Part 4. Mental escalators of violence in US policy and media makers. Part 4B. A competitive, threat-orientation towards international relations: Psychological patterns described by Lakoff, Spranger, and Allport

False Bias #2. Life Is Competition; the Goal Is to Beat Adversaries and Stay on Top. Let’s take a look at actual, representative lines from Damon Wilson’s 2019 testimony, two years before he became president of the National Endowment for “Democracy,” and three years before Russia’s military action in Donetsk, Lugansk, and Ukraine. As we do so in this and the next several essays, I’ll point out several biases that I find in Wilson’s way of thinking, a pattern of thinking common to many of the minds that are forever leading our foreign policy. These biases of thought—cognitive biases—skew the mind and allow only certain perceptions of life, international relations, and human dynamics. I write about them at greater length and with more examples in my unpublished works, but I’ll provide some condensed ideas here.

Wilson opens his January 29, 2019 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee for the Senate Hearing of the National Defense Strategy by stating: “In an era of great power competition, the United States should adopt a more permanent deterrence posture. . . . and bolster its alliances as a strategic comparative advantage over our adversaries.” He later proclaims: “Our nation and its closest friends agree that the great challenge of the 21st century will be the competition between the free world and authoritarian corrupt state-led capitalism, chief among them China and Russia.”[1]

Right off the bat, we see that Wilson views international relations in terms of competition. Of course, some will immediately mock my observation as indicating naivete and unrealistic softness, when “hard” is what’s needed in foreign policy. But I stand my ground: the competitive view as well as the conviction of the value of hardness are both imbalanced views that are particularly dysfunctional in US foreign policy. These psychological preoccupations have serious effects on foreign policy, effectively choking off the potential for US foreign policy to ever be egalitarian, cooperative, and genuinely friendly.

The competitive view is an attitude that ran rampant throughout the infamous document calling for an expansion of the American Empire written by the neoconservative Project of the New American Century (PNAC), which we discussed in the previous essay, Part 3B. Recall just one of PNAC’s numerous quotes that revolve obsessively around domination and supremacy: “At present the United States faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.”[2] 

It’s a view, I would emphasize, that is notably not a feature of the writings and speeches of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who is instead characterized throughout mainstream US media as the evil bad guy seeking conquest. In Putin’s 2007 Munich speech, falsely characterized as “infamous,” his July 2021 essay, falsely characterized as “notorious,” and his February 21 and 24, 2022 speeches, there is not one indicator that Putin possesses a competitive outlook on international relations. In fact, he continually calls for cooperation, for the peaceful resolution of problems, for disarmament, and for worldwide respect for international law. He plainly appeals to universal standards of morality and international law for the benefit of the planet, not, as US experts would have us believe, for favors and power for Russia.

Why is Putin so falsely represented in the US media? Much of it may be due to US policy and media makers’ deliberate attempts to deceive Congress and to deceive the American and world public. Some may be influenced by their familiarity with corruption and decreasing human rights in Russia. They may assume the leader of such a nation has malicious goals for the world. Much may be due to these so-called US “experts” inability to read or comprehend his works and listen to his speeches. Their reading comprehension skills may be poor. Perhaps they never bother to read his material and simply parrot one another, assuming the other guy has the right answers to the test.

Much may be due to the mindless habit of American conformity, peer pressure, and groupthink, a conspicuous habit noticed by foreign visitors to the United States even back in the 1800s, a habit that leads to the strangulation of the freedom of the press and true freedom of mind. It was the leading Islamist theoretician, Sayyid Qutb, who noticed with concern the stifling of opinion in the US press and the resulting lack of freedom of opinion during his own visit to the US seventy years ago.[3] But Americans are supposed to think that Islamists are mindless tyrants who hate freedom while Americans bask in freedom and enjoy something called democracy which only exists in the most shallow sense.

But there could be another reason, a subconscious reason why these so-called US “experts” slander Putin’s words. Notice what the competitive outlook does to one’s brain. Feel what happens in your own brain as you pretend to have this view—if you don’t already. This worldview, an extremely self-centered worldview, has the effect of constructing psychological barricades to the very idea of perceiving international relations in terms of friendship, cooperation, and egalitarianism. To US foreign policymakers whose minds are immersed in self-centered competition, the only acceptable form of cooperation equates, not to any egalitarian, two-way street type of caring and collaboration, but to the expectation that foreign nations and fellow Americans submerge their own interests and ideas to conform to US policymaker interests.

To their minds, if Putin’s ideas do not conform to the dictates of US policymakers—dictates such as their insistence that US violence abroad is acceptable even if it violates international law, that the US militarization of space is acceptable—then his ideas are not perceived as valid, helpful, thoughtful, wise, or even worthy of discussion: they are only considered adversarial. Because if you’re not conforming, you’re competing. That’s the only other option in their minds. The obsessively-competitive mind is incapable of recognizing as valid those ideas that are different from their own, even the ideas of Putin that are much more likely than US policymakers’ ideas to bring the world closer to a state of justice, freedom, and peace.

Personally, Wilson’s way of viewing the world as a competitive place strikes me as bizarre. I can’t imagine writing a paper for Congress that sees the world in terms of competition, deterrence postures, bolstering alliances, and comparative advantages. None of these terms would be in my thinking. Even if I were writing for the Armed Services Committee, I’d be writing about the need to bolster understanding, mutual caring, mutual communication, foreign language abilities, and friendship as well as fun activities amongst the populations of different nations that can encourage feelings of joy, friendship, and caring. After all, we already have enough weapons. 4,000 nuclear warheads is 4,000 too many. In fact, as Greg Mortenson writes in Three Cups of Tea, the US military itself recognized that his building schools in Pakistan could do a lot more for world peace than their building more missiles.[4]

And what’s the point in overkill? Perhaps if this were the 1700s, we’d be thinking more about building up an arsenal to defend—not expand—the borders. But at this point, what we need isn’t more weapons and rivalry but more understanding, friendly social connections, positive human dynamics, and fun and helpful activities to make life worth living. That’s what’s missing!

Wilson and others in the social and business circles that run our foreign policy probably don’t realize that their competitive view of international relations is only their skewed perception, not truth. In terms of psychology and sociology, there are probably various diagnoses and theories that could be applied to this pattern of thinking, and we’ll look at a few here. I’m not suggesting that Wilson himself can definitely be identified as having these patterns of thought, but his mention of competition is quite striking and it brings up a theme commonly echoed about amongst foreign policy and media makers, a theme that’s worth addressing.

I would say that all of US foreign policy for the past few centuries has much in common with what George Lakoff terms the Strict Father Model of human relations in his work, Moral Politics. Adherents to the Strict Father Model automatically view life and relationships in terms of hierarchy, top-down rules, competition, obedience, rewards, and punishments.[5] To their false way of thinking, this is the only reasonable, mature, and realistic way to view life and to view international relations.

Adherents of the Strict Model believe that competition is necessary in order to essentially bring out the best in people in terms of morality, quality, and behavior. We never see evidence in US foreign policy of the other model Lakoff describes: the Nurturant Mother Model. The Nurturant Model especially values mutual understanding, caring, open lines of communication, and equality. Incidentally, in my own unpublished series, I modify the models’ names to simply Strict Model and Nurturant Model, because, while Lakoff undoubtedly has good reasons for his labels, there are plenty of understanding Nurturant Fathers and authoritarian Strict Mothers, and I hate to have inaccurate gender stereotypes damage people’s sense of identity and their potential for love and caring.

As mentioned in the earlier essay on PNAC, this competitive view corresponds closely with what Eduard Spranger described in 1928 as the political value, or political lenses of life, which cause people to view life in terms of hierarchy, control, domination, and status.[6] Yet Spranger describes six such values, and there is absolutely no need or sense in having those with just one of those six values, the political value, dominating our foreign policymaking. In fact, this is dangerous. Those who see life through what Spranger calls social, aesthetic, or theoretical lenses, for example, would be much more qualified and capable of creating US foreign policy grounded in empathy, equality, caring, truth, and honesty, without the emphasis on rivalry, superiority, and authoritarianism.

Significantly, researchers find that those who see life through political lenses are the most likely to be prejudiced against groups of people, as our foreign policymaker establishment incessantly exhibits towards Russians, towards concepts of the Nurturant Model, and towards left-wing political ideas of egalitarianism and democracy in economics. Such Americans may claim they’re not prejudiced in their views towards this and that ethnic population, they may claim they love diversity and pluralism (and then again, they may not), but they are totally blind to their prejudice against Russians, especially Russian leaders who do not cave in to their self-centered ideas.

Those who predominantly view life through political lenses are also most likely to have what Gordon Allport describes as the “Prejudiced Personality,” which involves an entire set of skewed cognitive habits of thinking provoked by an underlying threat orientation that tend to be conducive to hostility, difficult social relations, and less creative problem-solving skills.[7] Those with this personality are most likely to be prejudiced towards various groups of people and ideas, and their entire perception of truth is also distorted. For example, in his classic 1954 work, The Nature of Prejudice, Allport writes of experiments in which participants are repeatedly shown drawings of a cat, and picture-by-picture the cat gradually transforms into a dog. Those with the Prejudiced Personality are less likely to recognize this change while it’s happening. Their minds stick to their initial belief that they’re looking at a cat.

This pattern of thinking affects our relationship with truth and with other beings. For example, Allport describes several features of the Prejudiced Personality:

  • less empathic ability towards others
  • tendency to blame others for problems and not take any blame oneself
  • inability to handle frustration
  • projection of self-hatred into hatred of others
  • preoccupation with superiority/inferiority
  • need for definiteness, not ambiguity
  • a preference for strict rules and hierarchy
  • an insistence upon cleanliness and morality
  • support for authoritarianism
  • greater support for institutions and patriotism
  • constrictedness in thinking
  • black-and-white thinking—seeing good all on one side and bad all on the other
  • selective perception—seeing and remembering that which supports what one already thinks
  • simplification of memory traces—remembering in an erroneously simplified way
  • clinging to past solutions

It’s important to kindly and clearly raise awareness of the Prejudiced Personality and never allow its skewed perception of the truth to lead to harm and injustice, whether in foreign policy, the office, neighborhood, or home.[8]

Because of their sub-optimal relations with people and with truth, those who adhere to Lakoff’s Strict Model and those who have Allport’s Prejudiced Personality are the types of people least likely to be successful in creating cooperative, harmonious, just foreign policy. Why, then, do we even allow such people to heavily populate our foreign policymaking establishment? It’s not as though we should be prejudiced ourselves and forbid their occupying foreign policy positions. They can contribute to discussion and their ideas may certainly be helpful. But in no way should they be in the driver’s seat of foreign policy, which is where they’ve been for about two centuries as the US initiates war after war, year after year, in nearly every year since its inception, if not with Native Americans, then with foreigners abroad.

The other type of personality Allport describes that is the opposite of the Prejudiced Personality he calls the Tolerant Personality, or Democratic Personality, which also has its own set of cognitive habits. Ironically, perhaps this is why the US government is so undemocratic: it is populated in its most powerful positions by undemocratic personalities, whose obsession with rivalry, superiority, inferiority, and obedience completely obstructs their individual ability to create a democratic government.

Of course, it may be difficult to even recognize this obsession with competition as imbalanced, because competition and the blind belief that it always leads to improvement is one of the primary, unsubstantiated values promoted by US culture. As Ruth Benedict wrote in Patterns of Culture, from a large array of values and traits, each culture fosters certain values and traits and discards others. In his article, “Tahitian Gentleness and Redundant Controls,” Robert Levy writes that each culture emphasizes particular values, and those values are reinforced in many different settings and situations within that culture, as a type of “redundant control” to reinforce those values.[9] So present are these traits in so many aspects of life that they’re assumed to be a normal part of human life.

Yet it is the dominant traits that are most likely to grow monstrously out of proportion and to be in need of a good pruning.[10] In the US, competition, particularly competition for money, has wrapped its clinging vines around nearly every aspect of life, including learning, recreation, religion, employment, the media, social life, commerce, politics, and foreign policy, sometimes choking the very potential of each aspect of life to fully blossom and to develop human life in the direction of joy, love, and peace. And in foreign policy, the capacity for peace is suffocated by this drive to be the best.

Ironically, the cultural, economic, political, and military consequences of US foreign policy is quite anti-competitive, as large corporations lead to the downfall of smaller competitors, variety gives way to standardization, propaganda leads to conforming, homogenized perspectives, and foreign nations themselves are all expected—not to compete with the US government—but to obey. So it is not competition that these US leaders value, it is rather one-sided victory that they value, and the disappearance of all forms of threats, competition, and rivals that they so nervously perceive and misperceive in their surroundings.

Imagine waking up one day to read our morning newspaper and find, not talk that revolves incessantly around competition amongst nations for wealth, power, and status, but articles about Putin’s personal efforts to protect wildlife in Russia. While those efforts are, in fact, true, perhaps there also would be other articles someday about interspecies friendships in the Congo between humans and bonobos, reptiles, birds, fish, and other mammals, collaboration between Pakistan and India to uncover ancient fossils in unbombed land, pedal-cars and special roadways being developed in Latin America that use no fossil fuels whatsoever but build muscles, joyful forms of cooperative recreation taking place between Russians and Americans that have nothing to do with gold medals, and new forms of music and dance being synthesized together by Israelis and Palestinians without any contracts with agents seeking to profit.

Wherever a nation’s eyes focus, that’s where the time and money will go. And if our US foreign policy and media makers will continue to fill their ranks with people like themselves, with people suffering from these same psychological patterns, with people whose eyes perceive only competitive threats in the unknown and adversaries in those whose ideas are different, we’ll continue to have an unnecessarily tough and unpleasant road ahead.

Kristin Christman has been independently researching US foreign policy and peace since 9/11. Her channel focuses on US-Russian relations at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuNEw9-10lk-CwU-5vAElcg. Kristin graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth College with a BA in Russian language, and she holds Master’s degrees in Slavic languages from Brown University and public administration from SUNY Albany. She has been a guest with former UNSCOM weapons inspector Scott Ritter and UNAC coordinator Joe Lombardo on Cynthia Pooler’s program, Issues that Matter, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDlaLNJih7U. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice recently published her article on suicide, culture, and peace in their special edition on suicide, Vol. 33 No. 4.  kristinchristman956@gmail.com

Notes

[1] Damon Wilson, Testimony given to the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Hearing on the Implementation of the National Defense Strategy, Jan. 29, 2019, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov.

[2] Project for the New American Century (PNAC), “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century,” Donald Kagan and Gary Schmitt, Project Co-Chairmen; Thomas Donnelly, Principal Author, Washington, DC, 2000), i.

[3] James L. Nolan, Jr., What They Saw in America, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 181.

[4] Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea, (New York: Penguin, 2006), 294-95.

[5] George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, (Chicago, Illinois:  The University of Chicago Press, 2002), 33-34, 67-69, 72.

[6] Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, (New York, NY:  Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1979), 439-40.

[7] Allport, Nature of Prejudice, 395-408.

[8] Allport, Nature of Prejudice, 400-403.

[9] Robert Levy, “Tahitian Gentleness and Redundant Controls,” in Learning Non-Aggression: The Experience of Non-Literate Societies, edited by Ashley Montagu, (New York: Oxford Univ., 1978), 251.

[10] Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934), 249.


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