Everyone has a stake in issues like the prevention of nuclear war, and indeed of conventional war, like the potential war between Israel and Iran or the U.S. and Iran. These potential wars would only delay, but not resolve, conflicts that portend nuclear confrontation down the time stream. It’s hard not to have an interest in the present troubling rightward swing in Israeli politics, embodied in 40-year-old Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultra-nationalist, right-wing Israeli political party The Jewish Home, whose campaign slogan concludes “…there will never be a peace plan with the Palestinians.” Such a harsh shift shows a hardening of differences between Israel and the Palestinians over Jewish settlements, a “local” conflict with regional and global relevance.
As an ordinary citizen, I’ve never studied international relations or participated in negotiations, but I’ve met a few diplomats. I once had a conversation with a man who had militarily served the U.S. in an African country. I was astonished at his crude and unapologetic bigotry. It was very difficult to imagine this person making a good-faith effort to understand the interests and cultural frames of reference of his assigned country. Later I had the opportunity to get to know Robert White, former President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to El Salvador, who was as judicious and thoughtful as my earlier acquaintance had been patronizingly colonialist.
Another thoughtful figure I got to know in the 1980s, Dr. John E. Mack, was not a diplomat but a psychiatrist with a passion for exploring the thought processes of diplomats or generals trying to represent their countries’ interests. Dr. Mack won a Pulitzer for his brilliant 1976 biography of T.E. Lawrence, A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence, the British soldier who tried to influence events in the Middle East during World War I using his extraordinary comprehension of Arab language and culture.
In response to the horrors of 9-11, Dr. Mack argued that it was crucial in the nuclear age that we understand the motives of the “other,” in contrast to then-President Bush’s simplistic formulations, such as “they hate us for our freedom.” In the years since 9-11, Mack’s orientation has only grown more important, and ought to be a requirement of any diplomat’s training. A brief excerpt from his 2002 paper, “Deeper Causes: Exploring the Role of Consciousness in Terrorism,” gets to the heart of the matter:
Negative or aggressive ideas and feelings that are not consistent with self-regard must be pushed away, or projected outward and attributed to the enemy. A vulnerable and frightened public can all too easily be enrolled into this dangerous way of thinking. Psychologists, social scientists, spiritual leaders, and political professionals (as well as government and other institutional leaders who understand this basic truth) have a responsibility to do whatever they can in speaking and writing to change the public conversation so that the role of one’s own group in the creation of political conflict can be acknowledged and examined, and new possibilities brought forth to create a genuine global community.
When U.S. diplomats sit down with their Iranian, Israeli or other counterparts, do they set a context for discussion based in this depth of mutuality, or in dualistic alienation? Either a nuclear war that no one can win will occur somewhere ahead, or all parties will build on their mutual interest that such a no-win, all-lose debacle does not occur. This shared knowledge of stark choices precedes trust. Trust in fact can only be built out of this context, because it is the common reality for all seven billion of us. In this sense, international relations based upon deception and threat, from whatever corner, have become oddly empty, obsolete, and irrelevant. More relevant is the kind of diplomacy that actively seeks to strengthen the security (the real security of nourishing food, clean water, community well being, and meaningful work, not the pseudo-security that comes from who possesses the most arms) of adversaries. That which strengthens everyone’s security strengthens our own.
Here are four foundational understandings that give perceived enemies something to talk about with each other: First, even a relatively small nuclear exchange could lead to the well-known phenomenon of “nuclear winter,” affecting not just the parties in conflict but everyone else on the planet. Second, environmental challenges posed not just by nuclear winter but also by climate change and vast systems of pollution in the ocean, soil and air make it impossible not to acknowledge shared survival and security goals that have no military solution. Third, the people across the table are as real as we are. Our own survival and theirs are interdependent, however much we disagree. Fourth, parties to any negotiation of conflict on earth share everything, even if we forget it in moments of heat. We share the big transnational challenges, and we share limbic brain core that, when threatened, revert quickly to default settings of “us-and-them.” But it helps us stay human with each other if we acknowledge that reality.
How refreshing if the next revelation of secret WikiLeaks cables showed that diplomats understood the real context of their country’s self-interest: we’re all in this together.