Michael Kennedy: Vulnerability and Trust Can Build International Community

When I think of examples of international friendship, many examples that come to mind are dark and sinister. For example, I think about how when George H.W. Bush was inaugurated as President, the first foreign head of State he invited to the White House was Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). During this visit, Bush stated, “Zaire is among America’s oldest friends, and its President, President Mobutu, one of our most valued friends…” [i] While most Americans at the time were critical of the Zaire’s immense dependency on foreign aid and Mobutu’s “strongman” rule and opulent lifestyle, the two Presidents held a deep personal relationship. Bush was head of the Central Intelligence Agency when the U.S. brought Mobutu to power and in return, Mobutu allowed western access to Zaire’s uranium and copper. Philosophers dating back to Aristotle would debunk Bush’s use of friendship, instead classifying their relationship as one of power and control for material gain, not “true” or “transformative” or “positive” friendship. This essay will explore the ways in which relations or mindsets of friendship can be implemented to improve international relations. Rather than assuming international relations are formal and governmental, I challenge the notion of autonomous sovereign states and argue that true friendly relations require the worldview of global citizenship.

My last essay, “Goodbye Anxiety, Making Room for Trust in the U.S” I identified how the current state of neoliberal, competitive, individualistic relations have harbored distrust in American subjects. The same can be said for many people across the world. Although global socio-economic conditions vary and experiences are unique to individuals, each with intersecting identities, different polities are experiencing great tension. Movements of ethnic nationalisms are on the rise, especially in Europe. While the massive refugee crises have been met with some powerful acts of compassion and goodwill, nativist backlash has fueled the rise of politicians such as Donald Trump in the U.S. and Marine Le Pen in France. As Henrich Geiselberger writes, “Subjectively, there is evidently an utter failure to establish a robust sense of a cosmopolitan collective identity. On the contrary, we are at present witnessing a resurgence of ethnic, national and religious us/them distinctions. The logic of a ‘clash of civilizations’ has replaced the friend/foe pattern of the Cold War with astonishing speed, despite the supposed ‘end of history’.”[ii]

The term “backlash” is appropriate to describe this type of behavior, as it presents an ideological refusal. Identities that are historic and academically de-constructed as problematic (as they are dependent on denigrating an “other”) are being held on to. As Geiselberger suggests, one of the main contributors is that there is not a strong ideological formation for a newer global identity to reflect the transnational encounters and relationships that exist. The neoliberal anxieties explained in the last essay are also at play. He explains, “The Great Regression that we are witnessing currently may be the product of a collaboration between the risks of globalization and neoliberalism. The problems that have arisen from the failure of politicians to exercise some control over global interdependence are impinging on societies that are institutionally and culturally unprepared for them.”[iii] Just like in the United States, the attitudes that are antagonistic and divisive are deeply rooted in anxieties over the inter-connected world and economy.

In his piece on “democratic fatigue,” Arjun Appadurai clarifies how neoliberal anxiety functions on an international level and strengthens domestic and international antagonisms. He writes, ““In the absence of any national economy that modern states can claim to protect and develop, it is no surprise there has been a worldwide tendency in effective states and in many aspiring populaist movements to perform national sovereignty by turning towards cultural majoritarianism, ethno-nationalism and the stifling of internal intellectual and cultural dissent. In other words, the loss of economic sovereignty everywhere produces a shift towards emphasizing cultural sovereignty.”[iv] In the same way that the neoliberal economic order heightens the anxiety of individuals, the state’s individualism is also challenged. The individual distrust that arises from such an order is also embodied by international distrust.

International relations have been built on distrust. However, with increased globalization, the international system has become a site of dangerous relations and high risk. Andrea Oelsner explains, “… every state is solely responsible for its own security, and thus, for the sake of caution, should consider other states as potential threats… An unsolvable problem of this [neo-realist] perspective… is that this defensive move easily results in a security dilemma. By trying to ensure their own security, states make the system as a whole more insecure… The likely outcome is arms races and the emergence of balances of power.”[v] Even though there are international alliances, these relationships are not based upon friendship. Scholar Sibyl Schwarzenbach critiques constructions of solidarity, fraternity, and the practices of international alliances as built on negative and destructive aims. She writes, “… in being spurred to action by rage, hatred or revenge… the danger always lurks of committing new injustices in turn. Such negative motivations produce only ‘negative friendships’ at best- typically little more than temporary and shifting alliances.”[vi] Oelsner evaluates these negative relationships as based on calculations of risk, very similar to Aristotle’s theory of material friendship. The international status quo is not friendship.

I believe that creating a new identity to resolve these personal anxieties over self-autonomy and trust in the contemporary, globalized, neoliberal world is crucial to fostering relations of friendship. I agree with Oelsner that before imagining international friendship, society must create regional peace. She argues that for States to even be open to peace, they must build mutual confidence and trust in one another; not just treaties of peace. She brilliantly quotes Thomas More to explain the need for a strengthened relationship, “Men are bound more adequately by good will than by pacts, more strongly by their hearts than by their words.”[vii] This vision of international relations is very much based on individualized commitment for the other. Geiselberger’s vision of international friendship calls for a similar paradigm shift in global relations, explaining that “a… mental attitude should emerge, a feeling of a cosmopolitan collective identity or ‘we-feeling.’”[viii]

To build a “we-feeling” and create trust, individuals must be able to recognize and address the anxieties that strengthen alienation and distrust. They must be vulnerable enough to deconstruct these problems until they can admit they are part of a globalized world. Once individuals realize their inter-dependence on others- across racial, ethnic, and national identities- they can begin to realize that they need relationships with the “others” they depend upon. The 12-step AA model for admitting loneliness is a space that allows for such vulnerability and accountability. Contact between international chapters/branches, pen pal systems, or international friendship ambassadors would be able to connect the local chapter with an international community. We are in a state of inter-dependence and all facing similar anxieties. If people could share their same vulnerabilities, their relations would exist on a level of equality required for friendship.

The world is often divided into “haves” and the “have-nots,” which is materially valid. However, in this contemporary moment, many people require ethical and moral subsidence for their lives that commercialism and nationalistic ideologies are not providing. Friendship can be a solution to the inequities and anxieties by fostering a sense of connectedness to others and their situation around the world and thus also build the mutual trust and responsibility needed to improve those situations.

[i] George Bush. “Remarks Following Discussions With President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire,” June 29, 1989. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

 

[ii] Henrich Geisleberger. “Preface” in The Great Regression. Ed. Heinrich Geiselberger (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017)

[iii] Geisleberger, “Preface”

[iv] Arjun Appadurai, “Democracy fatigue” in The Great Regression. Ed. Heinrich Geiselberger (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017) 43.

[v] Andrea Oelsner, “Friendship, Mutual Trust and the Evolution of Regional Peace in the International System” in Friendship and Politics, ed. Preston King and Graham M. Smith (London: Routledge, 2007) 142.

[vi] Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach, “Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship” in AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies (2015) 3:1, 14.

[vii] Thomas More reproduced in Wolfers and Martin, The Anglo-American Tradition in Foreign Affairs: Readings from Thomas More to Woodrow Wilson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956) 6.

[viii] Geiselberger

 

Bibliography

Andrea Oelsner, “Friendship, Mutual Trust and the Evolution of Regional Peace in the International System” in Friendship and Politics, ed. Preston King and Graham M. Smith (London: Routledge, 2007)

George Bush. “Remarks Following Discussions With President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire,” June 29, 1989. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach, “Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship” in AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies (2015)

The Great Regression. Ed. Heinrich Geiselberger (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017)

Thomas More reproduced in Wolfers and Martin, The Anglo-American Tradition in Foreign Affairs: Readings from Thomas More to Woodrow Wilson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956)