Since the very first days that intrepid pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley with virtually nothing but the clothes on their backs and an indomitable spirit, global engagement has been part and parcel of Utah’s DNA.
On a hot summer day shortly after arriving, those early leaders climbed Ensign Peak, an otherwise undistinguished hill less than a mile from where the Utah State Capitol building now stands. They looked out across the barren valley and declared their intent to build a city that would have a leavening effect on the rest of the world and to which “all the nations of the earth” would come. They then climbed back down the hill and went to work, forging a vision that has shaped generations of Utahns who first worked to make Utah the “Crossroads of the West” and are now equally committed to making Utah the “Crossroads of the World.”
“Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World” deploys anecdotes from the co-authors’ time serving in President Trump’s White House to call for improved strategic competence. Foundational to achieving that goal is a deliberate effort to replace strategic narcissism with strategic empathy. Strategic empathy is apparent in Utah’s tremendous success in calibrating its global engagement to advance the interests of the state and its people, companies and institutions.
As America grapples with a quadruple trauma at home — the pandemic, a recession, outrage over unequal treatment under the law and vitriolic political divisions that threatened our democratic institutions — there is much we can learn from how Utah companies, institutions and individuals endeavor to understand challenges and opportunities from the perspective of others to avoid the self-referential view of the world that has undermined U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
So, what is strategic narcissism, and how does it weaken strategic competence? It is the tendency to define the world and other actors solely in relation to ourselves and our own actions. It creates fatal flaws in foreign policies and business plans alike due to a disregard for the agency and influence that others exert over the future. Strategic narcissism leads to wishful thinking that produces strategies based on what the purveyor prefers rather than what the situation demands.
The end of the Cold War and decisive victory against Saddam Hussein’s military in the Gulf War ushered in an era of over optimism concerning an anticipated “new world order.” Many assumed that the arc of history had guaranteed the primacy of free and open societies over closed, authoritarian systems. Over-optimism in the 1990s was a set up for strategic shocks and disappointments that came in the form of the mass murder attacks of 9-11, the unanticipated length and difficulty of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
In recent years, strategic narcissism contributed to extreme pessimism about American power and increasingly loud voices for America to disengage from the world, with many arguing that the world’s problems are merely reactions to the United States. Paradoxically, the pessimistic orthodoxy of retrenchment today and the over-optimism of the 1990s share the same fundamental flaw, the tendency to define the world only in relation to the United States and assume that U.S. decisions and actions are the principal determinants of the future.
Effective foreign policy and strategy should begin with abandoning strategic narcissism and acknowledging the agency that others have over the future. American behavior did not cause Russia’s campaign of political subversion, Chinese economic aggression, jihadist terrorism or the hostility of Iran and North Korea. Nor would disengagement make any of those challenges less costly or easier to overcome.
The antidote to strategic narcissism is what historian Zachary Shore calls “strategic empathy: an understanding that ideology, emotions and aspirations drive the actions of others.” As we develop strategies — as a nation, state, company or individuals — it is essential that we pay close attention to the underlying factors that drive behavior in others. Doing so gives us a more nuanced understanding of the motivations and actions of others. Yet it is a step that we often pass over in favor of the easier, more black and white narcissism that has rotted our political discourse and the foreign policy that flows from it.
Fostering strategic empathy helps us recognize limitations on the agency and influence that we and likeminded partners have over particular challenges as well as humility about what we can achieve at an acceptable cost. Humility boosts self-respect and enables us to better assess our capabilities. The result is confidence and strength in the implementation of strategies grounded in realities rather than those that rest on hopes and aspirations.
These elements of strategic competence — valuing agency, developing empathy, fostering humility and projecting strength with confidence — are principles that all Utahns know and value. They are key ingredients in what Natalie Gochnour calls Utah’s “secret sauce.” They are consistently exemplified throughout Utah’s history from the hot summer day atop Ensign Peak to the globally integrated and highly successful society that the state boasts today.
The results of the strategic competence that is displayed at every level of society are clear. Thanks to the success of its individuals, companies and institutions, Utah is a national leader in economic growth, upward mobility, social capital, civic charity, volunteerism and global engagement.
The principles that empower Utah with strategic competence are universal. The many commentators that declare the inevitable decline of America and the beginning of a “post-American world” fail to recognize that America’s continued embrace of strategic narcissism is not inevitable. American greatness does not reside in the halls of government. It is the culmination of billions of individual choices that Americans make each and every day.
When we as Americans strive towards strategic competence, we will prosper within our respective spheres of influence. As a critical mass of Americans shake off narcissism, embrace empathy and demand the same from our elected leaders, we will experience a restoration of strategic competence on a national level and achieve the unity, prosperity and global influence that comes with it.
We invite you to join us on Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 11:30 a.m. to dig deeper into these issues and to engage with us in a discussion on strategic competence, the geopolitical arena, and what it means for all of us in Utah. Click here to learn more and register.
H.R. McMaster, a retired Army lieutenant general, was President Trump’s national security adviser from 2017 to 2018 and is the author of “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World” and “Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.” Miles Hansen is the president & CEO of World Trade Center Utah and a former national security official at the White House.