Status anxieties at home and abroad - II
by Michael Brenner on 28 Aug 2021 0 Comment



What is going on? Are we simply observing a perpetuation of the strategy to ensure American global dominance first spelled out in the notorious Wolfowitz memo of March 1992? Is there a convincing case to be made that a facsimile project has been followed by every President since – qualified or contradictory rhetoric notwithstanding? Has the lust for revenge post-9/11 been institutionalized to dictate and to justify this kind of belligerence across the board? Is it objectively true that as a superpower we have no alternative?


We might find some elements of a credible explanation in the answers to all these questions. However, we have to probe more deeply into America’s soul to find the mainspring that provides the coiled energy to act in accordance with these other conventional logics.


Americans are struggling to draw into focus their exalted image of themselves and reality. They are not doing a very good job of it. The gap is wide and growing. That is due in good measure to what has been happening beyond the country’s shores, and over which it lacks the means to exercise decisive influence. Our response has been one of avoidance and reaffirmation of thought and deed. We seem to fear that if we stare at reality squarely, we will find reality staring back at us in a discomforting way.


Fading prowess is one of the most difficult things for humans to cope with – whether it be an individual or a nation. By nature, we prize our strength and competence; we dread decline and its intimations of extinction. This is especially so in the United States where for many the individual and the collective persona are inseparable. Today, events are occurring that contradict the national narrative of a nation with a unique destiny. That creates cognitive dissonance.


America’s exalted sense of self is rooted in the belief that we are pace-setters and world beaters in every domain. The state of affairs sketched above does not represent cool strategic judgment. It is the national equivalent of ostentatious iron-pumping by bodybuilders worried about losing muscle tone. Those worries never disappear, though, even as one becomes muscle-bound striving ever more energetically to reassure oneself that nothing is creeping up behind you. The mirror is much preferred to the backward glance. More important, they fool themselves into the false belief that other, more relevant adjustments to reality are either unnecessary or intolerable.


At the psychological level, this approach is understandable since it plays to the United States’ strength: overweening self-confidence coupled to material strength - thereby perpetuating the national myths of being destined to remain the world’s No. 1 forever, and of being in a position to shape the world system according to American principles and interests. President Obama declaimed: “Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close!”


So? Is this meant as a revelation? What is the message? To whom? Is it any different than someone shouting “ALLAH AKBAR!” Words that are neither a prelude to action nor inspire others to act – nor even impart information – are just puffs of wind.  As such, they are yet another avoidance device.


The tension associated with a nation so constituted by encounters with objective reality does not force heightened self-awareness or a change in behavior if the dominant feature of that reality is the pervasiveness of the attitudes and expressed opinions of others who share the underlying delusions. Today, there is no foreign policy debate whatsoever. In addition, our vassal governments in Europe and elsewhere either have a national interest in preserving the warped American view of the world (Israel, Poland) or have been so denatured as autonomous sovereign states over the decades that they are incapable of doing other than to follow Washington obediently – despite already having tumbled over a number of cliffs and staring at a potentially fatal abyss re China and Russia. Reality testing, in these circumstances, leads to conformity in viewing the world through the delusional prism – rather than it being a potential corrective.


We are close to a condition that approximates what psychiatrists call “dissociation.” It is marked by an inability to see and to accept reality as it is for deep seated emotional reasons. Those dissociating are not aware that they are sublimating on a systematic basis. “Dissociation is commonly displayed on a continuum. In mild cases, dissociation can be regarded as a coping mechanism or defense mechanism in seeking to master, minimize or tolerate stress – including conflict. Conflicts of purpose, conflict of aims, conflict of ideas, conflict between idealized reality and actual truth. Dissociation can involve dissociative disorders. Dissociative disorders are sometimes triggered by trauma” (9/11?).


III. America’s exceptional insecurity 


Status anxiety is our biggest national hang-up. Status is the most elusive of social concepts. Yet it is at the very heart of what America is and how Americans behave. Today, status insecurities in the United States are growing. This phenomenon, this multifaceted psychological condition, has profound meaning for how the country conducts itself in the world.


Americans have become an insecure people. They grow more and more uncertain about who they are, what they are worth and what life will be like down the road. This is an individual and collective phenomenon. They are related insofar as much of our self-identity and self-esteem is bound up with the civic religion of Americanism. To a considerable degree, it’s been like this since the very beginning. A country that was “born against history” had no past to define and shape the present. A country that was born against tradition had no rooted and common sense of meaning and value that cut deeply into the national psyche. A country that was born against inherited place and position left each individual at once free to acquire status and obliged to do so for insignia of rank were few.


Status itself always has been a fragile commodity in a culture that had few rites of passage and a society that provided relatively little ordered stability. In a sense, therefore, status grounded on accomplishment is intrinsically temporary and incomplete. It is in constant jeopardy. It forms part of our institutionalized neurosis. If the future constantly beckons, so do we sense oblivion looking over our shoulder.


This historical undercurrent of the American experience only occasionally broke through the surface of collective consciousness. That was due to three distinctive features of American life: the pervasive ethic of individual responsibility along with its corollary precept of manly stoicism before unwelcome outcomes; the ethos of participation in a pageant of progress that was blazing trails for oneself, for one’s offspring and for all of humanity; and the conviction that we were the envy of the world and which, therefore, stigmatized complaint as ingratitude for the blessings that Providence had bestowed on us. Taken together, these mythic elements of Americanism sublimated discontents explained away failures, acted as a balm on the wounds inflicted by our intensely competitive society, and held at bay the anxiety that always was lurking. 


There always has been an external dimension to the unique American national identity. From the earliest days Americans have felt themselves different and better – in multiple ways. This conceit has been strengthened by periodic signs from foreigners that there is a measure of truth to that self-congratulatory judgment. That is especially so among the European societies from which America and most Americans largely sprang. That attitude took root even though there was relatively little direct competition with other states due to the United States’ relative diplomatic isolation and self-sufficiency.


That changed over the course of the 20th century. Within just a few decades, America became a great world power, a superpower, a champion of democracy and freedom and the defender of the West against Soviet-led communism. It was the “heroic’ century which culminated in the triumph of the Cold War. After the collapse of Communism, the United States ruled the roost. In its own eyes, this unique hyper-power had seen history confirm its anointed role as both model and agent for the construction of a better world. American “exceptionalism” now meant emulation of America – pure and simple.


That confirmation should have strengthened the belief in the American pageant of progress.  It should have given a boost to self-esteem. It should have compensated for the creeping insecurities associated with socio-economic changes within the United States. That has not proven to be the case. Strenuous displays of patriotism have a contrived cast to them. They suggest strained efforts to overcome doubt more than they do genuine pride and conviction.


National self-confidence is not demonstrated by gigantic flags seen everywhere from used car lots to hot sheet motels, the ubiquitous lapel pin, the loud and gaudy demonstrations of chauvinism at sporting matches, the bombast of shock jockeys, or the belittling and condescending treatment of other peoples. Rather, those are sure signs of weakness, doubt and insecurity. The compulsive militarization of foreign relations fits the pattern; the same psychology is at work. A society that sees reality through the screen of violent video games is juvenile and immature.


The great mystery is why America has evolved this way. Why so riven with so much insecurity? Obviously, there are many factors at work – their interplay complicated. The dramatic exposure of our vulnerability on 9/11 is one factor. The dread fear of Islamist terror came in its train – constantly stirred by cynical politicos and media – is another. Then, the embarrassing and shameful failures of the exaggerated “War on Terror” made Americans feel impotent, incompetent and corrupt – however reluctant they are to admit it. Hyper-patriotism is one way of discharging those feelings. 


Insecurity, war and violence. Insecure, status-deprived American males are becoming addicted to violence in ways that resemble their addiction to voyeuristic sex. Both involve cheap thrills. They are Viagra for the masculine soul. The immediate effects may last just about as long, but the cumulative effect in producing a warped psyche is much deeper and enduring. Violence permeates our popular culture far more than it permeates society in the form of criminal acts. The former is not criminal, though, and therefore is unconstrained in the harm that it can do. We know all about video games. We know all about television shows.


We know all about “action” films. However, we should be paying more attention to mainstream films and books. “Sniper” is a phenomenon that should not be ignored. The same for Special Forces films and pulp fiction like “Zero Dark Thirty.” They do more than encourage escapism; do more than editing recent history in ways that whitewash crimes, justify criminal deceit and stupidity, propagate crude racism, and exalt jingoism. Beyond those pernicious effects, they create a veritable alternative universe of reality. It is a virtual universe where the unreal is presented as truth, where the bricks and mortar are made of illusion – a virtual world where insecurities are erased, anxieties sedated, and everyone is proud, brave, united and potent.


What do these developments foretell for the United States’ relations with the rest of the world? The most obvious and important implication is that Americans will be even more dependent on maintaining that sense of exceptionalism and superiority that is the foundation of their national personality. A fragile psyche weak in self-esteem and prowess is vulnerable to signs of its decline or ordinariness. Hence, the country will continue to exert itself energetically on the global stage rather than become progressively more selective in its engagements and choice of methods for fulfilling them. 


That translates into a commitment to maintain its prerogatives as the world’s Number One. The presumption remains that the United States is bound to exercise leadership in resolving disputes and in shaping collective efforts to handle systemic challenges; in pronouncing on the conduct of other governments (domestically and internationally); in declaring itself indispensable to the maintenance and workings of any institution of which it is part; to use military force wherever and however it chooses. This grand presumption was viable so long as it corresponded to the distribution of power. Now a chasm is opening between America’s self-decreed privileges and shifts in that constellation of power and influence. 


Americanism provides a Unified Field Theory of self-identity, collective enterprise, and the Republic’s enduring meaning. When one element is felt to be jeopardy, the integrity of the whole edifice becomes vulnerable. In the past, American mythology energized the country in ways that helped it to thrive. Today, it is a dangerous hallucinogen that traps Americans in a time-warp more and more distant from reality. Yet, Barack Obama could proclaim that the United States was destined to be “the world’s leading power for the next 100 years!”


The impulse to take this tack is understandable, though. It is convenient, it is simple, it is customary, it postpones making hard adjustments in America’s world role and exalted self-image. Above all, it sells among the American people who are addicted to things military, who get a kick out of graphic displays of might, and who are emotionally unprepared to accommodate a major revision in their sense of destiny.


The obstinate American reluctance to let go of prerogatives that now are outdated and no longer tenable is evident in all spheres of the country’s foreign relations. Calculated decisions not to come to terms with the humiliating and costly fiasco that was Iraq, and is Afghanistan, have perpetuated America’s prideful and outdated view of the world. That same exaggerated pride convinced us that the things that happen to unexceptional nations are not supposed to happen to America – an America born under a lucky star: for many, the Star of Bethlehem.

When mishaps do happen, they sow disquiet, incomprehension and a search for scapegoats. The planets are out of alignment. That is something frightening. Fear and dread are among the most unhelpful emotions for assaying truth. That has been evident in America’s inability to cope with the implications of 9/11 and the ensuing ‘war on terror’. An America that is not able, that is not moral, that is not smart, that lies, that lies to itself – that America is incompatible with the myths that sustain us. So the myths survive. The myths press us into the absurd ways of thinking and acting delineated in Section I.


The mix of self-righteousness, unilateralism, and global assertiveness is not a viable strategy for the future. The great challenge ahead is to craft a set of international arrangements that conform to the evolving distribution of strengths and weaknesses. And to do so in ways that institutionalize those national interests that are convergent while muting those that are divergent or clashing. That means finding imaginative methods for organizing multilateralism. An America whose mind is fixed on the country’s supposed superiority will be unable to do that. An America whose citizens are consumed by self-doubt and insecurities will move compulsively in the opposite direction.



1.      Stephen M. Walt “The Credibility Addiction” Foreign Policy January 6, 2015

2.     President Barack Obama Commencement Speech at West Point  May 28 2014



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