There’s a chapter in a new book by Dorothie and Martin Hellman called A New Map for Relationships that outlines seven international relationships between the United States and others in which many people in the United States have not understood their government’s abusive behavior. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.
What would people in the United States make of the information, if they had it, that Russians are infuriated when the West doesn’t recognize their suffering in the course of their defeat of Nazi Germany? The single city where Vladimir Putin’s parents lived lost more civilian lives to Germany in WWII than all U.S. military losses in the war. Yet the U.S. boycotts Russia’s 70th anniversary victory celebration in order to protest the choice of the people of Crimea to rejoin Russia following a violent right-wing coup in Ukraine facilitated by the United States. And Russians remember Harry Truman saying that the United States should help Germany if Russia was winning and Russia if Germany was winning, so that more people would die. They remember the U.S. delay for years in launching D-Day until Russia had been bled dry. The remember Winston Churchill’s proposal to launch a war on Russia using Nazi troops within hours of the Nazi defeat. They remember the U.S.-British-French invasion of 1917. They remember the U.S. promise not to expand NATO eastward when Germany reunited. They watch every military expansion on their border. They listen to every lie and provocation. And people in the United States remain oblivious, aloof, arrogant, and abusive. If this were a marriage, one partner would be told to do a little bit better listening.
How many people in the United States know that Jimmy Carter met with North Korea’s government in 1994 and made an agreement between the United States and North Korea that North Korea upheld for years? How many know that the United States chose not to uphold its side of the agreement while at the same time labeling North Korea part of an “axis of evil,” invading Iraq, and declaring in a “National Security Strategy” the U.S. right to attack such other countries? And that only after that, North Korea pulled out of the Nonproliferation Treaty and kicked out inspectors, and four years later conducted its first nuclear test? How many have considered the North Korean perspective on Libya’s agreement to give up nuclear weapons, followed by the violent overthrow of the Libyan government and the savage torture and murder of Libya’s president? Is there any awareness in the United States that North Korea views U.S./South Korean simulations of bombing North Korea (again) as threatening? Without, needless to say, declaring any partner in any relationship to be a saint (except my wife who actually is), isn’t it possible that a good counselor for this relationship would gently invite the United States to remove its head from its posterior?
A New Map for Relationships looks at these two and five other relationships from the perspective of personal, specifically marriage, relations. While I found other sections of the book analyzing the authors’ own marriage far less valuable, that could be in part because I already largely agreed with them. I appreciate their particular insights and facts once they turn to foreign policy, but someone inclined to believe hostility and arrogance to be entirely appropriate in foreign policy might be shaken in that perspective if they read the book in its entirety. (And if you think such people don’t exist, go back and watch Senator Ron Paul booed in a presidential primary debate in South Carolina for suggesting that foreign policy utilize the Golden Rule.)
That being said, I think there are a couple of dangers that must be carefully avoided every time we do the personal-to-international analogy. One is that propagandists and propagandizees are not identical. Those concocting fraudulent justifications for war are often completely aware of what they are doing. We have Pentagon officials now openly talking about hyping the Russian threat for bureaucratic and profit motives. Those are very different problems than lack of information or empathy. And empathy and understanding may not be the tools we principally need to apply in order to alter the actions of the propagandists; sometimes massive nonviolent disruption may be more useful. The distinction between those in power and those out is muddied by the use (by these authors and virtually every human being in the United States) of the term “we” to refer to the United States military or government.
A second problem is false equivalence. In a marriage, two partners should be, and in many ways usually are, relatively equal. In a relationship between the United States and Iran, for example, one of them spends hundreds of times what the other does on militarism, has bases on the other’s borders, threatens the other with war, has invaded the other’s neighbors, possesses nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, routinely engages in wars and drone murders, spies on and assassinates members of and sabotages the other, and has attempted to frame the other and falsely accuse the other of crimes. This same “equal partner” once overthrew the other’s democracy and installed and for years propped up a brutal dictator, and then assisted the other’s neighbor in a war against it that included massive killing with chemical weapons, to which the other chose not to respond in kind. In this sort of situation, asking each equal partner to admit equal blame is not a path to resolution. Asking each partner to admit some blame may make sense, but there’s an obvious reason why one of them should go first.
With those caveats, there is much to be gained by examining the sometimes-overlapping attitudes toward international relations of the public and those in power. Doing so allows the Hellmans to reach key insights about Los Alamos scientists, presidents, and dictators. And, I think, as presidents more and more closely resemble dictators, their nations’ foreign policy more and more resembles their personal relationships. When Donald Trump is handed the power, not to execute the laws of Congress, but to make laws and launch wars and spy and kidnap and imprison and torture and murder at will, it becomes very relevant how he relates to people or nations. It begins to matter that he has personal property all over the globe, some of which will almost certainly be attacked by terrorists. It begins to matter more that he may be more insecure and paranoid than Richard Nixon. But if he swears off hostility toward other nations and tries to work with them as partners, that may be an enormous silver lining to his cloudy rise to power. If on the other hand he wants war, there may be a silver lining for our resistance: if he is more naively open about his motivations — if he blurts out “steal their oil!” and “kill their families!” — then the rest of us may have an easier time avoiding the trap of imagining that the people he wants to slaughter have deeply offended us.