The US and Great-Power Autism Syndrome


The famous strategy expert, Edward Luttwak, coined the term “great-power autism” to describe certain actions by large and influential powers on the international arena. 

Great-power autism syndrome is characterized by a lack of serious study of problems by the people responsible for foreign policy decisions. This is the case when decisions are adopted on the basis of very simplified representations of complex reality. Reality itself is inevitably distorted in such cases as it is fit to the schematized representation of the decision-making subject. 

Edward Luttwak, a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan, accuses the United States of such great-power autism. This notion has re-emerged in recent months, as evidenced by the numerous statements by experts and media to the effect that America is moving “somewhere,” i.e., the new administration has no strategy of action.

Foreign Policy writes about an absence of strategy on the part of the White House, and the publication believes that the problem is the President himself. Assessing the first 100 days of the new presidency, Foreign Policy notes that Donald Trump’s words and deeds have alienated many of the US’ allies, that the budget requested by the administration will inevitably lead to an increase in already astronomical national debt, and that all of this renders American interests increasingly vulnerable. What’s more, security requires discipline, but where can such come from if the President himself is not disciplined and sets an example of indiscipline for others?

Business Insider points out the serious fact that the State Department and the US Department of Defense lack security experts. Three months have passed since the new administration started working, but no one has been appointed to the 52 posts in these two departments. Personnel appointments, according to the publication, have been the subject of controversy between the President’s team and the team of the new Pentagon chief, James Mattis. Mattis’ candidates were rejected by Trump’s people in the beginning only for Trump’s nominees to then be rejected by Mattis’ people.

The Huffington Post wrote about the same problem in early April when it reported that half of the senior official posts in the State Department remain vacant. Among them are the posts of Deputy Secretary of State for Arms Control, the Assistant Secretary of State for Management, the Assistant Secretary of State for Administration, the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, and the Director of the Department for Foreign Missions. In addition, US ambassadors have not been appointed in 57 countries, and the approval of embassy staff is proceeding much slower than under Obama.

What’s more, American media are widely discussing the fact that the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, does not have experience in public office, as well as the fact that Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, who is assigned to handling Israeli-Palestinian issues, are acting as the President’s advisors. Given Kushner’s connections with the Israeli lobby, there can be no talk of any attentive and open-minded approach to this challenging, long-standing problem on the part of the new administration. 

Great-power autism also influences the US’ relations with its neighbors. The example of Mexico glaringly obvious. First, Mexico was invited to join the North American Free Trade Area, then the US introduced protectionist measures against Mexican goods and services. Moreover, drug wars have been unleashed not without the involvement of US special forces which have claimed the lives of nearly 60,000 Mexican citizens. Finally, Mexico has been extremely agitated by Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall on the border. 

“The Mexican political elite,” The Atlantic writes, “has begun to ponder retaliatory measures that would reassert the country’s dignity, and perhaps even cause the Trump administration to reverse its hostile course…Trump has committed the bully’s error of underestimating the target of his gibes. As it turns out, Mexico could hurt the United States very badly.” For example, the unfolding situation could be very successfully taken advantage of by China to significantly increase its economic influence in Mexico. Mexican analysts have already named this the “Chinese card.”

American media are tenaciously recording each and every one of the new President’s public policy mistakes. Earlier Trump said that NATO is obsolete, but after meeting with the North Atlantic Alliance’s Secretary General, he unexpectedly stated that everything is fine with NATO, and he even gave the green light to induct Montenegro into the military bloc. In another case, the President wrote on his Twitter that he had sent a carrier battle group to the coasts of the DPRK, but in fact there was no such order, and the US ships performed scheduled maneuvers in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. 

Of course, Trump’s critics in the US - who have become no fewer since last year’s election campaign - are excessively focused on the new President’s personality, whereas the problem of America’s behavior is much deeper. Great-power autism in American foreign policy is maintained by the preaching of American exceptionalism, a missionary complex proclaiming the spread of democracy across the entire world, a kind of quasi-religious doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”, and the ideology of Atlanticism and other claims.

The picture of the world that arises out of such beliefs is deliberately simplified, and it is difficult to overestimate the danger of decision-making on such a simplified basis. 

Translated by Jafe Arnold.