A psychiatrist’s prescription for China and the US to help save an ailing worldWeng Hoong Ng November 9, 2017 0 COMMENTS
Jack Westman’s 476-page analysis of the human propensity for war is one of the more unusual contributions to the deluge of information on the world’s geopolitics.
He is not a deal-making diplomat, a celebrity political pundit, or even a journalist. Instead, as a psychiatrist and academic, Westman has spent most of his last 65 years quietly studying people’s mental health while helping to nurture the development of families, especially children.
Last June, the 90-year-old former professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in the US released “The China-America Alliance”. The latest of his 188 publications, it is probably the most important application of his psychiatric expertise. His patient on the couch is humanity.
“This is my first and only book on international politics,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Madison city in Wisconsin state.
It comes with a warning that today’s warring generation is on course to destroy themselves and the Earth. The angry and aggrieved now have access to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons while the greedy have the technology to strip bare the earth’s resources and wreak permanent ecological damage.
The product of three years of research and writing, the book seems an audacious leap by a retired family psychiatrist to apply his expertise to diagnosing the ills of international politics and conflicts.
But for Westman, this a very logical and critical, even if rarely trod, path of enquiry. Warring countries are often led by troubled individuals who happened to become powerful political and military leaders.
Our course to possible self-destruction has its roots in the underrated impact of past conflicts and violence in skewing the mental and emotional health of children. Many of them are now adults in various positions of power across the world that is boiling over with unresolved grievances, real or imagined.
“My professional life as a family psychiatrist has been devoted to resolving interpersonal conflicts and working with schools and communities to support child and adolescent development,” said Westman.
Stable happy families are the building blocks of strong, healthy societies and nations, he asserts. Children brought up in stressful environments, particularly where violence is prevalent, perpetuate their experience into adulthood.
What drove Westman to write the book, following the death of his wife in 2012 from cancer, was the realisation that it was time he extended his expertise on strife-torn families and mental health to the broader society.
He cites Albert Einstein who appealed to psychiatrist Sigmund Freud in 1932 to find a way to apply psychoanalytic insights to the peaceful resolution of international conflicts.
“The present-day challenge is to respond to that request,” said Westman, who began work on his book shortly after his 86th birthday in 2013.
In conversation and in writing, Westwood avoids the use of scientific jargon to explain our troubled past and current state of mind. He diagnoses mental and emotional disorders that drive groups to engage in self-destructive behaviours and perpetual conflict with others. He analyses the lies, justifications, deceptions and false language that we use in manipulating others for self-gratification. He calls out the reptilian instincts that secured our evolutionary survival but have now become a threat to the species and other life forms. The primordial eat-or-be-eaten mentality prevents collaboration at a time when we most need to build trust and community.
Psychiatry in politics
“The kind of psychiatry I’ve practised is political in nature,” said Westwood, who was a member of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War that lobbied for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. He said doctors played an important but under-appreciated role in helping to end the last Cold War.
“Doctors from the Soviet Union and the United States belonged to this organisation, and we exchanged information and worked behind the scene,” he said.
Two years after the group’s 1987 meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Iron Curtain came down, and the Cold War ended (for at least the next three decades).
After reading Westman’s book, it’s hard not to conclude that psychiatry is the study of politics at its most human essence. Most conflicts stem from varying degrees of a distorted sense of self that shape our perceptions and perspectives of the world. Politics and aggression are inevitable when I, the subject, view the rest not as a part of me and the community, but as objects to be used and manipulated. In extreme cases, the subject’s self loses all empathy and human connectivity.
A US-China alliance
Westman identifies a US-China alliance as the best hope for the world to begin its pull-back from the path of self-destruction.
He acknowledges his prescription will be criticised as being “idealistic” but warns that it isn’t an option: a “positive global future” absolutely requires the US and China to work together.
The theme of an alliance between the two countries is not new, but the psychiatric case for building on their cultural overlap to save an ailing world is unique.
Westman worries about the mental health of children in both countries. One-third of children in the United States today “are failing in some aspects of their lives” made worse by the country’s culture glamourizing violence and sensation. The number of children living with only one parent or none has doubled since the 1970s while more middle-class and poor students are without a college education.
“This stagnation breeds political dysfunction, and explains why so many Americans tend to lose faith in society’s institutions,” he said.
China is also risking its political stability, with millions growing up poor and neglected amid the migration of rural families and workers to cities.
“Children in both countries are exposed to the direct and indirect consequences of family instability, safety hazards, violent behaviour, virtual reality, sexual stimulation, materialism and individualism,” he said.
Westman sees hope emanating from the overlap of core values between Christian America and Confucianist China which share a common yearning for harmony, peace and love for humanity.
“There’s been such an emphasis on the differences between China and the US that people overlook the fact that the two countries are so interdependent,” he said. Despite their high-profile trade and strategic quarrels, the two sides have built up deep economic, cultural, educational and scientific links since China began opening up to the world in 1978.
But, what if the world’s two most powerful countries fail to connect under the strong-willed leadership of Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping?
Westman points to the growing list of threats facing the world today: wars without end, the normalisation of terror and nuclear weapons, unpayable record levels of financial debts, impoverishment, extreme wealth inequality, widespread environmental degradation, electronic surveillance, and a long list of unsolvable grievances and social ills.
Alarming as these symptoms are, humanity’s self-destruction is far from certain. But the failure to stop the sickness of those promoting a US-China war will make that outcome a lot more certain.
Note: This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.