Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2018.08.15

America's narcissistic national disorder

the japan times on July 17, 2018

Donald Trump's visit to Europe over the past week was phenomenal, to say the least. The U.S. president not only ridiculed the German chancellor before the annual NATO summit in Brussels and avoided anti-Trump demonstrations in London but even infuriated European allies by his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

The mainstream media in the United States and Europe seemed to be very critical of Trump's arrogance in Belgium, his rudeness in the United Kingdom and his missed opportunity in Finland. Political pundits lamented that it was extremely dangerous for a U.S. president with no diplomatic experience to hastily seek a one-on-one meeting with Putin.

As early as in the summer of 2015 in Washington, a friend of mine who, of course, is a Democrat, told me that Trump may have been suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder. According to him, a diagnostic manual indicates that a person with NPD usually displays some or all of the following symptoms:

Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people

Fixation with fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness and so on

A belief that they are unique and superior

Requires continual admiration from others;

A sense that they are entitled to special treatment and obedience from others

Exploitation of others for personal gain

Unwilling to empathize with the feelings, wishes and needs of other people

Intensely envious of others and believe that others are equally envious of them

A pompous and arrogant demeanor

Do these symptoms ring a bell? Perhaps. Trump is always proud of doing what previous U.S. presidents have not done. He claims that all his difficulties have been caused by his predecessors' mishandling, omission or forbearance. In the world of Trump, there are enemies but no allies because he is so righteous and superior.

Now critics of Trump are shrieking. The 70-year-old trans-Atlantic alliance is in an unprecedented state of crisis and Washington appears to be on a collision course with its European allies. The U.S. president only questions force deployment costs and does not feel a deeper sense of a new division in the West.

Is this really true? Two American friends of mine, Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk, recently contributed to The Atlantic magazine a strong counter-argument against those commonsensical propositions. Their piece, titled "The West Will Survive Trump," asserts that the trans-Atlantic alliance has weathered worse times.

Although Trump's supporters and detractors, they wrote, both refer to a "total break from the past," in reality "periodic crises have been a feature of the trans-Atlantic relationship from nearly its outset," and "a serious breach has tended to flare up between the U.S. and its European allies every 15 to 20 years" since the 1950s.

The first was the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 when the U.S. president "criticized the military gamble by London and Paris." Then in the 1960 and '70s, NATO allies declined to send forces to fight in Vietnam. During the same period, the U.S. was alarmed by German Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik policy, while Europeans were surprised by the "Nixon Shock."

In the 1980s, the U.S. deployment of Pershing II nuclear ballistic missiles in West Germany and cruise missiles in Italy and Britain caused "massive anti-nuclear protests across Europe." Then came the Iraq War in 2003, to which such NATO allies as France, Germany and Canada declined to send troops.

"In every case, though," Serchuk and Fontaine assert, "the crisis receded, and habits of cooperation revived. The idea of the West proved capacious, flexible and resilient enough to soldier on, despite the diversity and divisions within it."

Although I cannot agree more with their conclusion, I also harbor a bit different perspective.

Two weeks ago, I wrote in a column titled "The empires strike back" that "Russia and Turkey are born-again democratic empires in the modern era," which was a natural result of "their inferiority/superiority complex vis-a-vis the West." If that was the case for Russia and Turkey, what about the U.S.?

Seen from Tokyo, the latest dispute between the U.S. president and his Western European allies looks like another family feud among half-brothers in the same household. I sense a touch of implicit inferiority/superiority complex among them. While they share the same origin of civilization, in fact, they are culturally much diversified.

While geopolitically located on the peripheries of Western Europe, the U.S., unlike Russia or Turkey, is the only nation that overcame the inferiority/superiority complex vis-a-vis the Western European heritage, when it succeeded the U.K. as the global hegemon in the 1940s.

I am not a psychiatrist but I know a superiority complex is a psychological defense mechanism that compensates for an inferiority complex. If Trump really has NPD symptoms, his extremely arrogant superiority complex recently revealed in Brussels could be a compensation for his latent inferiority complex in relation to Western Europe.

Unless this assumption of mine is too far from the truth, Trump's complex vis-a-vis Europe may represent the centuries-old inferiority/superiority complex of North America -- the New World -- vis-a-vis the Old World of Europe. I wonder if that was one of the reasons why the Trump administration hasn't done a great job in Europe.

If so, Trump may embody the narcissistic national disorder (NND, which I just made up) of the U.S. as a nation. This may partly explain why the disastrous results of the U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki, including the humiliating diplomatic defeat of the Trump administration.

Here is my final question: If Trump suffers from NPD and embodies the NND of the U.S., why did he give in to Putin, who might suffer profoundly from the inferiority/superiority complex vis-a-vis the West? Trump could have behaved much better himself in front of the Russian president.

The only logical answer that I can imagine here in Tokyo is this: Putin must have something -- like a trump card in his pocket to play -- that Trump personally cannot resist. Fact could be stranger than fiction, however, and at this moment we can only pray for the Western alliance, of which Japan is also a part.