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The Degradation of Disintegration Nations
Observing Severe Psychopathology in International Relations (Vol. 3; Issue 40)
The idea of disintegration—as in falling apart, going to pieces, or plunging into madness—simplifies understanding severe psychopathology. For example, individuals with overtly psychotic conditions lose the capacity to distinguish reality from fantasy. They cannot function at work; they cannot relate socially; they cannot enjoy life. The parts of their body-mind lose inter-connectivity. The world of their imagination invades other parts of the self, causing literal dis-integration.
Considered a fragile upgrade from psychosis, individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) suffer a similar fragmentation. Their moods swing wildly from rapture to woe. Their relationships are fraught with conflict. These persons are incapable of stepping back and observing their emotional states. Therefore, they cannot self-moderate. Along these same lines, they become incapable of inhibiting the vacillations between idealization and devaluation—oscillations destroying capacities for intimacy. These, too, represent failures in integration.
More unusual and disturbing, individuals can also split into multiple, distinct personalities. The psychiatric condition, previously called Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), is now named Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Coincidentally, the new descriptor more accurately identifies what actually occurs. Individuals with DID have been so deeply traumatized that parts of their personality become disconnected from one another. In other words, they literally disintegrate into different selves.
These dissolution processes in individual persons help explain how, from a psychoanalytic perspective, recent isolationist movements across the world stage are problematic. Brexit occurred because an ill-informed populace believed the United Kingdom (UK) would fare better if separated from the well-integrated, and stabilizing, European Union (EU). It has, in fact, proven to be a foolish, impulsive withdrawal from a more integrated Europe. Thus far, the UK is the only sovereign country to have left the EU. (According to Bloomberg News, Brexit resulted in the UK losing $124 billion per year).
Separatist movements like Brexit represent a near-psychotic denial of the increasing inter-dependency between the nation-states. Isolationist dynamics occur right here in America, recently evident in Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) campaign. More dramatically, developments in Russia and China illustrate frantic efforts to cut off connection with the rest of the world. These national exercises parallel the process of DID in individuals. Persons with DID split into pieces to cope with unbearable mental pain; isolationist nations break off from the world, ignoring their dependence upon it.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 epitomizes the growing disconnection between previously respected boundaries of nation-states, which were, nonetheless, closely interrelated. Putin’s war against Ukraine emerged from his delusional effort to restore what was once the Russian empire. That immense federation, which reached its peak in 1895, covered portions of eastern Europe and all of northern Asia. Putin, mirroring psychotic processes described above, imagines a world that vanished more than a century ago. The Russian Empire was succeeded by the British who, after it acquired Germany's East and West African colonies and Samoa in the Treaty of Versailles, peaked in 1919. It, too, fell long ago. The age of colonization and world domination is over. Putin never got the memo.
By invading the sovereign nation validated in the UN by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin in 1991, Putin violated the jurisdiction of a separate nation. He seeks to reinstate the “twin pillars of the Russian state,” namely the Orthodox church and the military (Kolesnikov, 2023, p. 63). Putin wishes to turn the clock back a hundred years, restoring the idea of Russian exceptionalism—at a time in history when no nation, not even the US, claims special status on the world stage.
Much like the disintegration that occurs in cases of severe psychopathology, Putin is creating an isolated country. He promotes anti-Western paranoia, claiming we are decadent, anti-family, and anti-Christian. To achieve these aims, Putin controls the media, suppresses dissent, imprisons political opponents, and kills enemies (most recently evident in his assassination of Prigozhin through bombing his private jet). Kolesnikov (2023) writes:
… it is no longer acceptable for [Russian] people to just passively acquiesce to the regime, as they could in past years; they must express their support loudly. Russian schools now include mandatory ‘patriotism’ lessons, textbooks dictate the correct interpretation of Putin’s actions, and citizens are sometimes required to participate in pro-Putin rallies” (p. 70).
If psychotics descend into fantasy, borderlines into splitting, and individuals with DID into distinct personalities, then Putin is behaving most like the latter. He is creating a nation so manipulated and controlled that its citizens have, for the most part, lost sight of other nations. They are forced to live in a delusional world.
In like manner, President Xi in China pursues an isolationist policy also intent on removing it from decades of international integration. Ian Johnson’s (2023) article, subtitled “the great walling-off of China,” documents the retreat from what was once a stance of international cooperation. He seeks a similarly dissociated populace. He exerts almost total control of the media, like Putin. Video surveillance of Chinese citizens is ubiquitous. Mobile phone apps control all important elements of life from attendance at school to the visiting of museums, from the buying or borrowing of books to the varieties of television or movies consumed. Because even going to cultural and historical sites are highly monitored, tourism in China is steadily declining. In brief, Xi works to split China off from the previous integration of nations. Johnson (2023) writes:
For anyone who has observed the country closely over the past few decades, it is difficult to miss the signs of a new national stasis, or what the Chinese people call neijuan. Often translated as “involution,” it refers to life twisting inward without real progress. The government has created its own universe of mobile phone apps and software, an impressive feat but one that is aimed at insulating the Chinese people from the outside world rather than connecting them to it…Universities and research centers, including many with global ambitions, are increasingly cut off from their international counterparts. And China’s small but once flourishing communities of independent writers, thinkers, artists, and critics have been driven completely underground, much like their twentieth-century Soviet counterparts (p. 105).
Mature individuals display sound integration between normally disparate segments of body-mind. If you feel furious at your spouse, some part of you observes the rage, dampens it, and encourages dialogue. If your friend dies, leaving you in a state of acute grief, then another part of your mind decides how to cope with the loss. Perhaps you take time off from work; perhaps you comfort other bereft friends and family.
These examples illustrate how separate parts of self cooperate through integration. Such an integrated approach is efficient and effective. It conserves persons’ limited psychic energy. Individuals with the extreme psychopathological states described above typically become exhausted. They become disabled. The various psychoanalytic approaches treat these severe forms of psychopathology by helping patients integrate the too-disparate parts of themselves.
Such integrative processes are now urgently required on an international basis. If individual nation-states fail to cooperate, they will ultimately destroy the Earth’s limited resources. Echoing the feminist call for separate but equal treatment, nations need to realize their citizens rely upon the same precious but constrained resources of our planet.
The nationalist moves by Russia, China, and even by some political parties in the United States reverse trends towards positive integration previously existing. Myriad treaties between nations prevent arms races, facilitate trade, monitor immigration, and otherwise promote collaboration. Technologies like the mobile phone, the internet, and international air travel achieved new heights of inter-connectedness. Ultimately, efforts to prevent climate change, to reduce income inequality, and to improve the welfare of the poor requires inter-national integration rather than isolation.
Solutions rest, I suppose, with action by national leaders and diplomacy by bodies like the UN. Meanwhile, and as clearly exemplified by isolationist movements in Russia and China, some nations slide into states resembling psychosis, BPD, or DID. If nations of the world fail to reverse the disintegrative spiral, they will deplete natural resources. They may resort to suicidal actions like nuclear war. If, on the other hand, they grow into entities capable of mature integration, then dialogue and diplomacy could bring unprecedented unity.
Only time will tell.
Great hope lies in the integrative technologies just noted ultimately breaking through regressive efforts to isolate. Let us hope the “great walling off” of China, Russia, Iran, and other states, like North Korea, will become overshadowed by the communicative power of individual citizens. More than ever before in human history, the integrative capacities of these technologies will render countries incapable of hermetically sealing themselves off. Their efforts to dis-integrate from the liberal world order will ultimately fail.
Just last week, hope was validated and tyranny condemned when imprisoned Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi won the Nobel Peace Prize. It was granted in recognition of her campaigning for women's rights, for democracy, and against the death penalty. Mohammadi, 51, kept up her activism despite numerous arrests. As noted, even now she languishes in prison, serving a sentence of 11 years for “creating propaganda against the state.” Her efforts to speak the truth regarding the Iranian theocracy obviously angered authorities, but they could not completely silence her. Mohammadi is also set to receive 154 lashes—a punishment human rights groups consider inhumane. Nonetheless, and despite imprisonment, Mohammadi’s writings spread throughout the world, earned her the world-renown prize, and may well incite another revolution in Iran. In the final analysis, isolation never works.
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Johnson, I. (2023). Xi’s age of stagnation: The great walling off of China. Foreign Affairs (September/October 2023), pp. 60-101. Washington, DC: Council on Foreign Relations.
Kolesnikov, A. (2023). The end of the Russian Idea: What it will take to break Putinism’s grip. Foreign Affairs (September/October 2023), pp. 102-117. Washington, DC: Council on Foreign Relations.