Narcissistic Polity Disorder: Treating the Advanced Case

Last week, during one of the back-to-back snowstorms nature has inflicted on New England in much the manner of a chain smoker lighting one cigarette from the end of another, a snow plow backed into my fence, knocked a section of it over and slunk off like a shame-faced thief into the night. Something similar happens when a feckless American foreign policy invites aggression.

Or, OK, not, but don’t tell Senator Lindsey Graham, for whom no bad thing happens without a vacuum of American leadership being to blame. It is perhaps an overstatement regarding overstatement to award anyone the distinction of having made the single most inane remark on the situation in Ukraine, but Graham—whose thumbs need to be separated from his Twitter account—has made a compelling case. “It started,” he tweeted—“with Benghazi. When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression.”

This is a textbook and, for Graham’s sake, distressing because perhaps incurable case of narcissistic polity disorder, a nation’s vain belief that anything that happens in the world is a reflection on itself. Coup in Egypt? Lack of American leadership. Russian occupation of Crimea? The same—never mind that massive quantities of Russian natural gas flow in pipelines across Ukraine, to say nothing of ethnic disputes that predate the American republic, both of which might, perish the thought, give Vladimir Putin motives of his own that do not involve reacting to the United States.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamGraham is not alone in this variation on the blame-America-first theme. His Senate compatriot John McCain recently assigned responsibility for events in Ukraine to a “feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in American strength anymore.” Of course, neither, apparently, does McCain, who moments earlier said himself that there was no viable military option available in Crimea, which did not deter him from proceeding to link the events in Ukraine to America’s failure to stop atrocities in Syria (how?) and (no, seriously) the stolen 2009 election in Tehran.

According to this view, Putin, sitting in the Kremlin contemplating his options, was not thinking of his natural gas. He was not thinking of his country’s historic ambitions. He was not thinking of the ethnic Russians who populate the Crimean peninsula. He was thinking about—wait for it—us. It is the delusion of those who insist on interpreting events that have nothing to do with them as personal insults. Psychiatrists call this narcissism, and the problem with treating it is the near incapacity of those who suffer from the disorder to see it in themselves.

We may leave to one side, for the moment, the crushing arrogance of this attitude, which denies to other nations the simple entitlement to homegrown interests save those that place them in the American orbit. (Proverbial shoe, other foot: Did the United States invade Iraq because of a failure of Russian or Chinese resolve? Please. And, incidentally, was there something we could do about the Iranian election in 2009? Double-please.)

Never mind, too, its patent absurdity: Does anyone seriously believe a larger American military or more blustery American rhetoric would have deterred Putin, who knows full well we have neither the capacity nor the will to use the former? The prudent counsel in Texas, where from your correspondent hails, is not to wave a gun one doesn’t intend to shoot: bad for credibility.

The more serious point is how grossly disorienting narcissistic polity disorder can be—not merely in foreign policy, in which it demands boots on every ground (has it occurred to McCain, by the way, that bogging ourselves down in Syria would have diminished the credibility of any American deterrent against Russia?)—but in constitutional balance too. If any adverse event anywhere in the world is America’s fault, America must be empowered to inhibit any such event, and the only person capable of moving on that fast of a pivot is the president—which may explain why neither McCain nor Graham has yet met a presidential national security power he did not like.

The president emerges in this constitutional structure as Gene Healy’s father figure, for McCain and Graham embody what is literally a child’s attitude. They labor under the myth of causation: If something bad happens, some discrete actor must be to blame. In these events, of course, someone is—Putin in Russia, Assad in Syria. But they are unreachable, so McCain and Graham turn to the closest parental figure in sight. Rather than acknowledge the world is big and scary and largely beyond our control, we assert, more in rage than in reason, that matters are otherwise.

To the extent that requires listening to absurdities like the comical linkage of Benghazi to Ukraine, the cost is minimal. But to the extent attempting to render matters otherwise requires empowering individuals beyond what the constitutional balance can bear, the price is palpable. Constitutional imbalance may thus be one of the most reliable diagnostic signs of narcissistic polity disorder. The good news is that this appears to be more a disorder of the ruling elite than of the body politic. Graham and McCain are far gone. It may not be too late to save others.

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College, is a former political consultant and the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. He is currently working on a book on the political thought of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

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Comments

  1. nobody.really says

    Sound analysis, cleverly stated. I’d offer a small thought reflecting a larger point: Whether Russian involvement in the Crimea is the US’s “fault” is a separate question from whether the US could have deterred Russian involvement.

    1. Machiavelli and abusive spouses have learned that you can accomplish much by being feared – and you really don’t need to find fault with people in order to threaten them.

    Thus, it is far from clear that Putin is motivated simply by a desire to spite the US, or John McCain personally, and for the US or John McCain to suggest otherwise smacks of narcissism. But whether the US could have deterred Russia if we had developed a sufficiently bellicose reputation (and whether the benefits of that reputation would be worth the cost) – that’s a separate question. The belief that the US could control the whole world may also stem from narcissism, but it’s at least a belief that’s relevant to a broad range of policy discussions.

    Moreover, the idea that the US could control the whole world has been amply disproven in Vietnam, Iran, Beirut, Iran/Contra, Mogadishu, Iraq, among other places. In contrast, it’s harder to marshal evidence regarding the subjective motivations of foreign heads of state (NSA’s efforts notwithstanding).

    2. Fault is a backward-looking concept: it focuses on deviations between the bad present and some desired past. Ability is forward-looking: it focuses on the deviation between some sub-optimal present and a desired future.

    Perhaps it is in the nature of lawyers and libertarians to see things through the prism of fault. But especially within the rough-and-tumble world of foreign policy, this seems a bit prissy.

  2. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Blaming Obama is good politics. So I think we need to distinguish between cause and effect. I do think that the statements of Graham and McCain, and in fairness numerous others, feed into a kind of blind faith in American omnipotence and omnipresence. But I also think they stem from domestic political concerns that have little to do either with narcissism or analytic disorder. In recent decades, the party out of power blames the president of the party in power for anything and everything, in the hopes that if one slings enough mud, some of it will stick. I don’t think this is entirely a matter of cynicism, but it most definitely is ideological, and there is very often an element of cynicism in the short term political calculation. Cynicism, unpleasant and dysfunctional as it is, is part and parcel of contemporary politics. So to my eye where this all gets problematic is when the positions one advocates for cynical reasons infect the ones one advocates for analytical and policy reasons.

    • gabe says

      Kevin:

      Spot on!
      ” So to my eye where this all gets problematic is when the positions one advocates for cynical reasons infect the ones one advocates for analytical and policy reasons.”

      While I agree with all the sentiments expressed here (you, too, Nobody – Surprised?)
      I believe that there are good reasons to fault the current administrations Foreign Policy pursuits (or lack thereof). Yes, we can be infused sometimes with an evangelistic zeal to make over the world in some democratic utopia – and this is clearly unwise and imprudent.
      However, there still remain valid national self-interests which must be protected; sadly, given a world populated by people other than the denizens of the Obama faculty lounge, this requires a credible posture of force and a perceived willingness to adhere to our commitments to our allies.
      Were McCain and his twin Lindsey to argue along these lines rather than in the narcissistic vein they have thus far advanced, one could find some merit in their critique of Obama and the faculty Lounge.

      take care
      gabe

      BTW: Kevin: I have a request for a recommendation on some aspect of antebellum southern politics. If open to help let me know and I will send you my e-mail.

      • Kevin R. Hardwick says

        Gabe–

        Away from my office for the next few days–I will have something for you, I hope in the next few days. Antebellum is a bit beyond my area of expertise , which is why I don’t want to rely too much on memory. But of course I am happy to be of whatever service I can.

        All best wishes,
        Kevin

  3. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Greg,

    On Monday night last, George Will gave you public credit, by name, on Fox News for your term: “Narcissistic Polity Disorder.” He is ever so right to do so.

    • nobody.really says

      I’d like to say more in this discussion, after I get my monitor fixed. Reading the screen, you’d almost think that gabe could tolerate something I said.

      But briefly, on distinguishing cynical positions from analytical/policy positions: I’m not sure I’ve heard any cynical positions yet — because I haven’t heard any positions.

      You know, positions, as in, “We should refuse to let Russia participate in our efforts to control Iran’s progress in acquiring nuclear weapons – and if that nixes the deal, so be it.” Or “We should put our troops all along the Ukrainian border — and if that means raising taxes and instituting a draft, so be it.”

      Rather, I’ve just heard people say, “Watch out for that Putin; he has shifty eyes!” Or “There’s gonna be trouble in Ukraine, mark my words!” Those aren’t positions; they’re anxiety attacks.

      • gabe says

        nobody:

        Jumpin’ Jehosophat!!!
        We agree again. You are correct – I do not see any substantive positions being floatd by the dipsey-doodle twins of Johnny and Lindsey.

        That being said, I believe that there is at least the possibility of a valid critique of both Putin’s ambitions / actions and obama’s retrenchment / inaction if grounded in some well defined national interest. I mean even someone such as the Big O (oops – I think that his accolytes are no longer susceptible to that type of interpretation of the Big O) who believes this to be a depraved nation in need of a comeuppance must recognize that we do have some valid national interests.
        Surely, someone can articulate those valid interests better than Johnny and Lindsey – if not, we truly are doomed.

        take care, nobody
        gabe

          • gabe says

            Nobody:

            Throw out the monitor – we can’t have folks thinking that you and i agree!!
            Of course when I have similar problems, I turn to cabernet – en vino veritas!!

            take care
            gabe

    • Greg Weiner says

      Richard — Thanks. Will’s analysis of Ukraine was spot-on, in my view. Kevin makes a fair point as well, which is that there may be multiple causes for the McCain/Graham critique, especially with Graham fending off a primary challenge. Gabe, fair points too, but my question remains under what foreign policy this would have unfolded differently. What is the realistic and prudent X under which Putin stops and says, “The U.S. will do X, and X worries me more than what I believe I have at stake in Ukraine?”

      • gabe says

        Greg:
        The problem is mine in not being more specific. I do not argue that there was / is much that we could have done differently to prevent Putin “capture” of Crimea (Ukraine, perhaps) short of reinstituting the Cold War.

        My point was directed at the general tendency of this “faculty lounge” state department to disregard or fail to apprehend that we as a nation, as other nations, do have valid national interests and that at times these interests can only be protected, or at least restrain our adversaries from somewhat precipitate action.
        With that being said, i am aware that oftentimes our proper objectives and policy pursuits are criticized, and rightfully so,because we force them through the prism of American evangelism and omnipotence.
        While this is regrettable, I believe that we do, at times, have valid national interests at stake and that we ought to do more to both proclaim and defend them.

        take care
        gabe

        • gabe says

          Greg:
          Further apologies!
          I suspect that I have had a little more of some excellent Walla Walla Valley Cabernet than I had realized and consequently failed to make clear that while I concede that the current situation in the Ukraine is open to varying interpretations, there is still the possibility that there is a valid national interest to be expressed (if only someone wiser and more knowledgeable than I could do this) in this situation.
          As to whether something could have been done differently such that we could have had an impact, I would argue that were the current administration not so willing to “give away” (not even bargain away!) strength and credibility with Poland, Czech and other former eastern European satellite nations, we may have have had a stronger hand in this situation. Additionally, had we actually pushed for inclusion of these former satellites into NATO, the Bear may have had at least some hesitation before marching into the Crimea. Of course, this presupposes that NATOis actually something more than the hollow force that it has become in the last twenty years. Still, I suspect that would give pause to a roving bear in search of food.
          As you know, this assertion avoids the question of the wisdom of including these folks in such a “security pact” (such as it is) – still, it is something for the Bear to consider!

          BTW:

          The Cabernet is excellent!

          take care
          gabe

        • says

          Gabe,

          I am going to disagree with you slightly. A problem is not only that the “state department … fail[s] to apprehend that we as a nation, as other nations, do have valid national interests…” It is that it disregards the notion that nations decide for themselves what their interests are and whether or not those interests are valid. The interests that motivate international actors are ultimately subjective, rather than the sappy and sentimental virtues that we should like them to have. It is by no means certain that Putin is better off being our buddy than he is by igniting old Cold War kindling, because he is the one who gets to decide what “better off” means. And he gets to change it if he wants.

          Mussolini wanted to resurrect the glory of ancient Rome, Khadaffy wanted to created a pan-arab superpower, Chavez wanted to indulge his ego in the socialist superman fantasy. Napoleon, Bolivar, Alexander, Charles II, William the Conqueror, all had interests beyond getting the United States to leave them alone so they could ride naked through the forest on unicorns with flowers in their hair.

          The faculty lounge conceit is that other countries and their leaders are fundamentally benign, and will behave that way unless provoked by western values. They believe that government leaders are, after all, just Peace Corp volunteers who reluctantly and benevolently moved up the ladder. They see how emotional appeals are received in this country and erroneously conclude that people like Putin will respond to the same arguments.

          It is the failure to realize all of these things; that people like Putin have interests that are insensitive to our condescension, that leads us to squander our leverage with him. We can affect things he cares about, we can lead him to make calculations in his own interests that are ultimately beneficial to our own, but not if we insist that all that he really wants is what we want him to want.

          • gabe says

            Z:

            I don’t see anything in your comments that I would disagree with.
            And I love the “Peace Corp Volunteer” line – it hits it on the head and to my mind is a direct outgrowth of “faculty lounge” conversations / dissertations.

            take care
            gabe

  4. says

    Gentlemen, there is more to do w/Putin then narcissism. I would take you back to the Second World War when the (one world order) elites of our Executive branch opted to allow the Russians to make the move into Germany, over our military leaders. Why we have had this romance w/Russia during and after the Second World War – is beyond me. They were a power less forceful then the Germans, themselves.
    Their government’s socialistic embodiment is directly opposite to the American order. What we are witnessing, going on in our present Executive branch, is nothing more than “lip-service” to a Russian government that is part and partial of, this, “the one world order”. It w/play out w/the Russian’s re taking back their control of that territory.
    Respectfully, John

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