Don't buy it.

Don't buy it. Elisabeth Braw

Narcissism and National Security

A century ago, the doings of ordinary citizens barely mattered to national security. Today, they matter a great deal more.

Go to any bookstore these days and it has a section on personal fulfillment. Fine. But focusing on oneself means focusing less on others – and that has enormous implications for society. A century ago, the doings of ordinary citizens barely mattered to national security. Today, they matter a great deal more. Consider January 6, QAnon, the wildfire of disinformation, adventure travel to dangerous areas resulting in high-risk rescue missions, reckless sales of companies. Narcissism isn’t just a personal matter. It undermines national security.

Every day on my walk to work I walk past a gym. In front of the entrance, a massive poster declares: “You are exactly where you need to be.” The gym doesn’t seem to think there’s anything objectionable about this upbeat poster; on the contrary, it clearly thinks the poster will encourage more people to sign up for gym classes ($34 per class). It would, of course, be unfair to denounce a gym for trying to sell gym classes. Yet “you are exactly where you need to be” is a stark expression of a reality drenched in narcissism. The gym isn’t advertising its classes as a way of interacting with other people while getting fitter, let alone as a way of helping reduce the nation’s health bill. Going to the gym is about focusing on oneself and feeling that one is succeeding. The increasing push for individual success is a pan-Western trend and especially an American one. As Michael J. Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard, points out in his masterful new book The Tyranny of Merit, “these days, we view success the way the Puritans viewed salvation – not as a matter of luck or grace, but as something we can earn through our own effort and striving.”

So we strive on, all trying to get ahead, especially by getting a university education, and most especially by getting one at a good university. And we strive in virtually every other area too. When plastic pollution first emerged as an environmental problem, the so-called Crying Indian campaign called on Americans to stop littering. Other countries saw similar pleas, which did lead to remarkable changes in consumer behavior. I dutifully separate out every item that can possibly be recycled; I even retrieve from the trash any recyclable items my husband should have put in the recycling bag. CO2 emissions, too, have become a matter of individual ambition, with consumers instructed to calculate their personal carbon footprint. (Both campaigns were the creations of powerful industry groups, some of which have been known to egg on our individualism so as to escape their own responsibilities.)

Sandel notes that the language of success is even permeating the humble domain of amateur cooking: “You deserve succulent chicken,” the New York Times recently announced. But as promising as the effort and striving are: it’s an individual pursuit. In fact, as Robert Putnam documented so powerfully in Bowling Alone two decades ago, most areas of life are now individual pursuits. 

For the community-minded among us, that’s a troubling development. But the passionate individualists among us should be concerned too. That’s because individualism often creates narcissism. If I focus on me and decide that I want to share a Twitter post before verifying its content, nobody can tell me not too. It’s up to me to do the right thing – and if I want to share misleading social media posts, I’ve got the right to do so. 

In fact, narcissism permeates every area of life. If I’m a startup entrepreneur and want to accept Chinese venture capital (which is perfectly possible in Europe, although the U.S. recently introduced stricter rules) I can do so, despite knowing perfectly well that that helps China get ahead in its efforts to outperform the West by gaining access to its best firms and ideas. Indeed, I can also travel to exceptionally dangerous countries simply for the thrill of it, safe in the knowledge that if something happens to me my government will be duty-bound to rescue me. (Missionaries, healthcare workers, and people returning to visit their families clearly have legitimate reasons to travel to dangerous areas and deserve support.)

This is, of course, precisely what’s happening. Fueled by unchecked narcissism, we engage in activities that may seem pretty harmless in isolation but collectively undermine the security of our societies. On November 30, 1939, the Red Army invaded Finland, calculating that the neighbor – small to begin with – would be so riven by its recent civil war and the simmering internal strife that it wouldn’t put up a fight. How mistaken the Soviets were. Under the redoubtable Marshal Mannerheim, the Finns not only united but fought audaciously for a remarkable 105 days. Would our countries, divided as they are, be as courageous and united as the Finns of 1939? Sure, we all hope so. 

But the figurative Soviet assault is unlikely to arrive. Instead, we’re constantly attacked in small ways, and it all seems pretty manageable. But just like narcissism in isolation is tolerable while collectively it is highly damaging, acts of aggression below the threshold of war are tolerable in isolation and collectively exceptionally damaging. A bit of incorrect information is part of life in a liberal democracy, but the large-scale spread of inaccuracies can dangerously undermine it. (Exhibit A: January 6.) The occasional Chinese VC investment is part of life the globalized economy, but concerted investments that lead to the best ideas being snapped up long before the startups enter the market deprive the startups’ home countries of invaluable innovation. One Western citizen arrested on bogus charges is manageable, but arrests of Westerners as a tool of coercion are a national security threat.

“You are exactly where you need to be”? I’m not suggesting we should deny ourselves individual pursuits. I am, however, suggesting that we ought to take our communities into account more frequently. Sure, we don’t need to ask the famous WWJD question before every decision, and it would be hubristic to stop to consider potential national security consequences of our every action. But at the very least, we would do well to spend a few more thoughts on those around us. As Putnam documented two decades ago, our social capital needs replenishing. And today that wouldn’t just be a good thing on a human level but for national security too.