It didn’t have to be this way. But we all know that. We just haven’t been honest with ourselves. So let’s be honest about it: Armenia lost due to 20 years of strategic narcissism. However, Azerbaijan is also going to lose, primarily due to the strategic narcissism of the Aliyev regime.
Strategic narcissism consists of the subjective preoccupation with the self, in this case, the self being qualified as the given government exercising full jurisdiction and stewardship of a state. This preoccupation with the self is further associated with neglect of the influence that external actors have over the course of events. The strategic narcissist unilaterally attributes outcomes almost exclusively to its own actions and decisions, thus denying agency to the opposing state by underestimating the extent to which decisions made by the enemy state will influence the course of developments. Inherently, strategic narcissism suffers from wishful thinking. Armenia’s governments, from 1998 until the 2020 Artsakh War, suffered from strategic narcissism.
Why Armenia Lost
Since the end of the First Karabakh War, the balance of power methodically shifted against Armenia, largely due to its failure to understand the emerging challenges to its own security, prosperity, and regional influence. As Azerbaijan enhanced its military capabilities, immensely increased its arms budget, and thus implemented a long-term strategy of preparing for war, Armenia sought to rely on strategic narcissism, ignoring the developments within the opposing state, while denying Baku agency and underestimating the extent of the shift in the balance of power. And when confronted with the course of such developments, the leadership in Yerevan resorted to wishful thinking, cockiness and arrogant dismissiveness. There remained something rotten in the political thinking of Armenia’s elite; this is the rot of “epistemic vice.”
Strategic narcissism, in the realm of ethics, is qualified as an “epistemic vice,” indicating attitudes, character traits, policies, and ways of thinking that obstruct the growth of knowledge and self-reflection. The policy incoherence, strategic daftness, and wishful thinking of successive Armenian governments have resulted in delusional posturing, naivete, overconfidence, willful ignorance and serial gullibility. This collection of governing vices and failed leadership run seamlessly through the two decades of faux nationalism and performative patriotism that defined Armenia’s political decision-makers.
Relying on the false logic of “mutually assured devastation,” Armenia assumed that the reinitiation of fighting will be too costly for either side, and since both sides were “armed to the teeth,” there will be mutual devastation. Such wishful thinking was subsidized by serial gullibility: Armenia’s strategic posturing, especially its capacity to execute a highland war, was a deterrent in of itself; Azerbaijan is a weak state suffering from a cultural inferiority complex, and as such, these “sheep” cannot withstand a lengthy and costly war; Armenia has the nuclear option of its Iskander missiles, and as such, Baku will be leveled to the ground; and, Russia will never allow a full-scale war to break out. This fusion of overconfidence, willful ignorance, and underestimating of the enemy, entrenched strategic narcissism as the overarching ideational structure that shaped the thinking and policy-making of Armenia’s political leaders.
Just as problematically, this also seeped into the country’s collective political culture, as the elite constructed a notion of performative patriotism that became defined by exaggerated prowess, false self-confidence and delusional posturing. Nuanced concerns about Azerbaijan’s increased armaments, its enhancement of strategic bilateral relations with multiple regional actors, Armenia’s growing regional isolation, and suspicions about Russia’s role as absolute protector, were dismissed by such bombastic and wishfull claims as “Ganja can be taken in matter of days,” “We will have tea in Baku” and “We will decimate Azerbaijan’s oil refineries and pipelines.” A narrative, designed partly on naivete and partly on arrogance, created the false illusion of security: Armenia had become a victim to its own mythology of invincibility. Thus, performative claims, having no substantive basis in Armenia’s capabilities or resources, birthed a faux nationalism: denying the enemy any agency, Armenians unilaterally attributed outcomes almost exclusively to their own actions and decisions. We are a special people, and our specialness, in of itself, was the answer. Symptomatic of the trappings of wishful thinking, our own narrative became “more influential than logic or evidential considerations.” Thus, for 20 years, Armenia was not preparing for war, Armenia was acting like it was preparing for war. Performance had replaced substance.
The catastrophic impact of these epistemic vices was the assumption that the status quo, through performative geopolitics, can be preserved, and overoptimism about Azerbaijan’s acquiescence to our performative acts of deterrence will suffice indefinitely. In essence, Armenia’s utilization of strategic narcissism denied Baku any serious agency when it came to constructing its security architecture, which resulted in willful negligence and naivete: “Artsakh is Armenia,” and as such, we will create our own reality. And, in a sense, Armenia did end up creating its own reality, but not the one that it wanted…it created the nightmare that it finds itself in. To escape this nightmare, Armenia must also escape the trappings of strategic narcissism.
Why Azerbaijan Will Also Lose…Soon
But Baku should not gloat. Their nightmare is only about to begin…
Strategic narcissism, a more complex and systemic strand of hubris, appears to be the inevitable consequence of victory, regardless of how that victory is qualified. Armenia rigidly placed itself in this trap in 1998, while the Aliyev regime has been sowing the seeds of its own demise since November 9, 2020. The temptation for a victor to assume that it can impose its will and thus create its own reality is an inherent defect of strategic narcissism, especially for states that clearly do not have the means to do so. As such, they resort to wishful thinking and delusional posturing, convinced that they can, in fact, create their own reality. This disconnect between what one can do and what one desires to do gives way to the construction of performative patriotism: if you say something over and over, regardless of how detached from reality it is, and act and perform accordingly, you can create your own reality. This is why Aliyev thinks Azerbaijan is a regional power, or that Syunik is his, or that Hadrut was never Armenian, or that he can challenge Iran, or that he can leverage Russia. He is performing, and his performance is driven by arrogance, willful ignorance, naivete, and wishful thinking. Aliyev is a strategic narcissist.
Convinced that a weakened Armenia has no agency, the Aliyev regime implemented border incursions into Armenia-proper, confident of its own might and an ability to alter the terms of the November ceasefire. This objective has not been achieved, as the situation remains stagnant and counterproductive, further complicating Aliyev’s delusions of grandeur. Having operated under the naive assumption that Russian peacekeepers are an ephemeral phenomenon, Baku is resorting to hybrid tactics to challenge the establishment of a new status quo. This act of overconfidence reeks of strategic daftness, as it wishfully thinks that Russia’s regional interests are negotiable, or that Russia, somehow, would acquiesce to Baku’s demands. Slowly imprisoning itself within the confines of arrogance and invincibility, Baku has reassured itself that Azerbaijan is a regional powerplayer, and based on this delusional posturing, has proceeded to escalate tensions with Iran. The consequences of this developing regional competition between the two neighbors remains exceedingly lopsided, but observed through the framework of strategic narcissism, this is predictive and consistent behavior by a leadership driven by the intoxication of victory.
The epistemic vices of Baku are not merely specific to the policy incoherence or desires of regional adventurism as voiced by a cocky and self-assured Aliyev. The same rot that Armenia’s policy-makers embraced for 20 years is also putrefying within the policy-making corridors of Baku. And just as importantly, this is seeping to Azerbaijani society and into the faux nationalism that has been constructed by the Aliyev regime. If Armenians fell into the trap of strategic narcissism by mocking the cultural inferiority of the Azerbaijani people, the Aliyev regime has, in essence, created an alternative universe in Azerbaijan, where Armenophobia is both instituted and normalized, and where performative iconoclasm has given way to substantive and real support for policies of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The dehumanization of the Armenian has become the preeminent act of performative patriotism in Azerbaijan, and one that not only reinforces collective ignorance within one’s own society, but also severs the civicness of the Azerbaijani citizen from reality.
The collective outcome, in due time, will not only mirror that which happened to Armenia, but rather, will very likely be worse for Azerbaijan, for the ideational precepts of strategic narcissism that inflict Baku’s decision-making are far more acute than that which inflicted Yerevan. In this context, the Aliyev regime is not consolidating victory, it is only acting like it is; it is not making Azerbaijan safe, it is only acting like it is; and it is not seeking regional peace and stability, but rather, it is only acting like it does. In the end, however, when the act runs out and the performance has reached its completion, the theatrical production that is the Aliyev regime will close.
Within the Armenian realm, both domestically and in its Diaspora, faux nationalism has gratified itself with performative patriotism, constructing an artificial ethos that its own self-proclaimed proponents clearly never believed in. This pathetic attempt at socio-political dandyism reproduced a culture of political hedonism, where a collection of self-righteous fools, by virtue of controlling the corrupt corridors of power, whitewashed their defilement of the state. A value-system of narcissism became normalized, where substantive action was substituted with performative behavior: you didn’t need to be educated, you only needed to act like you are; you didn’t need to be an expert, you only needed to act like one; you didn’t need to care about Armenian society, you only needed to act like you did; you didn’t need to be a patriot, you only needed to act like one. And the better you acted, the more patriotic you were deemed.
A cadre of political thespians were thus born, lying, for 20 years, to the Armenian people about the power of our Army, the strength of our positions, and the robustness of our resources. And those that dared to see through this facade of political performances were immediately labelled as unpatriotic and anti-nationalist. Unless you banged your chest and yelled “not a speck of land,” and unless you partook in the performance of this thespian class, you were judged a weakling and an enemy-sympathizer. Thus, honesty and integrity became supplanted with orchestrated mendacity, and those that sought to address the inevitable failures of performative patriotism became outcasts. This theatrical performance went on, even after the Velvet Revolution, only to reveal itself for what it was: a fraud. Defined by swindlers and impostors, the Armenian realm realized that it suffered from a crisis of patriotism, which had been birthed by the overlords of faux nationalism. This realization, this rebirth of Armenian collective consciences, however, has brought about the winds of change, as political leaders, civic society, and Armenia’s burgeoning democratic culture are learning the lessons of two decades of strategic narcissism.
At the same time, a coterie of strategic narcissists, refusing to learn the lessons of the last two decades, and the lessons from the 2020 War, keep shouting the slogans of wishful thinking. This ragtag collection of political opportunists and Diasporan keyboard fedayeens are attempting to not only continue, but justify the fraud, the rot that festered for two decades in Armenia’s political thinking. But by understanding the failures of strategic narcissism, we can now understand the catastrophe of faux nationalism, and to escape the trap of performative patriotism, Armenian society cannot shy away from honest and brutal self-reflection: unless we observe, diagnose, and correct our flaws, we are only lying and hurting ourselves. The time has come to end the culture of narcissism and performativity that still lingers in the domain of Armenian politics.
Much to the luck of the Armenian realm, the Aliyev regime is navigating down the same road of strategic narcissism and performative patriotism that Armenians passed through over the last 20 years. In retrospect, Armenia committed the cardinal sin of underestimating, and even worse, laughing at its defeated enemy. Fortunately for Armenia, Azerbaijan is returning the favor, but in a more obscene and ridiculous fashion. Let the trappings of strategic narcissism take its toll…
In this context, Aliyev is slowly constructing the same trap for his country that we constructed for ourselves, but he may be doing a better job than us. So let him build his “trophy park,” let him make absurd claims about Hadrut, let him antagonize his southern neighbor, let him engage in caviar diplomacy, let him frolic in the pages of the Panama Papers and the Pandora Papers, and let him boast about his own greatness and that of his immortal father. He is not doing Azerbaijan any favors; but he is doing a lot more for us than we think. Let strategic narcissism and performative patriotism become his bedfellows, and we will talk to him very soon…
1-The concept of strategic narcissism is articulated by H.R. McMaster, in his work Battleground: The Fight to Defend the Free World (2020, Harper Collins). But the foundations of the concept were developed by Hans Morgenthatu, the intellectual father of realism, in an article he co-authored with Ethel Person, “The Roots of Narcissism,” Partisan Review (Vol. 45, No3; 1978).
2-Quassim Cassam. Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 2019.
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