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Blinded by strategic narcissism, neocon grandiosity hastens the fall of the West's unipolar order.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is one of several pathological conditions on the Cluster B spectrum. Narcissists have an exalted notion of self that is rarely grounded in reality. Narcissists despise boundaries and when their internal grandiose delusions conflict with the outside world of reality, rage builds to the point of violent outbursts: deep-sea pipelines are in danger. Facing setbacks and complexities in life, narcissists will respond with delusions such as, “we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." The Cluster-B Team is the US neoconservative foreign policy establishment, whose strategic narcissism is accelerating the collapse of the US-led unipolar order.
Strategic narcissism, according to former Trump National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, is to blame for recent US foreign policy failures:
Strategic narcissism is our tendency to define the world only in relation to us and therefore to assume that whatever we do will be decided by our desires and outcomes. Strategic narcissism is flawed because it doesn’t take into consideration the agency, influence, and the authorship over the future that others have. Because strategic narcissism doesn't consider that agency, we tend to engage in optimism bias, wishful thinking and ultimately self-delusion. We develop policies and strategies based on preferences rather than what the situation demands.
Narcissism is complicated. In his book, Battlefields, McMaster avoids exploring it in much detail. In popular usage, “narcissist” is simply a pejorative, deployed to signify a selfish person. Discerning the essence of narcissism lifts petty name-calling to incisive analysis. Both narcissism and its partner empathy have two forms. Grasping these distinctions opens the gateway to mastering both group and cultural narcissism. Ascending to the realm of strategic narcissism then reveals the true pathology of the Cluster-B Team.
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As French psychoanalyst Bela Grunberger writes, “the source of all the various forms of narcissism,” is the destruction of the prenatal state of bliss. Life in the womb is paradise, the baby and mother are one—a unit—a monad. There are no boundaries between them. All foetal desires are instantly met. The baby-mother monad is whole, it lacks nothing. At birth the baby is “traumatically expelled” from this prenatal Garden of Eden, whose perfection “he never ceases longing to recapture.”
Once ejected from the womb, a child eventually realizes his mother is no longer a part of him—she is a separate object. Boundaries emerge between the two that never existed in the prenatal monad. Normally as time moves forward, the baby seeks and finds gratification from his mother, who in turn as a “good enough mother” communicates her own gratification back through facial expressions. This attachment allows the baby to perceive the wider world of objects as an array of possibilities. He learns to extract his needs from them. And finally, to close the circle, one day the toddler glances into a mirror and is astonished to recognize from the image staring back, that he himself is also an object.
As the infant’s world divides into self and others, the flow of the baby’s desires also bifurcate. A portion of desire flows inward and creates an ego. This is self-love, or in psychological terminology, primary narcissism. The remaining desires flow outward, projected towards the world of objects. A child demanding a toy from a display is driven in part by an inward flow of entitled self-love. A corresponding outward flow of desire seeks to reap the satisfaction immanent within the toy. The child learns the cognitive skills to extract joy from the object and in turn emotes a sort of love outward, mimicking the cycle of attachment he learned from his mother.
This ego-object interaction is a “normal” or healthy process of a child transitioning from the sacred realm of pure satisfaction within the womb to the profane world of exchanging partial joy with objects. As the child blossoms into adulthood, an unconscious drive to restore that long-lost prenatal monad remains. But the best a well-adjusted adult can hope to achieve is “good enough wholeness” where her basic needs—and some of her wants—are met.
Pathological narcissism occurs in a traumatized or overly-exalted child. Too low or too high a supply of gratification hinders the formation of mother-infant attachment. The mother may not be able to provide the emotional or bodily care the infant requires. Or the mother may go to the other extreme and smother the baby with excessive attention. In either case, the “not good enough mother’s” failure to form a two-way attachment leads the infant to reject the world of objects and to harken back to the golden age of the womb.
Unable to extract deep satisfaction from objects, the child seeks narcissistic gratification by recreating prenatal omniscient feelings. Instead of searching emotional attachment by projecting desire flows outward, the child diverts these flows inward. Internal overflows create an interior fantasy world and stimulate satisfaction. These delusions of grandeur shield the child from the harsh reality of the exterior world.
A father may set standards of achievement and condition his love upon the child reaching these heights. A child may internalize these visions and through hard work reach his father’s goals. Although the child succeeds in turning his father’s lofty images of him into concrete reality, no emotional love attachment has been made in the process.
As the child becomes an adult, his abundance of self-love hinders any outward emotionally empathetic attachment. The adult narcissist compensates with an overabundance of cognitive empathy—the ability to manipulate and extract instrumental use-value from outside objects. But in a repeat of the failure to attach with his mother, no two-way emotional gratification chain is ever established with these objects.
The imaginary worlds devised by the narcissist to mediate against reality are not enough. His unconscious mind is well aware of the discrepancies and the tricks he plays. The narcissist resorts to outbursts of rage to keep such doubts at bay. These pathological imbalances place him on the Cluster-B spectrum.
The concept of a Cluster-B Team does not entail the individual members suffering from personality disorders. Rather, it is a collective effort to repel reality in favour of a long-lost golden age.
Sigmund Freud, in his 1921 essay, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, presented the psychology of group narcissism. A group’s members are held together by bonds of emotional empathy. Freud labels these bonds “libidinal,” which includes sexual love at the core, as well as “love for parents and children, friendship, and love for humanity in general, and also devotion to concrete objects and to abstract ideas.” As the group bonds take hold, “an individual gives up his distinctiveness and lets its other members influence him by suggestion.” As the group’s libidinal bonds strengthen, each member “feels the need to be in harmony with” the group “rather than in opposition.”
Freud construes two archetypical groups: an army and a church. More useful metaphors are a mob and a cabal. The key distinction is that a mob is devoted to a charismatic leader while a leaderless cabal coalesces around a universalist metaphysical idea. A mob tends to be “primitive” while cabal members are more cognitively keen. The emotional bonds of both groups are based on horizontal and vertical flows of libidinal energy. Horizontal bonds form a network linking individual members to each other, while vertical bonds tether each member to the mob’s surrogate father or to the cabal’s ideology.
Freud sets a general rule that as a group member’s emotional investment intensifies, a corresponding drop in cognitive ability follows. Outside of a group situation, an individual must be in touch with reality to obtain and exchange love. In a group it’s the opposite. Receiving the group’s satisfying libidinal flows requires a member to reject her own ideas and instincts. Salvific world-views, radiating out from a leader or ideology, leave no space for individuality.
Freud emphasised that a negative father-figure or an anti-ideology can also emotionally bind a mob or cabal in hatred. In a modern two-party system, each mob positively connects with their leader and are repelled by the opposing mob’s antichrist. An ideology will signify either good or evil depending on each cabal’s point of view.
Humans are social animals and so gathering into groups is natural. Crossing the Rubicon of pathology happens when the emotional intensity of the group compels reality to be pushed aside. Group narcissism replaces the real with the spurious. Receding from the glare of reality, salvation is found in a cave of grandiose omnipotence.
In the 1970’s psychoanalysts, who learned their craft reading Freud’s case histories, observed their contemporary patients suffering from noticeably different symptoms. From Christopher Lasch’s, The Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979:
Psychoanalysis, a therapy that grew out of experience with severely repressed and morally rigid individuals who needed to come to terms with a rigorous inner "censor, " today finds itself confronted more and more often with a "chaotic and impulse-ridden character." It must deal with patients who "act out" their conflicts instead of repressing or sublimating them. These patients, though often ingratiating, tend to cultivate a protective shallowness in emotional relations. (p. 37)
Lasch saw cultural narcissism first and foremost as a rage-suppression mechanism:
A child who feels so gravely threatened by his own aggressive feelings (projected onto others and then internalized again as inner "monsters") attempts to compensate himself for his experiences of rage and envy with fantasies of wealth, beauty, and omnipotence. (p. 39)
Cultural narcissism was stoked through the degradation of traditional family structures combined with consumer capitalism’s need to create free-wheeling spenders:
According to Joel Kovel, the stimulation of infantile cravings by advertising, the usurpation of parental authority by the media and the school, and the rationalization of inner life accompanied by the false promise of personal fulfilment, have created a new type of " social individual." "The result is not the classical neuroses where an infantile impulse is suppressed by patriarchal authority, but a modern version in which impulse is stimulated, perverted and given neither an adequate object upon which to satisfy itself nor coherent forms of control. (p. 43)
The cure for the early 20th century’s repressive emotional constipation was a liberating cultural laxative that ended up provoking a wider and more disturbing psychic diarrhoea in modern society.
Another commentator on cultural narcissism was Hans Morgenthau who served as FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury during WW2. Notwithstanding being in charge of the nation’s finances, he played a surprisingly sweeping role in foreign policy. He’s best known for his Morgenthau Plan, a permanent solution to the German Question through post-war deindustrialization and turning mystic Teutonic lands into so many fragmented potato patches. His plan was executed for only two years before wiser heads realized that the US needed the Marshall Plan to create economically thriving European partners who would serve as a bulkhead against Soviet expansion. Some argue that the recent US destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines was a return at least in spirit to the Morgenthau Plan.
Morganthau was a prescient observer of US society and saw already in 1975 the trend of declining Western power that is so obvious today:
It is one of the great ironies of contemporary history that the moral and material decline of the West has in good measure been accomplished through the moral and material triumphs of the West.
Morganthau co-authored with Ethel Person in 1978 an essay entitled, The Roots of Narcissism. It was cited by McMaster as inspiring his strategic narcissism concept. In it Morgenthau argues that cultural narcissism arises as a reaction against man’s increasing spiritual alienation:
The rise of narcissism cannot be understood without taking into consideration the human dilemma to which narcissism pretends to offer a solution. That condition is alienation. Modern man is beset by two manifestations of alienation, one existential, which all human beings at all times experience, and the other historic, to which contemporary narcissism is a response. Man’s existential dilemma, one which transcends time and place, is the need to find meaning in a life that is finite, while human aspiration and human imagination are not. The acuteness of the dilemma does vary with time and place.
To Morgenthau this alienation is less sharply felt in traditional societies where “the individual feels he fills a predetermined place in a universe that makes sense.” The problem is most acute in the wealthy West, where “the contemporary preoccupation with one’s individuality, what we might call a sense of self” is a barren replacement for premodern certainty.
As insecurity spread during the early modern era, external order was sought through nationalism. Capitalism rationalized and secularized society, freeing the individual from the bonds of religion. But its cyclical crises exposed vulnerabilities. In response to increasing instability, mass emotional outbursts and aggressive nationalism sought in vain to transcend the chaos:
As western society became ever more unstable, the sense of insecurity deepened and the emotional attachment to the nation as the symbol substitute larger meaning became even stronger. With the world wars, revolutions, concentrations of economic, political, and military power, and economic crises of the 20th century, nationalism was carried forward with a fervor of a secular religion. Contests for power took on the ideological aspects of struggles between good and evil. Foreign policies transformed themselves into sacred missions. Wars were fought as crusades, for the purpose of bringing their true political religion to the rest of the world.
Regression to the WW2 womb
The WW2 battles for good and evil that Morgenthau describes continued at a much lower intensity in the decades that followed. With the exception of Vietnam, the Cold War checked the US tendency towards an overly ambitious foreign policy. The struggle ended in victory for the good guys as the Soviet Union crumbled. America’s unipolar moment had arrived. Adventures in Iraq, Somalia, and Yugoslavia followed. For better or worse, these military operations fall into the category of national primary narcissism, in other words, the actions that a healthy unipolar power would undertake while performing its duties as global manager.
The trauma that turned the US foreign policy inward was the double castration of 9/11. Emasculated of her dual phalluses by external forces, the United States had emotionally pivoted from global manager to global Messiah before the fires in Manhattan had been extinguished. Free from the constraint of peers, the US opted for a fantasy return to the infantile omnipotence of the WW2 womb. Redemption demanded that democracy be spread to the region that threatened the virality of the United States. An attached, managerial attitude towards the globe was no longer on the agenda. An impotent narcissistic rage would wash over the Middle East.
As a point of comparison, the 1991 Iraq invasion respected boundaries and was measured in both knowing American capacities and sensing Iraq’s reaction to being engulfed by the US. In contrast, the second Iraq invasion was pathologically narcissistic in seeking to repeat the total US victories and occupations of Japan and West Germany. It started with maniacally false gaslighting and smear campaigns about WMD’s. Psychologically the US sought to create a boundary-less monad with Iraq in a grandiose quest to merge it to US ways, albeit with Islamic characteristics. The narcissistic rage that Lasch’s work raises was on full display as Tom Friedman, a spokesman for the neocon Cluster-B Team, gave this justification for the war in May of 2003:
What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying which part of this sentence don’t you understand. You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this [terrorism] bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go, well suck on this"
The idea of the Iraq War as a symbolic reattach-phallus operation went beyond mere words. The persistent cases of sexual assault of male Iraqi prisoners unmasks the libidinal drive to restore an American potency that had long ago began to wane. The project to reassert US global virality was doomed from the start, since the entire world grasped that Iraq was an innocent scapegoat for Saudi Arabian actions.
Cognitive empathy—both self-knowledge combined with adversary-insight—breeds success in the world of strategy. Sun Tzu recognized 2500 years ago that cognitive empathy determines the outcomes of battles:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
It’s self-evident that any individual political leader who clambers her way to peak power will score just as high on narcissism as she will low on emotional empathy. Even residual levels of emotional empathy in a budding politician are grounds for dismissal. A successful individual’s political career is driven by narcissism, but tempered by cold, calculating cognitive empathy. Mastering her trade entails cynically donning the mask of emotional empathy to better further her clients’ desires.
However, in group narcissism, upon joining an ideological cabal, an individual must leave her unique narcissistic and/or empathetic qualities at the door. The collective demands an empty vessel to fully imbibe and then regurgitate the group’s high-octane delusions.
As implied in the Morgenthau essay, ethnocentrism is also form of collective narcissism. “Ethno” in this case should be read not as a folk but as a group sharing a common cultural framework. Human nature fates such groups towards being culture-bound. As Kenneth Booth, in his 1979 book Strategy and Ethnocentrism explains:
Being culture-bound refers to the inability of an individual or group to see the world through the eyes of a different national or ethnic group: it is the inability to put aside one's own cultural attitudes and imaginatively recreate the world from the perspective of those belonging to a different group. This means that it is almost impossible to empathise with foreigners. In this sense, again, ethnocentrism is a virtually universal phenomenon. (p. 15)
Most people are never required to rise above ethnocentrism. For Booth, whose writings are aimed at strategists, the antidote to chauvinistic group narcissism is cultural relativism. The strategist must achieve the difficult task of understanding the other through the other’s eyes—to grasp the other’s aspirations, capabilities and fears. But given our own unconscious drives, self-knowledge is at best precarious. Any knowledge of another people or culture will only be partial. But the stakes are high and success can bring rich rewards:
To 'know the enemy' has always been a cardinal tenet of strategy. If this goal is to be achieved in the future with more regularity than it has been achieved in the past, then cultural relativism should take its place in the strategist's lexicon. Knowing the enemy is the bedrock of the business of strategy: strategic theories, in comparison, are second order problems. To concentrate on doctrines before enemies is to put the theoretical cart before the actual horse - a double error (p. 16)
The US doesn’t just use its own cultural frame-of-references when gazing down upon the rest of the world. Through its Hollywood culture machine, working in tandem with her drama-filled political spectacles, the US seduces others to see their own world through the American point of view. As cable news globally broadcasts the latest outrageous ups and downs in the never-ending American morality play, the rest of the world is invited to become emotionally invested by internalizing the conflict and joining the right side. They are urged to take part as the righteous science/democracy mob slays the repellent authoritarian evil that must at all costs be extinguished. Athletes in far away lands “take a knee” to pledge fealty to American culture.
Despite these occasional media successes, they are not enough. A foreign policy propelled by a regression to the WW2 golden age—to the national version of infantile omnipotence—blinds its leaders to America’s vulnerabilities. Messianic rage, adrift from any countervailing strategic empathy, propels careening US foreign policy self-harm such as the recent suicide sanctions. Since the neoconservative wing of US foreign policy pushed aside the realists after 9/11, a lack of self-awareness and any conception of adversarial capabilities has plagued American action. These errors are camouflaged by “information warfare” (media gaslighting) as the foreign policy cabal unite in their groupthink-induced ignorance and attempt to obscure their declining global fortunes.
Some observers may counter that the US, like a movie star at her peak, is that rare case of a grandiose narcissist being correct in her self-assessments. They argue that the palpable nobility of the US can only be expressed through what appears to lesser beings as narcissism. However tenable this notion may have been in the past, it becomes more dubious each day as US-led unipolarity slowly crumbles under a calm and targeted attack by a China-Russia-led multipolar Primal Horde.
Despite daily trauma that could provoke its rise, developing nations don’t have the luxury of employing blind narcissistic strategies if they intend on thriving. Peripheral nations must develop cognitive empathy towards the West if they ever intend to rise out of the global power heap’s squalor basement. On the other hand, too much emotional empathy towards a great power leads to exploitation. For a peripheral country to climb its way up the ladder, it must form a leadership group that balances their healthy narcissistic drive to better themselves with the cold reality-check of deep strategic empathy.
The Cold War / Unipolar transformation from a healthy primary narcissism towards a pathological one is demonstrated in the American relationship with Germany. During the Cold War, after the spiteful Morgenthau Plan had been shelved, the US pursued building a prosperous Europe as a bulwark against the then ascendant Marxist alternative. But the fall of the Berlin Wall and especially 9/11 triggered in the US a geopolitical insecurity-complex about getting kicked off the world-Island, US policy turned pathological. The solution was to cling on to Eurasia through the inducement of co-dependency in Europe
We have already seen two positions on the narcissism spectrum. At the higher-end is a pathological surplus of self-love combined with a lack of emotional empathy. The middle position features a healthy balance of self-love and emotional empathy. On the lower-end, there is a third position. Co-dependency is a manifestation of insufficient self-love. This lack is compensated for by an overabundance of emotional empathy. Sufferers of co-dependency are known as “empaths.”
Empaths are empty emotional vessels floating aimlessly in life seeking a narcissistic soulmate to fill their void. The empath tragically misrecognizes as loving emotional empathy her narc’s abundant levels of manipulative cognitive empathy. Nevertheless, once bonded, the empath begins to “mirror” her narcissist. Their keen social antennae aid and abet this metamorphosis. Once the narc / empath monad is unified, the empath loses all individuality and devolves into a trusty “appliance,” serving her grandiose soulmate’s every need. Whether between individuals or nations, these relationships tend to be dysfunctional and abusive. In the commotion of the orgiastic effervescence that submission brings, the empath loses any notion of self-preservation. Service to this dominating master often entails enduring rage-induced attacks on critical energy infrastructure projects.
Morgenthau’s 1978 essay closes with surprising clairvoyance about the rise of neoconservatives:
For what we have seen in western civilization at present is an attempt; likely to be ephemeral, to preserve a modicum of order, trying to save the enfeebled values of an order that has lost its plausibility. Many of the intellectuals who thought they had found a new meaningful order in Marxism, have turned back as neoconservatives toward the decaying order whose decay raised the issue of narcissism in the first place.
As Marxism 1.0 began to rot in the Soviet Union, a portion of the first generation of neoconservative intellectuals rejected their youthful Trotskyism. Seeking a similar all-encompassing ideology, they jumped onto the USA bandwagon and stoked its latent Messianic redeemer nation tendencies. Through a sort of inverted-Trotskyism, they launched a “permanent revolution” for American global dominance. Farsighted observers like Morgenthau saw the unfolding tragedy already in the ‘70’s. To paraphrase him: it will be one of the great ironies of contemporary history that the decline of the West has in good measure been accomplished through the rise of Marxism 2.0 in China.
Had these pioneering neocons not switched sides several generations ago, today their intellectual progeny might be tasting the fruits of victory in Beijing. Or, conversely, had the nascent Cluster-B Team only stayed Marxist, the US would not be in a terminal state of decline.
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