The Insecure Superpower

Ferdinand Holder, The Night, 1890, Kunstmuseum, Basel.

Riddle

What’s scarier?

A) Hundreds of military bases, all bristling with advanced, offensive weapons, controlled by your avowed enemy, close to your heartland.

OR

B) Unfinished military bases on three tiny islands, stocked with defensive weapons, about 9,000 miles from your nation’s capital. Plus, a few balloons.

Answer: B, but only if you are the United States, the insecure superpower.

The nation with most enemy bases close to its border is China. There are nearly 200 U.S. installations in Japan and South Korea alone. Last week, the U.S announced it would add four additional bases to the five existing ones in the Philippines. One of these, on the island of Itbayat, is just 93 miles from Taiwan, across the Taiwan Straits from China. When it’s completed, it will be close enough to attack the Chinese mainland within minutes, deploying the world’s most fearsome non-nuclear – and possibly nuclear — weapons. The U.S. stored nuclear bombs in the Philippines for decades under an agreement with Ferdinand Marcos. Now there is concern among islanders that the new president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (aka “Bongbong”), may revive the deal. Most people in the Philippines don’t want to become targets in a future war between the U.S. and China over the status of Taiwan. Most Americans don’t either.

The remote, Chinese military base feared by the U.S. is located in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. It harbors no ballistic rockets capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, boasts a single airplane runway, and has been under construction for more than a decade. The number of Chinese personnel on the islands is uncertain, though aerial photographs show largely empty roads and streets. Tom Shugart, a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, put it this way: “It’s not crowds, but it’s also not nothing,”

U.S. officials have ginned up a media panic about the Chinese base, representing it as a devious means of “controlling the South China Sea.” They have also used it to justify the ongoing “pivot to Asia” announced a decade ago by Barak Obama, and the stratospheric military budget that supports it. The current balloon fear is being used for the same purpose but is fast becoming risible. Asked by reporters last weekend whether additional unidentified objects in near space could be extraterrestrial in origin, the head of the Air Force’s Northern Command, Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, said, “I haven’t ruled out anything at this point.” There is reason to expect an imminent, bipartisan announcement by U.S. senators and representatives of a “balloon gap” or even a “UFO gap” that can be bridged only by an increased Pentagon budget.

The U.S will spend more than $817 billion for its military next year, more than the next nine nations in the world combined, not including $300 billion for veterans, $115 billion for military retirements, $80 billion for clandestine services and $60 billion for Homeland Security. That level of spending on security – more than $1.3 trillion (a quarter of the entire U.S. budget) – is so high that significant new investment in the health, safety or welfare of Americans is nearly impossible. Defense expenditure also crowds out spending to mitigate global warming. The U.S. therefore, isn’t just the insecure superpower, it’s the self-harming, possibly even suicidal superpower. The country urgently needs an intervention – when will it get the help it needs?

Insecurity in theory

Theories of insecurity are implicit in innumerable works of world literature, including epics, sagas, and novels. Gilgamesh was preoccupied by fear that he will die forgotten; Moses was insecure because of his speech impediment; Richard III because of his crookback; and Leopold Bloom because of his Judaism and onanism. Common to them all is perception of a lack that can only be remedied by over-compensation. Psychic debts are never paid, they are only overpaid.

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of neurosis (what some later psychologists called insecurity) was influenced by the classic literature he loved. Freud argued in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) that the human mind has a topography composed of three levels, conscious, preconscious, and unconscious, and that the last of these is the chief source of fear, anxiety, instability, and neurosis. Slightly later, Freud shifted his approach by deploying a structural model for the mind, arguing that it’s comprised of three zones: Id, Ego, and Superego. But again, the unconscious Id is where the action is. Repression of hidden desires, especially sexual ones, results in behavioral overpayment by the ego – for example violent, fetishistic, or other socially aberrant behavior. Karen Horney later challenged Freud’s claims about the psychological roots of insecurity and anxiety. Women, she said, were disabled by social discrimination and responded to it by an overvaluation of love. Men were made insecure by their inability to give birth or breastfeed, and overpaid that lack by denigrating or abusing women.

In general, insecurity has been understood to be an individual problem, whether resulting from internal or external sources. Today, with the decline in popularity of psychoanalytic and the rise of cognitive behavioral therapy, there is much greater focus on the external bases of insecurity. Social and political analysts speak about housing insecurity, food insecurity, job insecurity, relationship insecurity, body-image insecurity, age insecurity and gender insecurity, all determined by cultural and economic pressures or constraints. Indeed, there are now so many enumerated types of insecurity that even the most secure people may lose their footing by simply reading about them.

But what’s less often discussed is the pathology of national or state insecurity. I don’t mean the insecurity, for example, of nations in the Global South that have been invaded, colonized, and exploited for generations by bigger and wealthier nations to the north. There is nothing surprising about a poor country feeling insecure while under the boot of a richer one. But for a rich country to feel that way about a poor one, or a powerful country about a weak one, is pathological. That’s what characterizes the U.S. posture today – constant kvetching about threats posed by North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, and China. Though the world’s most populous country with the second biggest economy, China’s military prowess, as noted earlier, is vastly inferior to the U.S. And they are far away. What insecurity has caused American aggression toward China? What’s the nature of the self-doubt that stirs the only global superpower to direct invasions, order blockades, impose sanctions, and wage hot or cold wars at nations much weaker than China?

U.S. on the couch: The basic fault

The United States was founded on the idea of liberation from colonial fetters. For many however, including Thomas Paine and William Blake, it represented much more than that: universal revolution, anti-slavery, and freedom from oppressive law. Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, published on the eve of revolution in 1776, galvanized masses of readers to the cause of emancipation from British colonialism. Paine also reviled slavery. In a poem from about 1790, he wrote: “See Afric’s wretched Offspring torn/From all that Human heart holds dear/ See Millions doomed in Chains to Mourn.” The British poet and artist William Blake captured the same idea of combined national and individual emancipation in his illuminated poem, America, a Prophesy (1793). There, he elided the Founders’ yearning for liberty, with the slave’s desire for freedom, as if George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine – all cited by Blake – were themselves Black men and women toiling in the fields in chains, yearning for liberation:

William Blake, America, a Prophesy, plate 3, detail, New Haven, Yale Center for British Art.

Washington spoke: ‘Friends of America! look over the Atlantic sea;
A bended bow is lifted in Heaven, and a heavy iron chain
Descends, link by link, from Albion’s cliffs across the sea, to bind
Brothers and sons of America….

Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field,
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul, shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years,
Rise and look out; his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open…
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.”

Yet despite these poetic exhortations, the new nation was built upon the rock of racial slavery. The three-fifths compromise giving disproportionate power to slave states, the electoral college, and the creation of an unrepresentative (and at the time, unelected) Senate all speak to the enormous deficit of democracy at the core of the nation’s governing institutions.

In his book, The Basic Fault (1969) the Hungarian psychoanalyst Michael Balint described a circumstance in which a patient gradually admits to the therapist a psychic injury or fault so profound that it impacts his entire mind and body. Balint writes:

The patient says that he feels there is a fault within him, a fault that must be put right….[that] the cause of this fault is that someone has either failed the patient or defaulted on him; and [that] a great anxiety invariably surrounds this area, usually expressed as a desperate demand that this time the analyst should not — in fact must not — fail him.

The United States is afflicted by a basic fault, a lack, arising from the failures of its founding parents. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and the rest, despite Blake’s idealization, endorsed slavery, racism and the laws and institutions that supported them. Succeeding generations of elected and appointed officials fostered Civil War, Jim Crow, and Klan terrorism; they thwarted school de-segregation and chipped away at the protections afforded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964; they created COINTELPRO, waged a racist war on drugs, and allowed police brutality and mass incarceration to reign. Gross inequalities of income, wealth and health characterize the current social order. The nation’s basic fault, traceable to its founding, created a profound insecurity, overcompensated by the fantasy of American exceptionalism and the judicious projection of power abroad. The patient hasn’t yet admitted his injury, and until he does, no analyst can offer treatment.

The Wende Museum of the Cold War

With tragic images of the war in Ukraine in my head, but before the farcical balloon wars entered our collective consciousness, I travelled to Culver City, in Los Angeles County to visit the Wende Museum of the Cold War. Housed in a fortress-like, former National Guard Armory built in 1949 (itself an icon of the era), the museum houses more than 100,000 objects of art and design as well as archives, books, pamphlets, letters, and ephemera documenting the global Cold War, primarily the decades between the end of World War II and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. I was invited there by my friend, David James, the great scholar of experimental and avant-garde film, who recently donated to the museum his collection of hundreds of Chinese posters, post cards, buttons and other ephemera, most dating from the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Jingdezhen Sculpture Factory, Chairman Mao Swims the Yangzi, c. 1966-76. Private Collection.

I was met at the Wende by a brilliant, young curator named Jamie A. Kwan. She’s responsible for the smart and surprising current exhibition, (De)constructing Ideology: The Cultural Revolution and Beyond. It consists of ceramics from Jingdezhen (long China’s porcelain capital), as well as posters, sculptures, photographs, paintings, and other artifacts. Most of these were produced during the decade long Cultural Revolution, which was spurred by Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong and led by students and other young people. Its aim was to rid the country of its “Four Olds” — old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs. More specifically, the goal was to expand the program of communist modernization begun during the Great Leap Forward (1958-’63) and make the nation fully self-sufficient in agriculture and industry as well as ideology. Confucian and Buddhist temples and artifacts were destroyed, and vestiges of “bourgeois” culture and ideology purged from teaching curricula and the organs of government. Much of the cleansing was violent and senseless.

Jamie led me on a tour of the exhibition, starting with a section of recent, avant-garde Chinese art that reflected upon the Cultural Revolution, and continuing through the historical material which was the core of (De)constructing Ideology. The more recent stuff was vivid and compelling, for example Great Criticism – Coca Cola by Wang Guangyi, a pop-influenced painting derived from the famous ballet, The Red Detachment of Women (1964); and the large, photo-triptych by Xing Danwen, Born with the Cultural Revolution (1995). The latter depicts the artist’s pregnant friend, nude, in three poses, surrounded by icons of Mao. The suggestion is that for better and worse, cultural and political history is a basis for new life as much as mother’s milk – politics as a kind of epigenetics.

As effective as was the installation and Jamie’s explications, I couldn’t help but prefer the new art to the old. I understood that the highly readable Mao icons, posters, and landscape ceramics with scenes of the Red Guards, were supposed to speak to peasants and workers, not a cosmopolitan bourgeois like me; and that the art of the Cultural Revolution was arguably as complex and sophisticated within its context as any other. But I honestly didn’t buy it – most of the art and design looked like kitsch to me.

And then a troubling thought entered my mind: that my aesthetic preferences were in fact an alibi for the hot and cold war violence inflicted by the U.S. upon so many nations in the world, China and Russia included. I too was deeply insecure, unable to accept or even recognize the indictment of democratic (and neo-liberal) capitalism at the heart of (De)constructing Ideology. I too was afraid: Not of any distant military bases or wispy balloons in the stratosphere, but of a superpower that lacks introspection, the capacity to overcome insecurity, or the desire to heal its injured core.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu