Beginnings of the Imaginary of a Permanent Global War

Since after WWII, the U.S. official doctrine has been that the enemies of peace and democracy should systematically be defeated under its leadership. What is the rationale for such an absolute claim?

This post belongs to a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, please click here.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.

According to Sheldon Wolin, a citizenry sees itself through two distinct but complementary ways: a constitutional imaginary and a power imaginary. This chapter examines how the latter has justified a state of permanent global war in U.S policies.

“The constitutional imaginary prescribes the means by which power is legitimated, accountable, and constrained (e.g., popular elections, legal authorization). It emphasizes stability and limits. A constitution partakes of the imaginary because it is wholly dependent on what public officials, politicians in power, and, lastly, citizens conceive it to be, such that there is a reasonable continuity between the original formulations and the present interpretations.” By contrast, “The power imaginary seeks constantly to expand present capabilities. Hobbes, the theorist par excellence of the power imaginary and a favorite among neocons, had envisioned a dynamic rooted in human nature and driven by a ‘restless’ quest for ‘power after power’ that ‘ceaseth only in death.’1 But, according to Hobbes, unlike the individual whose power drives cease with death, a society can avoid collective mortality by rationalizing the quest for power and giving it a political form.”

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Hobbes’ political theory unfolds this way: Power is exercised among individuals to their overall detriment because man is a wolf to man. The solution for a stable, prosperous, and secure state of living is to entirely confide our individual power to one common entity. In order to definitively avoid the dread of permanent aggression between people, this political authority must never be disputed once established. Hobbes referred to this absolute authority as the Leviathan, the overpowerful mythical creature mentioned in chapter 41 of the Book of Job in the bible.2 To him, therefore, political authority is anything but natural. The government of men has to be the object of a contract because the ravages of raw power from all individuals, in the state of nature, prevent everyone’s durable satisfaction. The legitimacy of power takes shape with Hobbes, says Sheldon Wolin, under the form of “a permanent contract, a constitutional imaginary, which provided the basis for the power imaginary.”

The assumption that the drive for power over each other is a law of nature bears a seductive appeal to neocons, as it sounds like crude realism and a call to boldness in accepting that power is all there is among men. This assumption is amoral but not necessarily immoral. It is up to officials in power to understand that their interest resides in providing security to all citizens. Though there is no call for moral elevation in that perspective, there is not one either for governing through dictatorial whims.

It remains, however, that seeing power as all there is to man’s destiny allows the governing entity to do away with all forms of accountability. Lying is not only acceptable; it might prove to be one of the most convenient ways of governing. As Sheldon Wolin points out in regard to the invasion of Iraq, “One consequence of the pursuit of an expansive power imaginary is the blurring of the lines separating reality from fancy and truth telling from self-deception and lying. In its imaginary, power is not so much justified as sanctified, excused by the lofty ends it proclaims, ends that commonly are antithetical to the power legitimated by the constitutional imaginary.”

Another important consequence is that there can be no boundaries to the expansion of the governing entity. Absolute power must impose itself absolutely if it wants to survive, and its authority must reach all individuals wherever they happen to live. Political compromises with other forms of power abroad are, therefore, impossible. But if in Hobbes’ theory individuals have the bare choice of either aggregating as one under a single absolute authority or dying a violent death, in real-life populations enjoy more latitude and recognize themselves under national governments. Unsurprisingly, therefore, ever since they adopted a power imaginary over a constitutional one, United States officials have found themselves opposing the country’s designed enemies in absolute terms. Hobbes’ logic is simply cloaked under a more modern and palatable endeavor: saving democracy.


“The prime example of a power imaginary and the best indicator of the turning point from a politics of social reform to the pursuit of a global politics is an official report to President Truman by the National Security Council in April 1950.” This report is the NSC-68, titled United States Objectives and Programs for National Security.3 A leading scholar has described it as “the bible of American national security and the fullest statement of the new ideology that guided American leaders” during the Cold War.4 Let’s then open this bible of American national security and see how it still impacts U.S. policy today.

NSC 68 was drafted under the guidance of Paul H. Nitze, Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, 1950–1953.

The document’s ideological stance is immediately apparent: “The highly charged language of NSC-68 seems out of character for a classified ‘top secret’ policy paper composed by and for policy-making elites. One expects a document for the sober. While there are plenty of economic statistics and military strategies, the report contains myth making of epical proportions and high melodrama as well. ‘The issues that face us,’ the document announced sweepingly, ‘are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself.'” Beyond its overly dramatic tone, moreover, “NSC-68 effectively begins with the favorite ploy of many myths, a dualism where innocence and virtue are confronted by unnuanced evil: ‘[While] the fundamental purpose of the U.S. is to assure the integrity and vitality of our free society, which is founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual . . . the Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world. Conflict has, therefore, become endemic and is waged, on the part of the Soviet Union, by violent or non-violent methods in accordance with the dictates of expediency.'”5

The NSC-68 squarely assumed that if a freedom-loving democracy is to survive, it must organize its resources and accept “the responsibility of world leadership,” which means “clearly superior overall power in its most inclusive sense.”6 Because it grants itself the moral high ground, the world freedom savior squarely assumes the legitimacy of using means it deems despicable on the part of the enemy: “We should take dynamic steps to reduce the power and influence of the Kremlin inside the Soviet Union and other areas under its control… In other words, it would be the current Soviet Cold War technique used against the Soviet Union.”7 And, if fighting fire with fire, why not add even more to it? Since there must be no holds barred in the sacred war for freedom, its tactics sum themselves up in the “Intensification of affirmative and timely measures and operations by covert means in the fields of economic warfare and political and psychological warfare with a view to fomenting and supporting unrest and revolt in selected strategic satellite countries.”8 In other words and as Sheldon Wolin puts it, “a fanatical, repressive, totalitarian regime [the USSR] sets the standard of power a free society must surpass if civilization is to be preserved.”

Democracy might have been waved as a rallying banner in the NSC-68; faith in it was non-existent. Later on, “A study group reporting to President Eisenhower urged explicitly that the United States not only follow the Soviet example but seek to surpass it: ‘We are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed object is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost… [T]here are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective means than those used against us.’9 Thus anticommunism as mimesis: the character of the enemy supplied the norm for the power demands that the democratic defender of the free world chose to impose on itself.”

Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his sermon Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence. Apr. 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York City.

On the ground that you don’t need them when you are right, the same absence of principles operated as well at home during the Cold War era. After all, how could one be entitled to raise concerns about the actions of a political power that defines itself as the defender of your freedom? Reciprocally, this power has every right to track down those it proclaims nefarious members of society, and the more expansive the flush, the better. During the red scare storm of the 1950s in the U.S., as Sheldon Wolin reminds us, “The domestic version of anticommunism was aimed at even larger targets alleged to be connected: social democracy, trade union power, anticapitalist beliefs associated with the New Deal, and the political liberalism identified with academia and the media. The targets were (in the language of the times) ‘smeared’ as being either communist or sympathetic to communism, disloyal, or, at the least, ‘soft’ on communism. There was much discussion of how educational reform might serve to ‘strengthen national security’ by instructing the citizenry in the meaning of democracy and the importance of patriotism.”

This shameful and painful intellectual fraud orchestrated nationwide had as its objective aim to demonize the most significant amount possible of actual defenders of social values as democracy’s very enemies. Before it imploded under its excesses and total disingenuousness, this witch hunt turned so fierce and systematic that “Certain elements in the domestic side of the Cold War imaginary displayed an uncomfortable similarity to elements of the Soviet regime: purges; loyalty tests; violations of due process; criminalization of a political party for its beliefs rather than its actions; development of an elaborate, largely secretive agency with a global network of spies and assassins (CIA), dedicated to subverting regimes deemed unfriendly or uncooperative and installing sympathetic ones.”

To ordinary citizens, the blatant contradiction at the core of the self-righteous fight against communism in the fifties or terrorism in the “War on Terror” era is plain to see even without going to official memos. If citizens are indeed their own sovereigns in a democracy, why not simply lead them through the sheer force of example and in the belief that all reasonable people will eventually recognize where their true interest lies? Why not let them exert their own judgment instead of granting superficial badges of patriotism? The answer, of course, is that it never was about democracy, or only at the margins and for some gullible officials. The real issue was power. The United States, contrary to its official claim, has an almost impeccable record of always emboldening and supporting dictatorships while crushing democracy. The reason is simple: when sought for its own sake, power is not debatable.

When justifying the necessity of absolute power by the universal chaos created by mankind against itself, Hobbes was careful to ground such power in a contract agreed upon among the citizenry. That is precisely why his Leviathan was figuratively represented as the amalgamation of all individuals. His aim was to save this chaotic world by introducing a principle of government no one could rationally contest. Nothing of the sort in the minds of contemporary ideologues for permanent global war. In their world, the U.S. is by definition in the good guys camp. Where Hobbes was looking at humanity as such, they decree that the small part gathered under the American flag is immune to evil. Why? Because we allegedly are for democracy, and as being against democracy is inherently bad, we are then inherently good. It is mind-boggling that this cuckoo logic has justified for so long American expansionism abroad and still goes largely unquestioned today, even though it is all there is to “American exceptionalism.”

Courtesy of Hajjaj Cartoons

Unless enough citizens commit to critically understanding the concept of democracy, the delusion that it makes American power Sacro-saint instead of accountable may still persist for a long time to come. Among intellectuals trying to defend the idea of American exceptionalism, this has led to pitiful mental twists. According, for instance, to one scholar favorable to U.S. hegemony: ” . . . empire has become a precondition for democracy.”10 The United States, continues the same scholar, should “use imperial power to strengthen respect for self-determination [and] give states back to abused, oppressed people who deserve to rule them for themselves.” To which Sheldon Wolin rightly answers: “Thus, instead of imperial domination as the antithesis of democracy or of imposed government as the opposite of self-government, we have a fantasy of benevolence, of opposites harmonized through the largesse of a superpower.” The NSC-68 has been indeed the “bible of American national security.”

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Book Club discussion: What is the main idea in this chapter? What are its logical and/or real-world implications? Can you think of an objection?

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  1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott (Oxford: Blackwell, n.d.), 64, 112, 113.
  2. “Leviathan and Hobbes’s sovereign are unities compacted out of separate individuals; they are omnipotent; they cannot be destroyed or divided; they inspire fear in men; they do not make pacts with men; theirs is the dominion of power.” Mintz, Samuel (1989). “Leviathan as Metaphor” in Hobbes Studies.
  3. NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security (April 14, 1950)
  4. Michael J. Hogan, A Cross of Iron, 12.
  5. NSC 68, Analysis, I, II, p.3
  6. Ibid., VI-A, p.3
  7. Ibid. VIII, p.13
  8. Ibid., VIII, p.14
  9. Quoted in Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, 34. The study group was chaired by General James Doolittle, who had led the first bombing raid on Tokyo during World War II.
  10. Michael Ignatieff, as quoted in Bacevich, The New American Militarism, 25.
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