity" the fact that, unlike previous attempts at hegemony by one state, the rise of American power has not led other countries to form alliances to "balance" against it. He echoes the line of Fouad Ajami, Charles Krauthammer, and many others that most international criticism of the United States is basically motivated by envy, and suggests that other countries accept American leadership in part because they know that "they can reason with and sometimes redirect the attention and energies of Goliath...opportunities to be heard and heeded in Washington are so plentiful."

Finally, in Mandelbaum's account, the United States cannot be replaced as the world government by the United Nations, European Union, or any other single country. He suggests that U.S. global power may well wane, not as a result of external pressure or defeat but because Americans do not wish to pay for international dominance at the expense of social welfare at home. This, he says, would be a disaster for the world.

Mandelbaum's book is forcefully and sometimes wittily argued, and has some good points. Taken as a whole, however, it is specious. His central argument does not work whichever way you look at it. If you accept his thesis and believe that the United States is, in fact, the world's government, the Bush administration had better pray that no interplanetary commission of enquiry comes calling any time soon. For on a whole range of critical functions of government and stewardship, the United States has in recent years been grossly negligent.

This is, above all, true of global warming, which Mandelbaum addresses not so much to assess the seriousness of the threat to our civilization as to score points against the EU. On a range of other issues as well, from preventable disease through poverty reduction to resolving some of the world's most bloody and dangerous conflicts, the United States under George W. Bush does not qualify as a responsible government.

Mandelbaum and like-minded analysts seem incapable of understanding that much criticism of the United States today is motivated not by hostility to the idea of America leading, but by profound alarm at the quality of its leadership. Even soldiers who may fully accept the principle of military subordination may yet come to hate, fear, and disobey a particular general whom they regard as incompetent and rash.

The terrorist threat to U.S. allies raises the question of whether the United States is any longer a security provider to Europe, or a security destroyer. Naturally, therefore, Europeans have every right and reason to be profoundly concerned both about the U.S. strategy that led to the Iraq War and about the appallingly incompetent way in which that strategy was executed. Concerning nuclear nonproliferation, the question is not whether this goal is desirable--of course, it is--or whether the United States is essential to its pursuit. It is whether existing U.S. strategies have any real chance of working, at least without catastrophic regional wars.

The Iraq fiasco has made the invasion and occupation of Iran and North Korea an obvious impossibility. Bombing would at most delay these countries' programs, while vastly inflaming nationalist sentiment and the danger from Iranian-sponsored extremism in the Middle East. What is left, therefore, is diplomacy--and this requires a willingness to offer serious concessions as well as to bring economic pressure to bear.

The Bush administration may be edging toward this approach in dealing with North Korea, but it is very far from it in dealing with Iran. Instead, powerful elements of the Bush administration and the U.S. establishment--once again, Democrat as well as Republican--continue to dream that "regime change" will somehow solve this problem. Yet, even if Iran became a genuine democracy, every opinion survey shows that a great majority of its people--and by no means just the mullahs--believe that their nation has the right in principle to develop its own nuclear deterrent.

On one issue, this book is worse than specious--it is a disgrace. At no point does Mandelbaum address the question of international perceptions of the U.S.-Israeli alliance and its effect in diminishing international confidence in American leadership. This is especially true in the area of nuclear nonproliferation to which he devotes so much attention. Differing views of America's relationship with Israel are certainly legitimate. But for a public intellectual to ignore its impact on America's international role is a dereliction of duty.

But then again, why bother with omissions when the whole world-government thesis is gimcrack? The Bush experience has shown that the United States does not remotely have the power or will to function as a world government. On economic matters, it functions mainly through negotiation and cooperation with other major players. On environmental matters it barely functions at all.

And on security matters, Mandelbaum's choice of poor old Goliath as a symbolic figure was doubtless in part intentionally ironic, but it was also more ironic than he knew. For despite all his strength, Goliath was, of course, defeated by a much smaller opponent, as the United States is being defeated in Iraq, even if -- like the Vietcong -- the insurgents can never win on the battlefield.

Goliath would have done well to have been lighter on his feet, less ambitious--and, above all, less arrogant.

Copyright 2006, The American Prospect

Anatol Lieven is a professor in the war studies department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. His previous book, co-authored with John Hulsman, is Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World. He is currently researching a book on Pakistan.


Narcissists Destroy Who they cannot Control - YouTube

The Culture of Narcissism American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations

by Christopher Lasch

Narcissism = American Values, March 31, 2010


Old World Social Worker (Chicago, IL) - See all my reviews

another must read for working with people as a therapist, social worker, psychotherapist, etc..... This makes the Top # list of moral/ethical corruption in America. Without our values, what do we have? The market will. Just like the communists had in Russia, only with their version of Capitalism (communism). It still astounds me how many people I work with, young and old, are incredibly Narcissistic

Sanibel Sam (Richmond, IN) - See all my reviews
Although written in 1978 with an afterword added in 1990, this book is as timely and as relevant as when it was first published. Chapters V thru X were particularly insightful. Reading these chapters and looking at our culture and society was a wake up call.

Baby boomers who were raised and educated with the doctrine of "competitive individualism" will find this book a worthy read and perhaps challenge those of a liberal mind set.

Jessie Costanzo (Brooklyn, NY)

Lasch is Brilliant, July 11, 2009

 The Culture of Narcissism is a thought-provoking must read for anyone interested in philosophy, psychology, and the unfolding of American society. Lasch addresses the question of why the classic neuroses (i.e., anxiety hysteria, conversion hysteria and obsessive-compulsive neuroses) were replaced by narcissism as the dominant mental disorder in the US. Although Lasch uses Freudian concepts to discuss the evolution of the psyche, he argues that society has precipitated these changes.

Lasch examines the driving forces expediting the transformation of the self, including the societal changes occurring since the start of the 20th century and the accompanying infrastructures. The salient yet minimized hierarchical relationships in our society are epitomized through hedonism and materialism, fostering unyielding competition.

Simultaneously, our society's distribution of labor causes individuals to depend on others. These factors beget a society in which cooperation and competition coincide, reinforcing the development of individuals with narcissistic, borderline personalities. The ubiquitous threats to our obtained superficial symbols of wealth are without clarity.

This has contributed toward the severe compromise of our institutions (e.g. the family, education). Despite being initially written in the late 1970's the concepts in this book can be applied to today's society. The Culture of Narcissism is definitely an eye-opener.

K.A.Goldberg (Chicago)

 Powerful Indictment of U.S. Culture, June 17, 2008

Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) published this cynical indictment of U.S. culture in the late 1970's, and many say its message is just as true today. The author attacks consumerism and selfishness, particularly among those baby boomers from the so-called Me Generation that had known only post-war prosperity.

Professor Lasch is rightly bothered by family breakup, a lack of committment, youth cultism, and celebrity worship, while many decry the sterile, car-dependent-suburban-strip-mall materialism that's taken hold. The author largely blames the left for this cultural downfall, which is ironic. Why?

A year after this book arrived Reaganism came in, with its great emphasis on materialism and individualism, plus near-contempt for the downtrodden and efforts to help them.

The author should have credit those baby boomers that struggled for civil rights or volunteered for the military or peace corps. Additionally, his fast-paced style is a bit unclear; our college class found his prose confusing. Still, this is a powerful indictment, and one can only guess how Lasch would view contemporary symmbols like Jerry Springer, Paris Hilton, and athletes on steroids.