In the National Interest
The collective psyche of nations
'National interest' is usually handed down to us, as if pre-agreed, and few people question it. It is usually defined by specific interests that dominate society. Yet national interest is a big and wide question.
A nation is a gaggle of characters, voices, interests and groups. They don't act as a whole - each plays out its own drama. A nation has a conscious ego (government), a subconscious (civil society) and an unconscious (the people).
Yet the psyche of a nation or a people is a wholeness, and we need to see it like that. When there is dissonance between different sub-personalities within the group psyche - social polarisation, scapegoating, exclusion or conflict - and when there are also forms of harmony, it is the whole psyche that is operating.
It is a question of the extent to which sub-personalities pull in the same direction, or how much they pull apart, or whether one or a few of them strive to dominate, or whether one of them sabotages or undermines the integrity of the whole.
Government, institutions, official culture and top-level power-holders, however they got there, embody the controlling ego - 'mission control'. They coordinate and summate all the interests and viewpoints of a nation, in the nation's best interests - theoretically.
They tend to form a self-defining culture living in its own universe. At defining moments highlighting the contra-dictions inherent in 'national interest', the universe the majority of the people live in scrapes and collides with that of mission control and trouble ensues.
Institutions, organisations, media, civil society and local power networks represent the subconscious, operating locally and in sectors, each with their viewpoint. The public, popular feelings and movements, nature and 'chance events' represent the collective unconscious.
All of us have conditioned areas of our personal psyches that subscribe variously to the beliefs and strictures of 'central command', the subconscious and the unconscious - we are behaviourally inconsistent.
The national pile usually functions in an orderly fashion but sometimes things shift beyond the framework managed by mission control. During the 20th Century there have been mighty attempts by mission control to contain and channel the collective unconscious along prescribed lines, according to its logic.
Ultimately the controlling ego exists by the grace of the subconscious, civil society, which itself operates by the grace of the unconscious, the people and their feelings.
All the world's a stage
Today, consumers, voters and 'the street' have ways of seeing things and asserting sentiments they have not articulated or understood before.
In the collective movie, characters and situations come on the screen to embody issues and imagery in the collective psyche - stars, figureheads, floods of refugees, heroes, troublemakers, advocates, victims - whose appearance on stage might be short-lived, but they catalyse processes by which the collective psyche evolves and distils its position.
Add to this events and 'acts of God' - storms, earthquakes, climatic extremes, plane crashes - which at times have an uncanny, apposite timeliness and apt symbolism.
These phenomena happen not just 'by chance'. They stir up ideas, feelings and processes that are the stuff of real change and real life.
People and events bring out a nation's highest and noblest qualities and its seediest, lowest and most destructive elements. Much depends on how people deal with it.
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts...
- Shakespeare, As You Like It.
As walking involves cooperation of limbs, organs and brain-function, so various bits of a nation have to work together to produce net movement. When this is dysfunctional, turbulence breaks out and a fermentation follows.
In the national drama different elements shout out for attention - some attempt to dominate the agenda. Outcomes depend on a society's openness and truth levels.
Each nation plays a part in a larger global chessgame. Some nations really like hogging the podium. The chessgame has its own agenda and storyline, enveloping those of nations. Global stage dramas are different from what goes on backstage or at home.
Travel, education, media, telecoms and population growth have brought a shift in the chessgame: since the 1960s the world's population has incrementally become more aware of itself as a wholeness, as a planetary race.
The psychic internet
The psyche of a nation is a buzzing interactive network of attention, ideas, feelings and preoccupations, with a certain commonality of psychology and interests.
It encompasses the nation's imprinted history, remembered and lost, and its self-image, icons, angels, devils and future possibilities.
A 'morphic field' of psychic data-bits, it contains stored memories, dreams, hopes, fears, hang-ups, tendencies, impressions, viewpoints, experiences, sub-personalities and tonalities.
Public figures, institutions, representative groups and organisations, as well as symbols and images, cultural output and events, become its agents, lightning-rods and channels.
The life-story and mythology of a nation is contained within the imprinted saga of all that has brought it to the present time. Public consciousness draws on this pool of subjective experience as it faces different situations, and often in unpredictable ways.
Nations are reality-bubbles, each with a way of seeing life that is unique to them. As soon as you step off a plane in a new country, you can feel it.
National psyches rumble strongly when momentous or symbolic events take place - wars, tragedies, shocks or high or proud moments. This rumbling invokes deep forces beyond people's full comprehension, at times causing eruptions and reactions disproportionate to the situation at hand. Even with football matches.
The boundaries of collective psyches are unclear. Transnational groupings cross spatial boundaries yet they have a psychic territory - and when they meet up, their own little world is reactivated in that meeting.
Nationalist feelings derive from a feeling of ethnic lostness. They represent a grasping for identificational symbols and protective stockades, often because people have lost track of the true heart and pulse of the nation and its people. Nationalists are unsure of themselves and who they are. You can love your country and your people without needing to feel antipathy toward others - or superiority or inferiority.
Rubbing up, rubbing along
In the 21st Century, an enormous global forgiveness and reconciliation process is needed to help redeem the enduring negative effects of the past while helping to integrate the positive effects of social-cultural globalisation.
There's no inherent problem in racial, ethnic or class differences unless problems are made out of them, or unless those differences become exceptionally unjust or irreconcilable.
There comes a point where focusing on differences becomes counterproductive. We're all people, co-inhabitants of Earth.
Yet our differences pose real questions which cannot be swept aside - they inevitably rise up again if denied or underrated.
Basic common global values are gradually being thrashed out in our time. No one cultural bloc will prevail. This is the weaving of a tapestry where all threads create the pattern.
Sociodiversity enriches the world, and intercultural respect is now vital. Respect doesn't demand agreement, only recognition of the part that other cultures and nations play in the world matrix.
We fail to see our own ethnic and national strengths and weaknesses as others see them. But it's good to look at ourselves in the mirror and to hear other's feedback.
We become what we most seek to control, suppress or exclude. Intolerance betrays the hidden agendas of those practising it.
No conflict is resolved unless all parties acknowledge themselves as others see them. No understanding is achieved unless we own in ourselves what we most dislike in others.
No statement of national interest carries true weight unless the whole of a nation-people's psyche - with its fear, guilt, shame and regret - is built in.
Nations act out their self-images, dramas and shadows while reciting lines from an official script. International politics is riddled with this - a divergence between the official line and real life unfolding on the ground.
Nations see only what they choose to see of themselves. Yet within each nation there is variation of perceptions. The sumtotal of all perceptions is the true national psyche. Therefore the priorities of limited interests are not necessarily in the national interest.
The tip and the iceberg
The official, publicly-accepted story is but the tip of an iceberg. At times the hidden stuff underneath, the submerged bulk of the iceberg, makes the biggest difference in international relations.
A nation's psyche has many rooms, halls and corridors. The main hall into which guests are invited is the national ego - its sanitised attractions, official culture and assets. Looking down the back-streets at its squalor, corruption or poverty is taboo. A nation can get irritable if its cover-ups are exposed. All countries have this under-the-carpet stuff, with no exceptions.
A wise country acknowledges all parts of itself, owning up and taking responsibility for all it is and all it does. It looks after its weak, marginalised and vulnerable. This is in a nation's overall best interest.
An unwise nation hides and excludes those parts it doesn't want to 'own' and be accountable for. Unacknowledged traits will come back to haunt it, even centuries later.
What a nation believes about itself often conflicts with what it actually is. A nation's ego makes the defining decisions about money supply, policy, law and a big chunk of the national agenda, exercising a tonesetting and enforcing influence even when the country is against it.
A nation's core institutions should reflect rather than control the nation. This is what democracy aims for. Political systems work longterm if the nation's centre responds to the periphery, the people, the provinces and real life on the ground and in the streets.
The collective unconscious moves in strange ways and, if central command over-controls the national flow, funny things start happening, and control gradually ebbs away.
In national decisions, someone will always lose out, but a just and fair balance of loss and gain has to be found. Without this, something fundamental is lost in the national spirit and a tidal pressure for change builds up, eventually to burst. Sooner or later. By whatever means.
If a nation fails to acknowledge the full extent of its problem, the new order takes on many characteristics of the old order, sometimes making things much worse. The Tsar might be dead and gone, but the Stalins who follow are no solution.
The shadow is the back-end of a nation. It's what a nation doesn't want itself or the rest of the world to see - or smell.
The shadow is a nation's down-and-outs, losers, exiles and rejects, its garbage dumps, sewers, prisons, pimps, seedy areas, sordid and corrupt aspects, its 'black' or 'grey' economies, back streets, bombs, failed harvests or violence.
Some societies get seriously stuck in a shadow-loop: high levels of social badness and mutual deception grip the population, and the rot cannot be stopped.
Stepping out of such a loop involves a cultural revolution wherein wholesome human trust, honesty and mutuality are somehow restored.
All nations need to examine themselves, reviewing their truths and untruths, setting in motion a process of reintegration and self-healing. Sounds difficult or impossible, but it is definitely better than not doing it.
This process reconciles conflicting influences in a nation. Without it, conflict always comes up, since concealed truths turn differences into conflicts.
Here narrower definitions of national interest don't work. The whole national interest needs to be clearly perceived, with no concealments - or the nation and the world both pay a price.
Governments conceal their true agendas - and the public usually goes along with this. Worse, the public goes along with the official line even when it doesn't believe it. Such complacency is not in the national interest.
It is in the national interest to strengthen and enliven human life and civic fabric. This means fostering good, warm and genuine community and international relationships. A police presence is no substitute for a friendly society. Advanced healthcare is no substitute for wholesome food and a healthy environment. Armed forces are no substitute for good relations with other countries.
Defining national interest is not as simple as is usually made out. Narrow national interest charges a high price in wider implications and in the longer term. Future generations are left to handle the results.