Jack Westman argues a psychiatric case for building on the cultural overlap between China and the US to divert the world from its path of self-destruction, which has roots in the impact of past conflicts on children’s mental health.
Jack Westman’s 476-page analysis of the human propensity for war is one of the more unusual contributions to the recent deluge of opinions on the world’s geopolitics.
Retired family psychiatrist Westman, a former professor at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine and Public Health in the US, has spent most of the last 65 years quietly studying people’s mental health while helping to nurture the development of families, especially children.
In June, the 90-year-old released the latest of his 188 publications, The China-America Alliance. It may be the most important application of his psychiatric expertise to date: his patient on the couch is humanity.
“This is my first and only book on international politics,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Madison city in the state of Wisconsin. “My professional life as a family psychiatrist has been devoted to resolving interpersonal conflicts and working with schools and communities to support child and adolescent development. The kind of psychiatry I’ve practised is political in nature.”
The book comes with a warning that today’s warring generation is on course to destroy themselves and the Earth. The angry and aggrieved now have access to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons while the greedy have the technology to strip bare the earth’s resources and wreak permanent ecological damage.
The product of three years of research and writing, the book seems an audacious leap to apply his psychiatric expertise to diagnosing the ills of international politics and conflicts.
For Westman, this is a logical and critical path of inquiry. Warring countries are often led by troubled individuals who happened to become powerful political and military leaders.
Our course to possible self-destruction has its roots in the underrated impact of past conflicts and violence in skewing children’s mental and emotional health. Many such children are now adults in various positions of power across the world who are boiling over with unresolved grievances, real or imagined.
Westman said that stable, happy families are the building blocks of strong, healthy societies and nations. Children brought up in stressful environments, particularly where violence is prevalent, perpetuate their experience into adulthood.
Following the death of his wife in 2012 from cancer, Westman was driven to write the book to extend his expertise on strife-torn families and mental health to broader society. He began work on his book soon after his 86th birthday in 2013.
He cites Albert Einstein, who appealed to psychiatrist Sigmund Freud in 1932 to find a way to apply psychoanalytic insights to the peaceful resolution of international conflicts. “The present-day challenge is to respond to that request,” he said.
In conversation and in writing, Westman avoids the use of scientific jargon to explain our troubled past and current state of mind. He diagnoses mental and emotional disorders that drive groups to engage in self-destructive behaviours and perpetual conflict with others.
He analyses the lies, justifications, deceptions and false language that we use in manipulating others for self-gratification. He calls out the reptilian instincts that secured our evolutionary survival but have now become a threat to the species and other life forms. The primordial eat-or-be-eaten mentality prevents collaboration at a time when we most need to build trust and community.
Westman was a member of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War that lobbied for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. He said doctors played an important, but underappreciated, role in helping to end the cold war.
“Doctors from the Soviet Union and the United States belonged to this organisation, and we exchanged information and worked behind the scenes,” he says. Two years after the group’s 1987 meeting with the then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Iron Curtain came down and the cold war ended.
After reading Westman’s book, it is easy to conclude that psychiatry is the study of politics at its most human essence. Most conflicts stem from varying degrees of a distorted sense of self that shape our perceptions and perspectives of the world. Politics and aggression are inevitable when people view others not as a part of themselves and the community, but as objects to be used and manipulated. In extreme cases, the subject’s self loses all empathy and human connectivity.
Westman identifies a China-US alliance as the best hope for the world to begin its pullback from the path of self-destruction. He acknowledges his prescription will be criticised as being “idealistic”, but warns that it is not optional; a “positive global future” absolutely requires the US and China to work together.
The theme of an alliance between the two countries is not new, but the psychiatric case for building on their cultural overlap to save an ailing world is unique.
Westman worries about the mental health of children in both countries. One-third of children in the United States today “are failing in some aspects of their lives”, made worse by the country’s culture that glamorises violence and the sensational. The number of children living with only one parent or none has doubled since the 1970s, while more middle class and poor students are without a college education.
“This stagnation breeds political dysfunction, and explains why so many Americans tend to lose faith in society’s institutions,” he said.
China is also risking its political stability, with millions growing up poor and neglected amid the migration of rural families and workers to cities.
“Children in both countries are exposed to the direct and indirect consequences of family instability, safety hazards, violent behaviour, virtual reality, sexual stimulation, materialism and individualism,” he said.
Westman sees hope emanating from the overlap of core values between Christian America and Confucianist China, which share a common yearning for harmony, peace and love for humanity.
“There’s been such an emphasis on the differences between China and the US that people overlook the fact that the two countries are so interdependent,” he said. Despite their high-profile trade and strategic quarrels, the two sides have built deep economic, cultural, educational and scientific links since China began opening up to the world in 1978.
Westman talks about the growing list of threats facing the world today: seemingly endless wars, the normalisation of terror and nuclear weapons, record levels of financial debts, impoverishment, extreme wealth inequality, widespread environmental degradation, electronic surveillance, and a long list of unsolvable grievances and social ills.
Alarming as these symptoms are, humanity’s self-destruction is far from certain. But if those promoting a China-US war are not stopped, that outcome is a lot more likely.