The New Year has gotten off to a rocky, confrontational start at multiple levels. The Sino-American trade war launched by US president Donald Trump in 2017 has, for now, reached a period of relative truce thanks to a deal to be signed between Trump and Chinese vice premier Liu He. Nevertheless, there is no indication that it will lead to a lasting resolution of the economic and geopolitical tensions between the two governments. The US military’s assassination of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, an act of war that even top-level Trump officials have trouble defining as a response to an “imminent threat” posed by Soleimani, has already set the Middle East down a volatile path. Meanwhile, Australia is caught in a political civil war as popular rage at the immense loss of life (28 people and hundreds of thousands of animals) and environmental destruction (6.3 million hectares of forest lost) has pitted angry citizens against a government increasingly seen as complacent and unprepared for climate change at best, and overly anxious to pander to Australia’s powerful coal industry at worst.
We have started 2020 with a sense that the world is more divided than ever, with rival leaders and factionalized citizens growing angrier at each other. Much of this antagonism is the inflamed result of rash decision-making borne of instinct over deliberation; cynical calculation over thoughtfulness about long-term consequences. For example, even if the death of Soleimani by drone strike provides tactical advantages to Iran’s geopolitical adversaries, the prospect for lasting peace in Iraq, let alone resolution between Iran and the US or Syria and Saudi Arabia or Israel, appears increasingly dim.
The apologetics made on behalf of such rash decisions are reminiscent of the idea of a “bloody nose” for North Korea, which was openly floated by the Trump administration in early 2018, when tensions with the US were at an all-time high. The idea of a pre-emptive and limited strike so effective that it compels the target’s submission in negotiations is empirically counterproductive and deeply immoral, the logic of a paranoid bully. The sad truth is that North Korea ultimately avoided this strategy not because of some benevolent gesture, but because its dictator, Kim Jong-un, has nuclear weapons. Therefore, even by the standards of its own objective, America’s successful “bloody nose” strike against Iran is overwhelmingly likely to persuade Iran to pursue nuclear weapons at a far quicker pace, leaving the 2015 Iran nuclear framework (which the US unilaterally pulled out of) in tatters.
When decision-making has descended to talk of bloody noses and pre-emptive strikes, we are all in dangerous hands and on perilous ground for catastrophic consequences (which will be much worse than the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq). Most importantly, perceived problems that could happen are made to happen by such actions: self-fulfilling prophecies enacted by powerful leaders who lack the capacity for thoughtfulness or self-reflection, to say the least. These self-fulfilling prophecies, as we already see, have made tensions worse, not better.
For various reasons, the Anglophone media’s attention has shifted slightly away from the Korean Peninsula, where technically not much progress has been made. In a sense, South and North Korea remain as divided and tense as last year. Yet on the ground, there is genuine work being done in good faith to bridge divides. As The Korea Times reported, the president of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, South Korea’s largest Buddhist order, Ven. Wonhaeng, has offered “to launch inter-Korean cultural projects with North Korea to facilitate peace on the Korean Peninsula.” These activities to be undertaken in collaboration with a North Korean team are projected to include “the restoration of cultural assets and forests in the North and the return of North Korean cultural assets that are currently in the possession of the religious group to the temples in the North.” (The Korea Times)
Such an encouraging initiative is extraordinary because, apart from snippets of information acquired by the media, the work has largely taken place behind the scenes, and not always successfully: North Korea has not responded to many proposals made by the Jogye Order, among them building a center to promote inter-Korea templestay programs in Singye Temple in collaboration with the North. (The Korea Times) Such backchannels of soft or “Buddhist” diplomacy (which is becomingly increasingly common throughout Asia) never see firm results in the first few rounds of meetings, and even then positive outcomes are not particularly quantifiable. Yet perhaps this is the kind of patience and “open-ended” approach to diplomacy and discussion that is required in today’s volatile world of political leadership.
Leaders’ pressures today are defined by moment-to-moment events and the demand for immediate responses. This encourages impulsive, emotion-based reactions because when events occur we always have a conditioned response, whether of attachment or aversion. Buddhist training has always sought to “lengthen” the distance between event and reaction, specifically to analyze more thoroughly the mental processes that arise in between. The faster we react, the more likely we are guided by emotions such as anger, fear, passion, or excitement. As Shantideva noted in verses 48 and 50 of his chapter on vigilance in the Bodhicharyavatara:
When the urge arises in the mind
To feelings of desire or wrathful hate,
Do not act! Be silent, do not speak!
And like a log of wood be sure to stay. (48)
And when you want to fish for praise,
Or criticize and spoil another’s name,
Or use harsh language, sparring for a fight,
It’s then like a log you should remain. (50)
The urge to do everything with such speed prevents opportunities for better-considered responses to arise from moments of mental space, like taking a long walk or sitting on a bench in a quiet park. Of course, there is also the greater problem of our mainstream cultures of leadership, which tend to facilitate the kind of toxic, unmindful leadership styles that have been taken to extremes in certain circles.
Nevertheless, it is a hopeful fact that the world and societies are coming to grips with increasingly perilous stakes, where a single misstep can lead to immense consequences that not even the instigating party can anticipate. While the specter of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War had its own perverse rationale in preventing rash decisions, in our era, shared destruction can be a strong impetus to react more slowly and thoughtfully. Such an attitude requires more patience and openness to the process of negotiation, rather than simply, single-mindedly chasing a short-term result that will imperil broader interests.