The Ninth Biannual Meeting of the International Dialogue Initiative (IDI) was held in London from December 1 to December 3, 2012. The IDI was hosted at the Royal Automobile Club and the House of Lords. This was the IDI’s first meeting in London.
With continued unrest and recent eruptions in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, IDI members again chose to devote considerable time to that conflict. The November elections in the United States and events in Russia also provided material for psycho-political examination, as did ongoing issues and the emergence of new power paradigms within the Middle East.
As with past meetings, the IDI scheduled guest presentations from different areas of the region and facets of the conflict to enrich members’ understanding of realistic and psychological issues under discussion. Guests included Sundeep Waslekar, President of Strategic Foresight Group, a think-tank based in India that advises governments and institutions around the world on managing future challenges, and Oliver Carroll, Editor-in-Chief at openDemocracy Russia, an independent online news agency.
In addition, IDI members were shown a private screening of the documentary “Beyond Right and Wrong: Stories of Justice and Forgiveness.” The film, which documents efforts by traumatized post-conflict participants to move beyond their grief, features commentary by IDI member Lord John Alderdice.
Finally, IDI members received and reviewed the report “New World Order, Arab Spring and Turkey,” by Vamik Volkan, Mehmet Sahin and Farrokh Negahdar, published by the Ankara University Center for the Study and Research for Political Psychology.
What follows herein is NOT a full report of IDI discussions, but rather a synopsis of key observations.
Reconvening after several months, IDI members briefed one another on their individual political and personal circumstances, caught up on the wellbeing of members who were unable to attend, and welcomed attending guests to the group, including Dr. Katie O’Neill, a journalist engaged in dialogue work with former political adversaries in Northern Ireland. Congratulations were extended to Kadir and Senem Cevik on the establishment of the Turkish Psychoanalytic Society at the University of Ankara (POLPAUM). Funding issues were discussed and the group confirmed that its funding continues to be from non-partisan, non-governmental sources. Members then reported on key developments in their home countries.
We began with a discussion of events in the United States because of the importance of the recent election, even thought it seemed to be more about U.S. domestic policy than foreign affairs. The outcome of the election came as a shock to many Republicans and even some informed observers, but in retrospect it reflects a large demographic shift in the U.S. electorate and a successful effort by Democrats to “get out the vote.” Despite strong debate performances, Mitt Romney appeared immoderate after a primary campaign that pushed him to the right on the campaign trail. Female and minority voters voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Enormous sums were spent on advertising by political action committees, but many of the candidates supported by these committees lost.
Obama was seen as a better choice by the rest of the world (whose opinion appeared to matter little within the United States). “Obama is President of the world when he is elected,” one member observed. Perhaps not surprisingly, the world saw the U.S. elections in terms of foreign policy, and saw the election of Obama as an affirmation of a new U.S. non-interventionism. The Administration appears cautious and uncertain about its stance regarding the Arab Spring; it seems to almost be following a policy of containment.
The sense is of recalibration. Domestically, the U.S. has a bipolar electorate that is profoundly divided, both politically and psychologically, with profoundly different projections of the world. It was difficult for Americans (and, perhaps, for the world) to know which projection was “reality” until after the election. Was the Republican projection of unilateralism, military force, and post-Cold War unipolarism real? Or was the Democratic projection of complexity, small footprint, multi-polarity accurate?
Internationally, the election illustrated an unmooring from historic bases, an inability to “put our finger on where we are”. NATO, historically a shield for Western Europe against imperialist tendencies in the Soviet Union, has fallen into such disrepair that major figures no longer show up for meetings. Only France and Great Britain have significant military capability in Western Europe. Western Europeans see Putin as determined to remake Russia into a global power and install himself as a modern tsar. Similarly, Europeans see the end of a unipolar world and the development of a quadri-polar one, a world of the U.S., Europe, China and the Middle East. “Spaces for war” proliferate, in the Middle East, in cyberspace, over trade and aid, over the flow of currency (from, e.g., Chinese casinos in Macao to U.S. PACs). “Simplicity is over,” one member observed.
Netanyahu is seen as “betting on the wrong horse” in the U.S. election. Broad swaths of the U.S. electorate (and elsewhere) demonstrate an inability to parse out an analytical grasp on reality from a wish. Echoes of the Cold War are seen in the battle in Syria, with Russia acting as though Syria is a client state and a proxy in a struggle with the West.
One member observed, in closing, that both U.S. Republicans and “people everywhere” see in the election results an indication that the U.S. is falling from its perch atop the international order. For Republicans, this is viewed as a tragedy. The rest of the world welcomes it. Either way, it is profoundly destabilizing, “a defeat for the U.S.” After 9-11, the public response globally was “how terrible.” Privately, it was “welcome to the real world.”
Several members noted that suicides were up among U.S. service members in recent years, even among those who have not served in battle.
Turkey faces a domestic dilemma. It is modernizing, getting richer, getting rid of an overbearing military, embracing the future, but doing so by “hugging the past.”
Turkey continues to oscillate between modern secularism and Islamic hegemony, between the “Old Turkish Republic” and the “New Turkish Republic”. The government wants to solidify support within Turkey and therefore appeals to historic pre-Ataturk icons. Psychologically speaking, the government styles itself as the leader of “the humiliated society,” with the idea that many people in Turkey were humiliated when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and modern Turkey was born and many old traditions no longer were supported. Whether this assumption is valid or not, it has become an internal political force. It is enabled by media entertainments appealing to a mythical, glorified past. “We didn’t know our past,” one IDI member observed. To Turks, Erdogan the political leader gives the masses “the thing that they think they miss.” He employs a version of mourning, creating a semi-religious former empire to lament and reincarnate. The government seems to argue that, while a system can be secular, a person cannot.
The government in Turkey wants also to extend Turkish influence over the region, and does so by ratcheting up the Islamic rhetoric and appeals to Iran. The government is involved closely with Gaza, with Egypt, with Israel. It sees an opportunity for regional influence with Israel defensive, U.S. withdrawing, Iran isolated and Egypt in disarray. It may have missed an opportunity to increase its influence when Egypt’s Morsi emerged to play a pivotal role in negotiating a ceasefire of the most recent hostilities between Israel and Hamas. But Morsi has also run into trouble with his power-grab. Turkey also faced a delicate situation regarding Syria. Opposition to the Syrian government would threaten the Turkish government’s Islamist bona fides within the region, but the chaos on Turkey’s borders and the regional desire for stability require Turkey to respond.
From an economic standpoint, can Turkey’s internal production systems modernize and produce goods and materials? Can Turkey lead a regional effort to conserve water and build a domestic economy not dependent on external suppliers? That will be a key for long-term stability. One IDI member noted the importance of not having poor neighbours.
A member of the IDI spoke of the reaction among Palestinians to the Turkish government. While the government does not have a strong relationship with the Palestinian Authority, PM Erdogan is beloved by the Palestinians themselves as a symbol of the victim who fights back. Can he turn that influence towards peaceful resolution of Middle East conflicts? Can Turkey and Egypt create an axis of influence that counterbalances Iran and Syria? Or, as one IDI member summarized, will the region continue to be the playground of the great powers, which support the governments that promise stability and predictability – which have historically been authoritarian governments, rather than democracies?
A similar dynamic to Turkey’s plays out in Russia, as Putin seeks to invoke both Soviet and pre-Soviet times in a struggle to maintain power. Russia now cannot understand why Turkey has changed and is dismayed by its conflict with Syria. Nor can it understand why Turkey is battling Syria. Russia feels, in Turkey’s shift, the shifts of geopolitical power and influence from which it is still itself reeling.
An IDI member observed that values discussions, discussions about what the Russian identity has meant and will still mean, are impossible under Putin-style institutions, but are starting to happen outside of such institutions. Putin-style institutions, which try to evoke the mythical Soviet paradise of Putin’s own youth, fail to empower the subgroups now emerging within Russian society. An IDI guest noted that it is absolutely clear that something is changing within Russia, within Russian sentiment towards Putin. Putin’s support within the ruling class is eroding. People are no longer excited about him. As a result, he has become anti-development, a “divider,” appealing to an image of historical, fictional Russia
An IDI member discussed how international sanctions and pressures on Iran regarding its nuclear weapon development have changed the political scene within Iran. He predicted that within 6 months, Iran could have a markedly different government. The Rial has dropped 2/3 of its value as a result of sanctions. Oil exports fell from 2.5 million barrels to 800,000 barrels a day. There is not enough money left to run the country. There is the perception within Iran that the sanctions cannot continue. 85% of government supporters want negotiations with the US. Iranians see no difference between US and EU policy.
New aspects of identity are beginning to emerge. The IDI member believes that resistance and compromise are possible. He believes that Rafsanjani may come forward for the June elections. Khamenei favours Ahmadinejad. A coalition government is possible. He does not believe that there is a strong voice within Iran to develop nuclear weapons to a useful capability. Rather, nuclear development continues to provide leverage to extract political and economic concessions.
An IDI member stated that bombing continues to be a last-resort option for Israel and that sanctions are the only true way to restrain Iran’s nuclear efforts. Change in Iran, he said, will come from the cities, not the villages. Any hope that an emerging minority presence will influence change in Iran, he added, was wishful thinking.
Is Iran reaching “a point of maturity?” Rafsanjani is positioned as a saviour, Ahmadinejad is trying to reinvent himself as a reformer, but Khamenei has not decided whom to support. The ruling class in Iran is sharply opposed to Ahmadinejad. He has been forbidden to make certain visits to prisons and religious sites. Is the US position antagonistic? Certainly, mistakes by the US in the Gulf have exacerbated tensions between it and Iran.
An IDI member noted that there had been a massive emigration of educated Iranians after the revolution, creating a vacuum, which has been filled by religious extremists. Sanctions are now creating an economic vacuum, which is being filled by the Chinese and Koreans.
Syria has, in some ways, become a proxy war for the Muslim Middle East, the place where Shiite and Sunni are fighting each other, the place where Assad seeks to claim the mantle of legitimacy as a “real Muslim” and the reformers make opposing claims of religious purity.
An IDI member spoke about that country’s paradoxical position of economic paternalism and military isolationism within Europe. Germany’s great fear was to be drawn into conflict. Merkel’s government is unpopular but respected. Political decisions appear to be done for appearances, with difficult choices pushed off. The population thinks little of Syria, a faraway land, and if Assad goes, nobody will notice. An IDI member spoke of a foreign policy schism between the government, which takes official positions on foreign matters, and the population, which does not think much about them. Germany is “reluctant about any war.”
Conflict in the Middle East
Much of the second day of meetings was devoted to a free-flowing discussion about causes, effects and themes of ongoing conflict within the Middle East, and specifically between Israel and the Palestinians. One IDI member spoke approvingly of the role that the Egyptian President Morsi had played in negotiating the ceasefire between Hamas and the Israelis. Morsi, he said, was behaving responsibly and will maintain the ceasefire with Hamas. His affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is unimportant in that context. Morsi, this member stated, would likely reduce the role of the Egyptian army and “free the Egyptian economy from the heel of the army.”
One IDI member likened the current situation in the Middle East, and its reverberations globally, to the global political climate just before World War II. He noted that 183 countries had just voted for recognition of a Palestinian state before the UN – a clear global shift in favour of the Palestinians and against Israel. He noted how Europe has largely become irrelevant for the Middle East – echoing the Iranian IDI member’s conflation of the US and EU positions. He noted the spiralling instability that accompanies the end of the power dynamics the world had known since 1945. What follows such a destabilization? It was remarkable that Israel had just negotiated a cease-fire with Hamas via Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. This, to some degree, challenges rigid definitions of friend and enemy in favour of more fluid identity dynamics. But can a society exist without an enemy? If not, what entity steps forward to become the enemy? Is there a latent desire to be adversarial as a form of structure and internal coherence? Is “freedom” too destabilizing?
An IDI member spoke about the dynamics of the ceasefire and the subsequent UN vote for recognition of a Palestinian state. She spoke about the interactions between Hamas and Jihad in Gaza, between Hamas, the PLO and the PA in the West Bank, and between the competing authorities of Abbas, Morsi and Netanyahu to characterize the ceasefire. She spoke about how the Israelis characterize the Palestinians as “defiant” but the word she would use would be “empowered.” She expressed dismay at PM Netanyahu’s claim that the UN vote was a step away from progress and peace.
Integrative and Disintegrative Forces
IDI member Dr. Edward Shapiro noted that people experience reality from the perspective of their own contexts. A mutual sense of “a shared reality” that goes across different contexts is, therefore, inevitably mutually negotiated. He said that human society could be thought of as a vast, multicellular sentient organism with the task of development. Such a systemic developmental task requires learning, adaptation and increasing coherence. From this perspective, one could think of two forces that affect development: integrative ones and disintegrative ones.
Integrative forces work across boundaries to bring differences together without unbearable loss for either side and through mutual learning. This requires raising the question of “how the other might be ‘right’”, how the other might potentially be offering something the first party does not yet know and needs to learn. This is not an abdicating stance; rather it represents a commitment to work at how the other is right. It is one definition of respect. Integrative forces can be seen, for example, in the original development of the EU, though those forces are sorely tested today. Disintegrative forces are obvious within the Middle East and between certain values represented by Islam and the West. Encounters at such boundaries often involve mutual projection of badness, defeat and humiliation, and result in a failure to learn.
This perspective opens the opportunity to examine which boundaries seem inaccessible to learning – and why? What learning opportunities may be intolerable – and why? What happens when integration fails – what new ideas could not be integrated and why? What kinds of learning – and new challenges – happen when integration succeeds? War, from this perspective, can be seen as a failure of mutual learning. And history can be scrutinized around the shifting alliances and consolidations, reflecting, in one way or another, a learning outcome. Does the humiliation that follows defeat reflect not only profound destruction of self esteem but also the realization that a group or a society has failed to learn? What conditions or processes are necessary to turn this potentially disintegrative force into an integrative one?
In concluding the second day of meetings, one IDI member pointed out how opportunity is of course fleeting, and if it is not seized when it presents itself, it can be lost.
Presentation by Sundeep Waslekar
Sundeep Waslekar, from Mumbai, joined IDI members for a presentation about the work of his Strategic Foresight Group and his insights into Middle East conflict. Mr. Waslekar was in London to participate in the Water and Conflict in the Middle East conference organized by IDI member Lord John Alderdice at the British Parliament.
Mr. Waslekar began his presentation by recounting a harrowing experience at the hands of Kashmiri rebels to whom his group was presenting. The presentation took a dark turn, and the rebels became offended. Told that he was about to be shot, Mr. Waslekar engaged the rebels in a discussion about love, sex, and relationships. The discussion lasted for three hours, and at the end of it the rebels let Mr. Waslekar and his group go unharmed. The solution, he realized, was an engagement over basic human emotions. Is anything common between the sides? If so, follow it. Appeal to it. Avoid areas of difference.
Violence needs both supply and demand. Waslekar’s work has identified three deficits that create a supply of young people ready for violence: (1) a deficit in the availability and effectiveness of democratic institutions; (2) a deficit in the levels of development of resources; and (3) a deficit in human dignity. The dignity deficit is critical and a major task is how to address it. When these deficits are present, a demand for violence – by a politician or other leaders – finds a readily ignited group process.
Process and Progress
During the last day of the IDI’s London meeting, which took place at the House of Lords in Parliament, the group discussed its future, its ongoing focus and how it might harness the work done and disseminate it. Instead of coming together to hear “country reports,” the IDI discussed a wish to hear members’ recent or current psycho-political activities within their regions or practices and to discuss them from a psychodynamic point of view – in order to help such activities become deeper and more successful.
The IDI’s unique perspective focuses on and analyzes the psychological phenomena that drive or become enacted in political processes. These psychological phenomena, which often are embedded as background or ‘unconscious’ motivators in political processes, can be critical to efforts at progress and dialogue. The IDI discussed ways to turn its own process – country reports, 360-degree discussion, psychological intervention, ongoing interdisciplinary dialogue – into a potential ‘toolbox’ for members to access. IDI members might then be able to import IDI processes – either indirectly, via remote collaboration with other members, or directly, via a team of IDI members who might make themselves available for in-country psychopolitical consultation – into whatever conflict situations IDI members’ practices lead them to become engaged with.