Super Power Vulnerability
Americans As Survivors
Fluid World Control

excerpted from the book

Super Power Syndrome

America's Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World

by Robert J. Lifton

Thunder's Mouth Press / Nation Books, 2003. paper


American exceptionalism has often had the overall psychological quality of a sense of ourselves as a blessed people, immune from the defeats and sufferings of others. But underneath ... was a deep-seated if hidden sense of vulnerability.

At the heart of the superpower syndrome ... is the need to eliminate a vulnerability that, as the antithesis of omnipotence, contains the basic contradiction of the syndrome. For vulnerability can never be eliminated, either by a nation or an individual. In seeking its elimination, the superpower finds itself on a psychological treadmill. The idea of vulnerability is intolerable, the fact of it irrefutable. One solution is to maintain an illusion of invulnerability. But the superpower then runs the danger of taking increasingly draconian actions to sustain that illusion. For to do otherwise would be to surrender the cherished status: superpower.

Other nations have experiences in the world that render them and their citizens all too aware of the essential vulnerability of life on earth. They also may be influenced by religious and cultural traditions (far weaker in the United States) that emphasize vulnerability as an aspect of human mortality. No such reality can be accepted by those clinging to a sense of omnipotence.

At issue is the experience of death anxiety, which is the strongest manifestation of vulnerability. Such a deep-seated sense of vulnerability can sometimes be acknowledged by the ordinary citizens of a superpower, or even at times by its leaders, who may admit, for instance, that there is no guaranteed defense against terrorist acts. But those leaders nonetheless remain committed to eliminating precisely that vulnerability-committed, that is, to the illusory goal of invulnerability. When that goal is repeatedly undermined-whether by large-scale terrorist acts like 9/11, or as at present by militant resistance to American hegemony in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East-both the superpower and the world it acts upon may become dangerously destabilized.


Nuclear weapons lie at the core of superpower status. Large stockpiles of such weaponry-and the American arsenal contains about 10,000 nuclear warheads-provide an apocalyptic dimension to projections of force and threatened destruction. A superpower must not only be dominant in the nuclear arena but such dominance becomes a focal aspect of its self-definition.

That kind of weapons-centered self-definition has been embraced more single-mindedly by George W. Bush than by any previous American president. Every nuclear-age president, beginning with Harry Truman, has struggled with the painful contradiction that surrounds nuclear weapons. On the one hand, each president on some occasion affirmed America's right to use them-that is, to treat them as if they were ordinary weapons should such use be judged necessary for the national interest; hence no American administration has been willing to sign a no first-use agreement. On the other hand, each president has also expressed the view that these weapons are so destructive, so grotesque in their human effects, that they should in fact be considered unusable.

This latter stance has represented at least a partial taboo, a sense that there is a barrier between the most destructive "conventional weapons" and nuclear devices, a barrier that should not be crossed. However partial, that taboo has had enormous value in suggesting that, with nuclear weapons, one is dealing with a special category of infinite destruction. It is a taboo that has-if in a few cases barely-held since the American atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

But President Bush and his advisers have expressed no such ambivalence about the weapons. His administration's nuclearism has been overt and unfettered. His nuclear strategists have sought to discover ever more creative uses for the weapons. For instance, in their Nuclear Posture Review of December 2001, they spoke of developing small nuclear warheads called "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators" (also known as "bunker busters") for potential use against North Korea's underground caves. And more recently the administration has contested a ban on the use of low-yield nuclear weapons that had been in effect since 1993, and encouraged American nuclear scientists to explore new generations of such weaponry whose lower yield would make them more usable. They have also made plans for lofting nuclear and other advanced weaponry into the last demilitarized "frontier," that of space, and have indicated that they are eager to resume the underground nuclear testing that has been in abeyance since 1992.

The administration has, in fact, managed to give nuclear weapons increasing value globally as the currency of power; its actions in the Middle East and East Asia have provoked Iran and North Korea to accelerate their own nuclear programs and could, by a kind of domino effect, contribute to the nuclear arming of other countries, including Japan. This unapologetic nuclearism has undoubtedly been a way of countering the superpower fear of vulnerability, and nowhere is that vulnerability more intolerable than in association with others' nuclear weapons.

The pattern is ominous because nuclear proliferation, including the phenomenon of trickle-down nuclearism, is a reality of the post-Cold War "second nuclear age." The Bush administration has been aware of this danger, but tends to focus on a policy of "counter-proliferation," which includes the possibility of military attacks on countries that possess or are in the process of acquiring the weapons and are deemed unstable or antagonistic to the United States.

... the only superpower finds it difficult to tolerate anyone else possessing such weapons, and no less difficult to imagine a world in which it might surrender its own nuclear arsenal. As one American official was quoted as saying, when asked about proliferation, "My ideal for the perfect number of nuclear-weapons states is one."

Superpower nuclearism and "counter-proliferation," are, not surprisingly, likely to have psychological and political effects quite different from those intended. Smaller nations at odds with the United States, becoming painfully aware of their own vulnerability and their potential humiliation in the face of a possible attack, are then drawn to their own version of nuclearism-to nuclear magic-as a source of power and pride. And they can point to evidence for doing so: Iraq, lacking a nuclear program, was invaded; North Korea, with a relatively advanced one, was not. Of course, such an approach could also hasten an American attack.

Nuclearism is contagious, and the supernatural power it seems to bestow is inseparable from a deepening fear of vulnerability. During the Cold War, this paradox of supernatural power and profound vulnerability was the crux of the interaction between the United States and the Soviet Union. America's ever newer generations of nuclear weapons and strategies made the Soviets feel sufficiently vulnerable to counteract them with no less threatening stockpiles and strategies, which in turn intensified American feelings of vulnerability, which led to further stockpiling and more aggressive strategies until the arsenals of the two superpowers reached absurd levels, quite capable of destroying planet Earth and more.

Now, with just one superpower but many more actual or aspiring nuclear nations, the process has become much more amorphous and considerably less manageable. Intolerant of its own vulnerability, and dismissive of diplomatic (, arms-control approaches, the Bush administration is now on the lookout everywhere for weapons of mass destruction-especially those actually or potentially in the hands of unfriendly nations or terrorist groups. Such weapons may be manufactured, purchased, or stolen; or low-tech forms of attack may be mounted that are aimed specifically at the superpower's own nuclear weapons and energy installations. The superpower, trapped in its syndrome, finds itself with little recourse but the endless use of force.

Unmitigated nuclearism combined with a quest for exclusive control of the nuclear arena can only enhance the weapons' standing as a currency of power everywhere, creating a vicious circle of action and reaction from which there appears to be no exit. The seemingly invincible nation can never rest, facing as it does an ever-widening, ever-escalating arena of threats, which span the world and could destroy it. More than any other nation, the superpower is psychologically bedeviled by vulnerability.


Americans As Survivors


The Bush administration had been suspicious toward much of the world long before 9/11. Its sense of superpower prerogative, along with a neoconservative/nationalist hostility toward international institutions and any constraints they might impose on it, were much in evidence in its rejection of treaties placing controls on global warming, on nuclear testing, and on biological weaponry. But 9/11 initiated a process in which that suspiciousness was greatly intensified, became fixed, and has had extraordinary consequences in the world.

One need only look at the remarkable dissipation of the worldwide sympathy for the United States. At the moment of 9/11, the outpouring of goodwill was almost universal: not from only allies and friends in Europe and Asia like Great Britain, Germany, France, Japan, and

South Korea, but from China, Russia, and much of the Middle East. President Mohammad Khatami of Iran expressed "deep regret and sympathy with the victims"; President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was one of the first to denounce the attacks (saying they were as bad as the attacks Israel had carried out against the Palestinians); and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt called the attacks "horrible and unimaginable," pledging help in tracking down those responsible (though he added that Israel's actions in the Middle East created "an atmosphere that is encouraging terrorism"). Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, also expressed strong sympathy and suggested that the world organization mount a broadly shared effort at combating world terrorism.

Our decision to reject any such international approach, and choose instead a consistently unilateral war on terrorism, was influenced by survivor suspiciousness toward those who offer help and perception of help as weakness, particularly anathema for a humiliated superpower. The resulting global shift from profound sympathy to fearful antagonism has surely been one of the most far-reaching and dramatic psychological and political turnabouts ever recorded. By early 2003, polls taken in various parts of the world suggested that America was increasingly seen as the most dangerous of all countries. On February 15, 2003, an estimated ten million or more people marched in the streets of 600 cities to protest the forthcoming invasion of Iraq.

This remarkable reversal in world sentiment resulted from our insistent unilateralism. Our aggrieved survivor emotions exacerbated our suspiciousness toward the world in general, magnifying our disinclination toward sharing the earth's problems.


Most important-and dangerous-has been George W. Bush's sense of being on a survivor mission. He has repeatedly made it clear that September 11 provided him with his life's meaning-as the American president who triumphs over terrorism-and he adopted the war on terrorism as the defining principle of his presidency. The world's most prominent survivor had found his mission.

Prior to 9/11 Bush's presidency was considered lackluster. According to David Frum, the former White House speechwriter, he was devoid of "a big organizing idea" and "was encountering heavy criticism in connection with his economic policies, and was vague about his political vision." He seemed to spend less time working than did most presidents, and to be unable to find a clear personal or public focus.

With 9/11, everything fell into place for him. He became a confident "wartime president." He and his speechwriters were unfortunately accurate in their initial labeling of his approach to terrorism as a "crusade." That word suggests a Christian holy war (deriving as it does from the Latin crux, or cross), which is the kind of mission the president seems to have imagined himself on. Of course, the word had to be quickly abandoned because it was too suggestive of the specific Christian holy wars against Muslims, but the idea of a sacred mission became inseparable from his sense of a survivor's debt to the dead and his perceived responsibility to his country and his deity. Given who he was, this survivor mission was inevitably absorbed into the superpower syndrome. Superpower omnipotence became inseparable from "routing out" all terrorists. The survivor mission became cosmic and, like the overall syndrome, immersed in illusion.

This was by no means the only form of survivor mission possible for an American president or the American people. Combating terrorism had to be part of a survivor response, but the task could have been undertaken with greater restraint in the use of force, and with a focus from the very beginning on international cooperation. The survivor mission embarked on by Bush and his advisers strongly affected the meaning structures of Americans in general. While many have drawn more reflective and nuanced meanings from 9/11, there has been little encouragement from above for any deviance from the narrowly grandiose presidential survivor mission.

One must add that President Bush and those around him sometimes waver in their violent transformation of survivor emotions and show signs of stepping back and exercising restraint. Pragmatic pressures affect any presidency, in this case coming from people and nations throughout the world as well as from an ambivalent American public. But when this occurs, these leaders give little indication that the restraint is anything other than a temporary measure. They remain committed to a prior vision of American world dominance, now energized and in their eyes legitimated by their 9/11 survivor mission.




The invasion of Iraq was a continuation of the American military apocalyptic: of destroying what is deemed necessary for the reshaping of a designated part of the world. The extremity of the project and the utopian dreams of global domination that lay beneath it were hidden behind administration assertions about the need for disarmament, regime change, and democratization. Inevitably, the war-fighting, which was the destructive phase, was much more efficient than what columnist William P. Pfaff called the "planned (or as it seems, largely unplanned) pacification and reconstruction" of Iraq that followed. But as he went on to say, "The moment of victory has been seized to start reshaping the Middle East." This attempted reshaping of the whole region according to an American world vision has already involved strong pressures on Syria, Lebanon, and Iran, aimed minimally at intimidation and the curbing of possible terrorist or simply unfriendly activities, and maximally at regime change, possibly through invasion. It has also involved setting up a string of bases in areas formerly controlled by the Soviet Union in Central Asia as well as Eastern Europe.

Included as well is a policy of "strip[ping] from the United Nations its political functions," so that there will be no future international restraints on American power. Instead the Bush administration seeks "democratic coalitions" under its own control in every region, thereby creating "a world run by the United States, backed by as many states as will sign on to support it." Hence the invasion of Iraq, as Jay Bookman, columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution put it, was "intended to mark the official emergence of the United States as a full-fledged global empire, seizing sole responsibility and authority as planetary policeman."


But this "global empire" does not follow previous imperial models, say, of the British empire from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. There is no American plan for leaving elaborate bureaucracies in every country we dominate. While all previous empires claimed some kind of noble mission, the new American mission contains a particularly fervent rendering of Wilsonian altruism. The National Security Strategy statement that the administration released in September 2002 speaks grandly of the American intention "to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe" and "to help make the world not just safer but better."

At the same time it makes clear that, into the foreseeable future, America intends to hold absolute military dominance-one might say omnipotence-on our planet: "The United States," as the National Security Strategy puts it, "must and will maintain the capability to defeat any attempt by an enemy-whether state or non-state actor-to impose its will on the United States, our allies, or our friends. We will maintain the forces sufficient to support our obligations, and to defend freedom. Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." Bookman concurs with many observers in describing this strategy as "a plan for permanent US military and economic domination of every region of the globe."

The Bush administration's projection of American power extends not only over planet Earth, but through the militarization of space, over the heavens as well. Its strategists dream of deciding the outcome of significant world events everywhere. We may call this an empire of fluid world control, and theirs is nothing less than an inclusive claim to the ownership of history. It is a claim never made before because never before has technology permitted the imagining of such an enterprise, however illusory, on the part of a head of state and his inner circle.

The administration's radicalism takes the form of aggressively remaking the world in an American image. Our unprecedented world dominance, made possible by our unique military technology, becomes our means of doing so.

The National Security Strategy is in fact a statement of American susceptibility to the lure of the infinite-to a vision of achieving total sway over human endeavors. It represents a kind of omega point of superpower omnipotence and megalomania.

This claim on infinity inevitably turns Orwellian, as James Carroll warns: "Defense becomes offense, the protection of your children becomes the murder of another's, his threat becomes your preemption. You kill to stop the killing. Then you wonder, Are you the victim, or the slayer? But you are both."

Yet a sense of megalomania and omnipotence, whether in an individual or a superpower, must sooner or later lead not to glory but collapse. The ownership of history is a fantasy in the extreme. Infinite power and control is a temptation that is as self-destructive as it is dazzling-still another version of the ownership of death.

The world's only superpower has become a target not just because it is so dominant but because its recent policies and attitudes, emerging from superpower syndrome, have antagonized just about everyone. Its unrealizable omnipotence has caused its leaders to embark on an aggressive quest for absolute security via domination ...

Henry Kissinger

... "the desire of one power for absolute security means absolute insecurity for all the others."

[The super power syndrome] takes shape around a bizarre American collective mindset that extends our very real military power into a fantasy of cosmic control, a mindset all too readily tempted by an apocalyptic mission. The symptoms are of a piece, each consistent with the larger syndrome: unilateralism in all-important decisions, including those relating to war-making; the use of high technology to secure the ownership of death and of history; a sense of entitlement concerning the right to identify and destroy all those considered to be terrorists or friends of terrorists, while spreading "freedom" and virtues seen as preeminently ours throughout the world; the right to decide who may possess weapons of mass destruction and who may not, and to take military action, using nuclear weapons if necessary, against any nation that has them or is thought to be manufacturing them; and underlying these symptoms, a righteous vision of ridding the world of evil and purifying it spiritually and politically.

We are talking about a serious syndrome, one that is profoundly harmful, even fatal, to the national body it inhabits as well as to the world in which that body lives.

Super Power Syndrome

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