Beginnings of the Imaginary of a Permanent Global War

Can the U.S. ever be at peace? Since after WWII, its official doctrine has been that the enemies of peace have first to be defeated—eradicated even. What is this view based on?

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

As in any book club, you are kindly invited to let the rest of us know what you think!

Disclaimer: Being the result of personal work, this chapter summary cannot and does not pretend to offer a detailed and accurate transcription of all the author’s ideas.

There are two distinct but complementary ways we usually imagine ourselves as a citizenry: through a constitutional imaginary and through a power imaginary. When it takes place, the precedence of the latter is what ultimately justifies a state of permanent war. The purpose of this chapter is to examine how this power imaginary became the actual background of U.S. policies.

Here is how Sheldon Wolin defines these two imaginaries: “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. 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.”

Beginnings of the Imaginary of a Permanent Global War
Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

For Hobbes, the legitimacy of power takes shape under the form of “a permanent contract, a constitutional imaginary, which provided the basis for the power imaginary.” The keyword here, of course, being “imaginary” since there is nothing certain behind how we feel about the origin and legitimacy of political power. Hobbes, for his part, judged that power is usually exercised among individuals to their overall detriment because man is a wolf to his own kind. Quite logically, the author’s solution for a stable, prosperous, and secure state was to confide our boundless craving for more to one common entity all partake in. And, in order to avoid the dread of permanent aggressions 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 the bible’s Book of Job.2 Contrary to the common thinking of his time legitimizing monarchy as a natural order of things under God, therefore, he was of the opinion that political authority is anything but natural. The government of men has to be the object of a contract because in the state of nature the ravages of raw power from all individuals prevent their own durable satisfaction.

What neocons like in Hobbes, obviously, is the idea that power is the primary thing to be dealt with among men. The image of an innate drive for power undoubtedly bears a seductive appeal to boldness through the crude recognition of what is supposed to be man’s true nature. If power is man’s destiny, however, it is then bound to be its own guide. Taken as a principle, power is necessarily exclusive of all other guidelines to be followed. And this implication, in turn, opens the door to all kinds of wild justifications in the exercise of political power itself. As Sheldon Wolin points out, “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.”

In recent U.S. history, “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. A leading scholar has described NSC-68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security as ‘the bible of American national security and the fullest statement of the new ideology that guided American leaders’ during the Cold War.3” Let’s then open this bible of American national security and see how it still impacts U.S. policy today.

Beginnings of the Imaginary of a Permanent Global War
President Harry S. Truman with members of the National Security Council. August 19, 1948.

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.'”

For the NSC-68 authors, the USSR was, thus, on the dark side of what Hobbes had named a “restless” quest for “power after power” that “ceaseth only in death”. The U.S. was officially declared to be on the bright side since it was defending democracy. But being on any side of a fight for power that is deemed to be absolute only turns your proclaimed lofty aims into a permanent global war which, both at home and abroad, hardly stands as an optimal way to build that same democracy.

At home, how could you 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 make nefarious ill-doers break cover wherever they hide. The wider the eventual flush, consequently, 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.”

Beginnings of the Imaginary of a Permanent Global War
Senator Joseph Mccarthy and his aid, Roy Marcus Cohn. Image: Byron Rollins/AP.

All this amounted to an odd but unsurprising deception orchestrated to protect established powers, merely by demonizing the largest amount possible of actual defenders of social values as democracy’s very enemies. 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.”

Regarding foreign countries, precisely, 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.’ To that aim, what is vehemently denounced from others is embraced by those who so readily grant themselves the moral high grounds: ‘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.’ And, if fighting fire with fire, why not adding even more to it? Since there has to 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.’ So, 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.”

This was not a one-off or a mere exaggeration from overzealous civil servants. NSC-68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security was, again, “the bible of American national security and the fullest statement of the new ideology that guided American leaders.” Later on in its wake, “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.4‘ 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.”

Beginnings of the Imaginary of a Permanent Global War
Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his sermon Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence. 4 April 1967, Riverside Church, New York City.

To ordinary citizens, the blatant contradiction at the core of the self-righteous fight against communism then or terrorism now is plain to see even without going to official memos. Why not, if citizens are their own sovereigns everywhere, simply leading through the sheer force of example and in the belief that all reasonable people will eventually recognize where their true interest lies? Why not, at home, letting them exert their own judgment instead of granting superficial badges of patriotism? The answer is simply that in the mind of permanent global war ideologues, the arch principle—the one thing that, to them, drives the world—is power, not human brotherhood, intelligence, and well-intended mutual enrichment. But while certainly priding themselves on being realists in this regard, not dreamers, they are most likely projecting their own inferiority/superiority complex on the rest of the world. After all, these are women and men of power and, for many of them, designed heirs of the ruling class.

Beyond the psychological aspect of their power imaginary, these people are also caught in the compelling reasons of their own logic. If power is all there is, rightfully wielding it comes down to opposing universal chaos through the imposition of your own power. Contrary to Hobbes, however, to whom this universal chaos was due to man’s relentless desire for more, U.S. officials content themselves with a hyperbolic anti-communist or anti-terrorist flag. Not only does this make Hobbes appear as a refined psychologist in comparison, but he was, additionally, careful to ground absolute power in a contract agreed upon among the citizenry. Nothing of the sort with the permanent global war ideologues of today. In the absolute world that they depict, the U.S. is by definition in the good guys camp because the enemy of democracy is by definition totally and definitely bent on destroying it. There is no discussion or agreement to be had. From a practical standpoint, consequently, this implies that the U.S. can do no wrong and, by the same token, that it cannot be held accountable for anything to anyone when it comes to war and peace. There is nothing more to American exceptionalism. In reality and as anyone could have guessed, the U.S. government has set itself up to be a straight agent of the same evil it proclaims to fight. To the many countries that have been concerned by U.S. political and military intrusions, the pretense that what is ultimately at stake is some metaphysical opposition between good and evil has long appeared for what it is: the ultimate excuse a rogue state can resort to.

Beginnings of the Imaginary of a Permanent Global War
Courtesy of Hajjaj Cartoons

Sadly, the delusion of American exceptionalism is still held today as an article of faith by many. According to one scholar favorable to the U.S.’ superpower: “(…) empire has become a precondition for democracy.5” The United States, he continues, 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.” As Sheldon Wolin notes again: “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.”

Even though the labeling of the enemy may change, the “bible of American national security” has remained the same throughout all U.S. administrations since President Truman’s. Those who do not share the same faith are left with two questions: Who does the permanent global war imaginary serve best? How to make it die off?

Book Club Discussion: What do you see as the main driver of U.S. imperial foreign policies since after WW II? Is it ideological or rather based on the opportunity of profit-making on an international scale? And how does it differ from the legitimate defense of U.S. interests?

Share your thoughts and build on what others say in the comment section below.


  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. Michael J. Hogan, A Cross of Iron, 12. NSC-68 is reproduced and discussed from various perspectives in American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC 68, ed. Ernest R. May (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1993).
  4. 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.
  5. Michael Ignatieff, as quoted in Bacevich, The New American Militarism, 25.
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