If we become abnormally concerned with something, psychiatrists may diagnose it to be an obsessive compulsive disorder. It can be any kind of extreme interest in or preoccupation with something. It can be sex, religion, work, sports, and many other things. Sometimes, it is an exaggerated form of perfectionism, or an overprotective sense of responsibility, carefulness, slowness in making even simple decisions, and so on, or we can be fixed on counting how many steps a staircase has, for example. We can become paranoid too. At that stage, it is a more serious psychotic or other mental illness.
In my article today, I will use this psychological knowledge as a backdrop to discussing a few examples of states overdoing their control, heavy handiness against others, and not realizing when enough is enough, when it is time to let go and let their obsession give room to new and positive ideas and actions.
As soon as the economic recession started, the Germany and the other economically stronger countries were all up in arms against those who were about to defaulted in their financial and responsibilities and being unable to service and pay back their debts. It was all about forcing measures on the weaker countries. They had to pay, was the refrain. Their leaders sent the bill over to the lower classes, who produce wealth through seat and labour, paying less for their work and providing more limited benefits, never mind that their salaries and the labour regulations were the result of struggle and negotiations over decades. The strong countries became obsessed with getting paid because the weaker countries had been irresponsible in their economic policies, never even considering that they too had been irresponsible, proving loans and selling goods to customer countries which would not be likely to pay any time soon.
Last weekend, we got the verdict in the elections in France and Greece; they wanted new governments which would take realistic approaches to debt, defaulting and finding ways out of the problems. In France, the President-elect emphasized growth and new, alternative approaches, not only stifling austerity measures that lead nowhere and is almost a trap. The compulsive disorder of the strong countries has been revealed.
Similarly when it comes to punishment of individuals in some countries; defendants may be sentenced to 100 or 200 years imprisonment. How ridiculous! What is the logic? It is a compulsive disorder inbuilt in the legal system of countries that use excessive force against defendants. America is one such country, with a particularly high prison population of several of million people. How come they don’t stop and re-evaluate how much is enough, when it is time to let go, of outdated models? How come they don’t see that the majority of the prisoners re-offend, while in some other countries, especially in Scandinavia, use prisons as institutions for rehabilitate rather than punishment?
And since I am onto America, let me focus on the response to the 9/11 tragedy and the “war on terror” that followed. The static response over more than a decade is indeed a serious compulsive disorder. Two have wars followed, but not linked in any logical form to 9/11; the Iraq war is over as for direct combat; the Afghan war still continues, with the Taliban enemy, i.e. the country’s ultraconservative majority, said to gain strength, as the war goes on. Do the world’s superpowers have to have wars raging? Do we not know to stop when enough is enough? It is a disorder in our nations, international bodies and the perhaps the psychic of the leaders.
The term “war on terror” is indefinable in most respects. Even if all wars have ended, which is just my unrealistic dream, perhaps, we would still find some reasons to go on with the “war on terror”, creating fear, mayhem and tragedies in homes and workplaces, towns and villages. The remote drones, cluster bombs and landmines are examples of particularly cruel weapons which can only be used by psychopaths, I believe. And somehow, even if weapons are illegal, we go on using them. What is wrong with us?
The obsession America and the West have with further nonproliferation of nuclear weapons has for long been strange, probably all the time since it was America that used the weapon on Japan, the only time it was used. If there had been some logics to it, and if it had been another country that had used the weapons, that country would have been banned from ever having such weapons ever again. Instead, it is now the country in the world with the highest number of nuclear weapons, several thousand. Yet, it is also in the lead of promoting nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. North Korea and Iran have been singled out as countries that must be stopped from having them. Whether it is logical that they want to have them, is beyond debate, it seems. The propaganda goes on and on. Can we be nearer compulsive disorder in international politics? On top of it, since it has been said repeatedly over many years, we somehow begin to believe that the mentioned countries belong to an “axis of evil”. I wonder what would happen to North Korea if they were left alone to sort out their foreign policy issues with their immediate neighbours rather than with the interference of the country far away, which also must take a major responsibility for the sad affairs of the Korean Peninsula being divided. I believe North Korea would be sane enough to sort out the issues peacefully, with its immediate neighbours. But then we, America, the West and all of us, must be sane enough to allow them to do so, to show they are a responsible state. And from there, they would begin integration in the rest of the world.
I could take many other international policy issues where no solutions are found decade after decade, and the reasons for the conflicts may almost be forgotten as new generations grow up. The Israel-Palestine conflict is no near solution; the Kashmir issue remains unsolved; the Pakistani-India relations are at least in thaw weather. Sometimes, I wonder to what extent the Cold War was real, too, or if it to a major extent was made up by propaganda, economic and ideological interests of the two blocks. Professor Evelin Gerda Lindner in the “Network for Humiliation Studies and Human Dignity”, based in Oslo and New York, emphasizes in her books how important it is that human relations are based on mutual respect and psychological respect. She has made studies of the tragedies in Somalia and Rwanda, and, being of German background herself, the Second World War. Lindner says that the least observed discipline in diplomacy is psychology. Yes, obsessive disorders would be part of it.
Although I have pointed fingers in this article, my point was rather to emphasize that we must learn to think, not take the world for granted. We must not take concepts, issues, religious beliefs, unclear justifications for wars and relations between countries, and so on, just as a transfer of knowledge, attitudes and values from one generation to the next. True, we are all socialized into our own cultures, but even so, I emphasize that we must learn to think independently. If something wrong is repeated a thousand times, and we start believing it, it is still wrong. Or, if we are successful and things go well, we must not be complacent. We must continue questioning if we cannot do things better or differently. In my home country, Norway, an oil rich and well-organized society of five million people, I constantly fear that we shall slumber, feel too comfortable and above many of the real world’s hardships. We may even preach our solutions to others as if they can be transferred wholesale. That too can become a compulsive disorder.
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.