The year of being in denial
The act of denial is a psychological defence used by humans to reduce anxiety when they feel particularly disturbed by events. Nowadays, this phenomenon, where even seemingly rational people will vehemently deny truths, is exacerbated by the advent of alt-facts, which sometimes make the gap between reality and unreality difficult to discern. In 2017, this trend of denial was evident in national, regional and even global affairs.
At the national level, elections from the US to Japan, through Britain, France, Germany and Turkey, have thrown up right-wing nationalist populist parties, and leaders in denial of their fragile mandates. The tenuous mandates are evident in the plummeting popularity of many of the leaders.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity dropped faster than any predecessor’s in the first 100 days and stood lower than that of even François Hollande, the most unpopular French leader. Only 36% approved of Macron’s performance. In England, following the disastrous mid-term election gamble, Prime Minister Theresa May’s approval plummeted to 34%.
US President Donald Trump created history of sorts by registering a majority disapproval rating of 51% just eight days after assuming office. Trump’s denial of his unpopularity was mirrored by the “not my president” rallies. Most of these elections reflect deep divisions among the electorate, a quest for unsustainable quick-fix solutions, and the fantasy of leaders that they will be able to deliver, despite the fractious mandate.
In contrast, even as the leaders of the democratic free world struggle to maintain their power, China’s Xi Jinping consolidated his grip through the largely undemocratic process of the 19th Communist party congress, which bestowed upon him unprecedented authority akin to that wielded by the former undisputed leader, Chairman Mao Zedong.
At the regional level, England’s Brexit vote and the painfully convoluted divorce proceedings with the European Union (EU) also reflected collective denial: While Britain happily voted to secede, it bizarrely expected to retain the same freedom of movement of its people and goods between itself and EU members, including Ireland. Indeed, bemused mediapersons filmed Britons denouncing the EU with the classic “what has the EU ever done for us” rant against the backdrop of billboards boldly proclaiming public projects supported by EU funding!
The realization that Britain could leave the EU only after expending enormous costs, estimated at over £50 billion, and not benefit from it as a member does, is only now starting to sink in and has led to two political consequences: a fall in the popularity of May and a parliamentary decision that it will vote on the final divorce settlement between London and Brussels.
Similarly in South Asia, Pakistan, which has deliberately opted out of the evolving regional railway and road union and the satellite service, is also in denial that it is isolating itself from the very region to which it belongs. It is not clear how opting out of efforts to integrate South Asia economically and infrastructurally will benefit either Islamabad or its primary objective of checking India’s hegemony in South Asia. Indeed, the desperate embrace of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, despite questions of its economic viability, is a tacit acquiescence by Pakistan of New Delhi’s growing dominance in South Asia, and an effort to outsource its economic and political security to China.
At the global level, the denials abound. India, for instance, is in denial that the prospects of UN security council reform and the coveted permanent membership of the world body as well as membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group—despite valiant efforts at the highest levels—are as unlikely as good rains during a poor monsoon. Similarly, the Trump administration is in denial that climate change is a reality that needs to be addressed and that the deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is actually working. Moreover, Trump’s Washington is also in denial that the uber nationalist and isolationist oeuvre of ‘America First’ is untenable for a country that lies at the very centre of the globalized word that it helped create.
Perhaps, the mother of all global denials has to be the collective refusal to tacitly accept that North Korea is now a nuclear armed state with the ability to strike all its neighbours, including China, South Korea, Japan, the US territory of Guam and, eventually, the US mainland. The international community’s response of feckless sanctions or hollow threats of pre-emptive strikes reflects the global denial mindset.
In a similar vein, the inability of nuclear armed states to accept the reality of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was adopted in July 2017 and has already been signed by over 50 countries, is likely to have serious repercussions. If the proponents of the treaty and its hostile opponents are unable to reach an understanding on it, they are likely to adversely affect the upcoming Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty review conference in the short term and the whole non-proliferation regime in the long run.
Psychoanalysts assert that the only way to deal with being in denial is to first acknowledge that this is indeed the case. Only by accepting the reality as it is rather than as it should be will the state of denial dissipate. Will 2018 bring about that realization in the national, regional and global arenas?
W.P.S. Sidhu is professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.