Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Towards a Mindful Foreign Policy?

First, a disclaimer. I’m no expert on mindfulness or Zen. I’m (slowly) learning to meditate and, as a peace educator, have been considering some of the connections between inner peace and social, political (dare I even say economic?) peace. Our talk during meditation class recently was focused on “paying attention to your intentions”. Of course this is a lifelong personal journey, but does the idea have relevance for nations as well? Can a country be mindful? If so, will international politics be more peaceful?

On one hand, I am frankly skeptical. The “causes” of war are numerous and complex, rooted in inadequate bureaucracies, autocratic regimes, resource depletion, patriarchy, economic markets, and what’s been called the “heavy hand of history”. In that “heavy hand of history” is there a possible connection between mindfulness and preventing war?

It is possible. What if not just political leaders but a nation’s citizenry “paid attention to their intentions”? As I’ve been writing here and elsewhere, I think a key outcome of peace education, especially any peace education that wants to engage or claims to be inspired by, critical theory must help students be able to deconstruct the causes of war. Part of this means being able to identify—to articulate!—the national narratives that tell the story of who we think we are as Americans (Brits, Irish, Iranians, Mexicans…). How do we explain what we stand for? How do we talk about our role in the world? And does that then lead us to war or peace?

I raise these questions of course because they have everything to do with how we understand—or misunderstand—our intentions in choosing war. Does an unexamined (or even unconscious) assumption about the goodness, the righteousness, of our national intentions lead us naively into conflicts we don’t understand? Surely a more rigorous examination—a more mindful one, you might say—of our interests and intentions in armed interventions is urgent, given that we have in the past decade ended up in at least two wars most Americans do not want (Iraq and Afghanistan).

Peace education, I think, can make at least two contributions to this. One, the systems thinking inherent in peace education can introduce students to thinking critically about the connection between interpersonal systems, communities, nations and the world system. Perhaps such students-as-citizens will be more willing, able and empowered to ask difficult questions about why a particular war is really necessary. Secondly, peace education, when it is effective, engenders in students a sense of themselves as part of a whole. Such a citizen is probably more likely to reject the view (a dangerous one in my opinion) that we can sensibly talk about U.S. national security separately from global, human security. That’s no longer possible in the hyper-connected, interdependent 21st century.

Honestly I can’t say that I’m sold on my own premise here. Again, I’m no expert but mindfulness seems to be such a personal, individual experience that I wonder if that can translate to the socio-national level. Yet clearly groups can act out aggressions, impulses and unconscious “scripts” as individuals do. I have more questions than answers but it sure seemed a question worth asking.


jesse said...

Now I'm not sure how this may or may not blend with this idea of mindfulness of which you speak, yet perhaps you can do something with it nonetheless.

It was a recent post, found it interesting, and hence it was the first item to spring to mind after reading this entry.

Cheryl Duckworth said...

I appreciate it, Jesse! Interesting indeed.