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Carlito’s Way: Resolve and the Narcissism of Great Powers

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The likes of Mitt RomneyJohn McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice allege that Obama’s weakness in Libya, or Syria, or Ukraine, radiates all the way to China.

Poor Obama has worked hard to show his hawkish credentials. He has bombed Libya, killed Bin Laden, surged in Afghanistan, smited Islamists in Afghanistan and Pakistan with what commanders describe as “industrial scale” violence, and throttled the Iranian economy with punishing sanctions. Yet still his critics complain that he has an insufficient appetite for fresh confrontations, and that this incentivises aggressors to pounce. Not only did Obama’s “fecklessness” allegedly precipitate Moscow’s lunge in Eastern Europe. It has supposedly emboldened Beijing, most recently in its aggression over the Senkaku islands.

What are the roots of this obsession? Those afflicted with “resolve” anxietysuffer from a bad case of narcissism that afflicts Great Powers. They assume that the hegemonic power is always at the centre of the universe. It flatters a Great Power to suppose that clashes across the planet are all about ‘us’ and that the dominoes of the world rest precariously on its every move.

Thanks to scholars Daryl PressJonathan Mercer and Ted Hopf, we already know this world view is flawed. The obsession with showing resolve somewhere to project strength everywhere, and theories of credibility based on prior action, are at odds with the historical record. Observing states mostly do not regularly update their calculations according to a Dow Jones index of conspicuous fortitude. To be sure, credibility is a real commodity. But it draws on practical capabilities that states can bring to bear in the here and now, and on perceptions of the balance of interests in a crisis. Enemies and rivals are sensitive to the difference between peripheries and areas of high strategic value. Defeat in Vietnam did not persuade Moscow that the United States would abandon Western Europe, any more than the Soviet Union’s bleeding in Afghanistan meant the Warsaw Pact was a paper tiger.

All of these are very good points. Thanks, Jared.

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