Christopher J. Fettweis. Psychology of a Superpower: Security and Dominance in U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. vii + 269 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-18771-8.
Reviewed by Samantha A. Taylor (United States Army War College)
Published on H-War (June, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, scholars have attempted to describe the international system and the post-Cold War world order. Scholars and policymakers alike have debated whether the post-Cold War period is characterized by US unipolarity or multipolarity with counterbalancing against the United States. Moreover, many scholars have debated and critiqued US post-Cold War national security policy and grand strategy. Thus, there is no dearth of works on the international system and US national and grand strategy. However, few books have explored how the current world system affects how US foreign policymakers see the world, how they perceive the United States in the world, and how they understand the current international system. To fill this gap, Christopher Fettweis’s Psychology of a Superpower explores the effect that superpower status has on the mind-sets and resulting policy decisions of experts in the national security strategy and policy sector. Using an interdisciplinary approach that combines psychological analysis of biases and perception with international relations (IR) theories on bipolarity, unipolarity, and nuclear deterrence, Fettweis examines how superpower status affects those responsible for crafting policy to defend and maintain a superpower.
Fettweis takes his study back to the end of the Cold War, arguing that the end of bipolarity triggered many of the biases, misperceptions, and misunderstandings that affect policymakers. He writes that as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it was going to unleash one last “secret weapon” against the United States: “in this instance the weapon was psychological and unequivocal: the Kremlin was going to deprive America of ‘The Enemy’.... [T]he implosion of the Soviet Union—was about to occur, and it was going to create unforeseen problems for the United States” (p. 1). As Fettweis describes, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a unipolar international environment created significant challenges for the US defense and security community. Without an adversary or threat to focus on, US policymakers felt adrift as they created security strategies in an environment where the United States “while hardly omnipotent, had precious few constraints [or threats] on its ability to act.” As Fettweis lays out, this environment led US policymakers to raise the threat level from minor or to create “imaginary” threats to replace the USSR, and they turned concepts like influence, access, commitments, and credibility into strategic ends, rather than ways or means. According to Fettweis, these changes encouraged US policymakers to fall prey to numerous biases, misperceptions, and misunderstandings that fueled greater exaggerations of threats and greater need to secure concepts-turned-ends into strategic goals.
By integrating psychological approaches with IR theories, Fettweis argues that the United States’ status as a unipole and the world’s sole superpower has led US policymakers to perceive the international system in zero-sum terms, which is having a detrimental effect on US security strategy. Fettweis examines the influence of biases, misperceptions, and misunderstandings on the way that policymakers view the use of power, perceptions of threats, stability, peace, and allies. The book is organized thematically, beginning with an exploration of New Peace theory and unipolarity, followed by chapters on unipolarity and nuclear weapons; US policymakers' psychological biases, perception and misperception, and misunderstanding and understanding of the unipolar environment; unipolarity and US strategic thinking; and unipolarity and the development of US grand strategy. The integration of psychological approaches and international relations in each chapter reveals how American policymakers have fallen prey to the “psychology of a superpower,” such as overestimating threat levels in the international system, overestimating adversarial abilities, and misunderstanding the role of US power in the maintenance of international stability and peace.
In each chapter Fettweis provides a counterfactual to demonstrate the real-world consequences the psychological approach has had on policies and strategic assessments. He does this by taking an IR theory like hegemonic stability, Pax Americana, or nuclear proliferation and comparing it to available data to see if the US assumption is supported by the evidence. When the assumption is not supported, he explains how the psychological theory has warped policymakers’ ability to effectively analyze the international environment and make corresponding policy decisions. Through this method Fettweis contends that US policymakers have misperceived and overestimated threats, misunderstood the intentions and actions of adversaries and allies, and discouraged an empathetic approach to allies and friends. Fettweis concludes that as a result US policymakers have made security decisions that have not helped the country adjust to the unipolar environment. He encourages policymakers to undertake self-assessments to see which of the psychological conditions he describes they may be under the influence of. Fettweis contends that by doing this policymakers will better be equipped to recognize when they are falling prey to biases and misperceptions and avoid them. He writes that recognizing these trends will better enable policymakers to assess the environment and create appropriately responsive policies.
Throughout Psychology of a Superpower, Fettweis deftly interweaves IR and psychological theory and uses counterfactuals to challenge existing perceptions and ideas of US national security and policy. This presents a different view of the national security enterprise and those that inhabit it, by revealing the interconnected effects of psychological biases and dissonance and international relations on the ways that policymakers view, assess, and respond to the world. He shows that the United States' position as the center of the unipolar system has led to detrimental psychological effects that are emerging in policymaking decisions. Fettweis’s book adds a different perspective on international relations and would be useful for scholars of international relations and national security. In particular the integration of psychological theory and IR theory into understandings of security analysis and strategic assessments adds a different dimension to understanding how individuals influence international affairs. However, it is likely that national security policymakers will find fault with Fettweis’s evaluation of US policymakers’ positions and understandings of the international security environment. In particular they may find fault with Fettweis’s use of data in his counterfactuals and his suggestion that they may have overestimated the risks and power of threats to the United States and the world order. Even if readers do not agree with Fettweis’s arguments or conclusions, however, his analysis offers a different way to examine US policy and international relations.
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Samantha A. Taylor. Review of Fettweis, Christopher J., Psychology of a Superpower: Security and Dominance in U.S. Foreign Policy.
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