Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Erik Erikson's "Golden Rule in the Light of New Insight" Revisited

Sixty years ago the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson gave a talk in India on the Golden Rule, a formulation that occurs, with some variation, in all the major religions. Judaism: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to you fellow man.” Islam: “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself.” Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Erikson’s theme was the creative potential of mutuality—between spouses, parents and children, doctors and patients, teachers and pupils, even between nations. Mutuality, Erikson asserted, is a relationship in which partners depend upon each other for the enhancement of their respective strengths.  The curiosity of a student elicits from the teacher the skills for transmitting the excitement of learning in a way that benefits both teacher and student. 

In the case of nations, fear of Hobbesian chaos if leaders relax their futile race toward military superiority makes it difficult to encourage mutuality. Ruthless power relations turn the lifegiving spirit of mutuality on its head: do not even think of trying to destroy me because if you do I will destroy you. This paranoia rationalizes the unabated manufacture of ever more destructive weaponry, irrespective of sensible policy goals, by ever more powerful corporations. As the vulgarism derived from the Golden Rule puts it, those with the gold make the rules. The ersatz American idea of mutuality (adore us, obey us, give us your oil) has often resulted in tragedy—or tragic farce, viz. Mr. Cheney asserting recently that given the chance to do it all over, he wouldn’t change a thing.

Is there anything that we have learned about the context of international relations in the years since Erikson gave his talk that might make his paradigm of mutuality not only more relevant but also more realistic?  Can the Golden Rule become more persuasive than gold?

First, establishment strategists schooled in pitiless power politics like Henry Kissinger have come to the reluctant conclusion that nuclear weapons cannot serve as a useful tool for furthering anyone’s national interest.  Kissinger’s boss Richard Nixon wanted to use them against North Vietnam, but was dissuaded lest other nuclear powers be drawn in.  Fortunately we were mature enough to accept defeat rather than suicidal escalation, and that restraint has continued. It may be a sign that we are gradually maturing beyond the folly of war altogether that most American wars since Vietnam, since Korea in fact, have been inconclusive stalemates.

When American, Israeli and Iranian diplomats, or their proxies, sit down to talk, do they simply threaten each other? Or do they hypothesize together what will inevitably occur down the time-stream if they fail to establish the basic trust upon which mutuality can be built? Is it possible for them to help each other see the possibility of shared survival goals despite the chasm of divergent motives and stories? Can they acknowledge how other nations have already gone through the futile process of arming themselves to the point of being able to pound each other’s rubble, only to arrive, a few months before Erikson’s long-ago talk, at the Cuban Missile Crisis? Do they share with each other the reality that the detonation of only a few nuclear weapons has the potential to cause nuclear winter, endangering not just specific parties to conflict but the planet as a whole?

The second basis for mutuality even between enemies, following upon the realization that anything else leads to nuclear extinction, is the model of mutuality found in nature, pressed upon us by all the ecological revelations and challenges that have arisen since Erikson spoke. Humans exist only through their mutual relationship with the air they breathe and the food they consume, with the sun that fuels photosynthesis, ocean currents, wind and rain. Mutuality, whether or not we decide to make it our conscious goal, is our essential condition.

Adversaries have the option to build mutuality upon these two principles: first, war in the nuclear age solves nothing and has become obsolete, and second, at every level from the personal to the international, we know now how deeply interdependent and interrelated all humans are with each other and their life-support system. These two realities have come down upon us a thousand fold since Erikson posited mutuality as an ethical touchstone, renewing and deepening the implications of the universal Golden Rule. These realities can help guide contemporary diplomats from all nations through the dilemmas that raw military power cannot address. Threats become less effective than initiating people-to-people exchanges or giving the “enemy” fully-equipped hospitals, gestures of good will that lessen fear and build relationship.  Such initiatives are exponentially lower in price than war itself. As Erikson put it:

Nations today are by definition units of different stages of political, technological and economic transformation . . . insofar as a nation thinks of itself as a collective individual, then, it may well learn to visualize its task as that of maintaining mutuality in international relations. For the only alternative to armed competition seems to be the effort to activate in the historical partner what will strengthen him in his historical development even as it strengthen the actor in his own development—toward a common future identity.

Finally, Erikson’s “common future identity”—after we understand that we are first of all a single species before we are Persian or Jew, Muslim or Christian—requires the acknowledgement of a further mutuality, the mutuality of earth-human relations. Our very survival, let alone our flourishing, depends upon cooperation to strengthen the living systems out of which we came—in order to strengthen ourselves. The Golden Rule, priceless beyond gold, calls us to swear on the lives of our grandchildren not only to treat our enemies as we would wish to be treated, but also the earth itself. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Nuclear Emptiness, Nuclear Hope

Schultz, Kissinger, Perry and Nunn, those quintessentially establishment figures, have just posted in the quintessentially establishment Wall Street Journal their fifth editorial since 2007 advocating urgent changes enabling the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons on planet Earth.

Computer modeling tells us that if even a small fraction of the world’s nuclear arsenals are detonated in a war, doesn’t matter where—could be Pakistan-India, Israel-Iran, U.S.-Russia or China or Iran—the amount of soot thrown skyward could curtail agriculture on the planet for a decade—effectively a death sentence for all.

So why do we hesitate? Are these weapons worth the money they are sucking away from our schools and firefighting equipment and bridge repairs? Why are Russian and American nuclear missiles still pointed at each other on high alert?

Working backward from the ultimate bad outcome of a nuclear war, no matter how it started, by a terrorist action or a misinterpretation or an accident or even a deliberate attack by one state on another, as we contemplated nuclear winter and no food, would we still divide the world cleanly into “goods” and “bads,” or would we realize that the fears and tensions engendered by the weapons themselves led to a system over which we did not exercise the preventive controls for which Kissinger/Nunn/Perry/Schultz advocate?

We need to acknowledge how our minds function—both the minds of the “goods” and the minds of the “bads,” because we all possess a limbic brain, a fight or flight response that goes back to our saurian ancestors. 9/11 paranoia led us “goods” to cross the red line beyond which lies the immorality of torture. But all of us also have a part of our brain that evolved later, a part that can make rational decisions based in common survival goals. That’s the part of the brain Gorbachev and Reagan and George Bush Sr. used to end the madness of the cold war between the U.S. and the dissolving Soviet Union.

A few weeks ago at a Maine conference on the Middle East, Lawrence Pope, an American career diplomat, dared to assert some hard truths. “I would argue,” he said, “that it does matter that there are virtually no Foreign Service officers in policy positions in the State Department anymore, and that at the White House, it is the military intelligence complex that reigns supreme. The Arab Awakening cries out for an active American diplomatic role. I wish I were more optimistic about the ability of our militarized institutions to adapt to this new world. As a government, we are better at flying drones, recruiting agents, and indulging in patronizing fantasies about nation-building than we are at dealing with free men and women.”

What is missing is not only diplomatic initiative, but something in our own hearts that can recognize free men and women when we see them, without wishing to control them—or their oil. In the context of nuclear paranoia, it is difficult to focus creatively upon war preparation and upon peacebuilding at the same time. They represent two disparate kinds of creativity. Establishment leaders assert we need both, in the form of diplomacy backed up by overwhelming force.  But as Einstein said, you cannot solve a problem on the same level of thinking that created the problem.  On the paranoid level, to a hammer everything looks like a nail.

The work of dismantling not only the nuclear weapons themselves, but also the enemy thinking that tempts the primitive parts of our brains, is endless. Maybe we are the good guys and Iran’s leaders are bad guys. But even as we become more alienated from each other and move closer to war, we both know that war will not resolve our differences and will only result in tragedy. The 80 million people of Iran have little to say about it. Because we’re supposedly more democratic than Iran (though hundreds died in the streets of Iran in 2009 demonstrating a yearning for democracy), we ought to be able to think more outside the nuclear fears that seem to box in our policy options.

Instead what we have is secret violent initiatives on both sides—tit for tat. We insert a virus into their uranium-refining centrifuges that causes the centrifuges to spin out of control. Someone, maybe us, maybe Israeli intelligence, is assassinating their nuclear scientists. Iran in turn arms surrogates like Hezbollah, or attacks computers in Saudi Arabia. Fears and stereotyping intensify, in a kind of proxy of the potential nuclear war no one can win. Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would slow the impetus of proliferation but will not stop it. Terrible resentments would be exacerbated in the Persian/Arab/Muslim world, with unforeseen consequences down the time-stream.

Dialogue with adversaries should be based less on living up to U.N. agreements (Iran is hardly the first to break those when it chooses) than on shared realities. Nuclear winter helps us to see nuclear weapons as a subset of planetary environmental challenges like climate change and the shared systems of pollution in the ocean, soil and air. These make it impossible not to acknowledge common survival and security goals that have no military solution. The people we disagree with are as real as we are. Our own security and theirs are interdependent, however much we despise their prejudices or clandestine activities. We share the big transnational challenges, and we share limbic brains that, when threatened, revert quickly to default settings of “us-and-them.” 

Our nation was founded by Europeans who came here to transcend colonialism. Even as the Old World was giving up its colonies, we became a country that unconsciously revived colonial domination, rationalized by the assumption that our job is to bring democracy to the unwashed masses, or, failing that, at least colonize their oil. We could start by penitently acknowledging colonialist misdeeds like the oil-motivated interference of the United States and Britain in Iran’s democratic process in the 1950s, which we can bet Iranians have not forgotten. Doing the inner work of recognizing our own shadow-side would allow us to access the creative peacebuilding skills available to “free men and women” everywhere. Beyond “us-and-them,” we face the nuclear cul-de-sac together as one human species. It is hopeful that someone as pitilessly realistic as Henry Kissinger realizes that there is no way out but abolition.