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
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
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
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 SUSPICIOU5 GIANT
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
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
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
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.
FLUID WORLD CONTROL
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."
THE OWNERSHIP OF HISTORY
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
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
... "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
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.