Americans have become an insecure people. We grow more and more anxious about who we are, what we 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.
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 super power, 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 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, they 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.
What of the nexus with 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" -- now exposed by Sy Hersh's revelations as a White House and CIA scripted fiction. They do more than encourage escapism; do more than bowdlerize 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 overexert itself 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 discrepancy is opening between America's self-decreed privileges and shifts in that constellation of power and influence.
The most tangible representation of that shift is the rise of China. Its economic strength presents a challenge to American hegemonic dominance of the globe's interdependent commercial and financial system. Tomorrow, Beijing inevitably will challenge Washington on the political plane. The very presence of other concentrations of economic strength encroaches on American prerogatives and attenuates American hegemony. To date, the Chinese leadership has been cautious in how and where it asserts itself. They play a long game whose trajectory could be disrupted by doing things that invite clashes or premature contests for leadership.
So instead they are husbanding their resources. Still, signs of the transformation are everywhere. China has made vast investments in South America, Africa and Central Asia where it seeks to secure supplies of minerals, energy and foodstuffs. The dependency relationships thereby established inevitably will translate into political influence at such time when there is reason and readiness to exploit it. In much of Southeast Asia, China already is the dominant presence -- the military sphere aside. Even there, it rapidly is moving toward regional parity with the United States. The pieces are falling into place. An historic marker of this transformation occurred last month with the launching of the China conceived and led Asian Investment Development Bank in an indirect challenge to the American controlled World Bank. Washington's strenuous efforts to curb it failed ignominiously when Britain, Germany, France and Australia announced their participation. That is a tell-tale sign that the direction of the economic winds is shifting. It looks to be a permanent climate change rather than a transitory change in the weather.
The American response has been to fall back on what it sees as its trump card: military power and technology. It has been engaged in a concerted effort to establish a sort of cordon sanitaire around China through the drafting of a number of pacts that allow for basing rights, joint exercises, arms sales, training, etc. The Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and a few others figure in this strategy which looks like a reprise of Cold War era SEATO. Those countries have their own security reasons for cooperating with the United States. But this is not an answer to Chinese growing economic and political influence. Washington is playing to its strength -- which it now habitually does when faced with a challenge. That is the same mindset that induced it to militarize the War on Terror -- with disastrous results. Deploying a small Marine detachment to a camp on the north coast of Australia is not an answer to the Chinese challenge.
The impulse to take this route 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 deep-seated 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. In the tumultuous Middle East, its peripatetic diplomacy currently is straining to juggle three or four games at once with predictably painful results. The ISIS phenomenon especially has brought to the surface contradictions and incongruities that elude its intellectual and political grasp. Just identifying friends and enemies across several chess boards being played simultaneously is proving an unmanageable challenge as those identities change from one game to another. Yet the Obama administration and its whirlwind Secretary of State make no acknowledgement that perhaps the classic American gung-ho, pro-active approach desperately needs modification.
Failure to come to terms with the humiliating and costly fiasco that was Iraq, and is Afghanistan, has 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.'
The mix of self-righteousness, unilateralism, and global assertiveness is not a viable strategy for the future. Declaiming and pronouncing are becoming counter-productive. In the parochial setting of Washington, it is easy to denounce countries and leaders. It has become routine. The enemies list grows steadily - having recently added Russia, Yemen and now Venezuela's democratically elected government. 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.
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.