We can’t say it enough, 2020 was a rough year, and 2021 is off to a questionable start. Our economy, our health, and our personal and professional relationships have all suffered (“Why are you chewing like that?!” “You’re still on mute”). Even our international relationships are a mess. And if the Biden administration is going to have any chance at repairing those international relationships, it’s in desperate need of some relationship counseling. Luckily, we have some experts who can lend some friendly advice
Perhaps the most useful post-trauma relationship advice comes from Esther Perel, a novelist and therapist who specializes in couples’ therapy, especially those recovering from adultery, trauma, or major changes. For these sessions, Perel advises that couples frame the past as an old relationship, and then decide if they want to pursue a new relationship today.
We need a post-COVID society. For some, a post-Trump society. We can do the post-mortem to figure out what led to this, but then we must put it aside. That was our old marriage. Now, we must choose a new one. That doesn’t just mean a new president. What we need now is an entirely new framework for thinking about international policy; the old state vs. state realism didn’t work. We need to embrace new, changing roles. The United States is, and should remain, a leader in our international relationships, but not the same selfish lover it’s been in the past. Prioritizing our needs is healthy, but always making sure every little American desire comes first? That’s the quickest route to an unfulfilled and lonely marriage bed.
Esther also gives sage advice on what those new roles should be — especially during times of global stress. During an interview in May 2020 with the New Yorker, she stresses the importance of boundaries, rituals, and routines. It’s important that not one country give us everything we need. We need to diversify our relationships and set clear boundaries on what we’re willing to bring to the table. The United States cannot be everything to everyone. We must prioritize our commitments abroad and we must return to an international system of rituals and routines. The Trump administration famously disregarded such routines, most recently by refusing to attend the inauguration of President Biden or even formally concede the election. If President Biden wants to recreate new, lasting, and healthy relationships in the international sphere, he can start by setting ambitious, yet concrete and realistic boundaries while rejoining the rituals and routines that both reinforce those boundaries and create the stability that our world needs.
Prioritizing our needs is healthy, but always making sure every little American desire comes first? That’s the quickest route to an unfulfilled and lonely marriage bed.
Moving on to America’s own, contemporary relationship counselor, we can consider Mark Manson’s advice to first work on ourselves. We cannot be in healthy relationships if we’re not healthy ourselves. This means the US should reaffirm its increasingly tenuous relationship with reality. We must counter disinformation and misinformation with the gusto and resources due such a complex threat. We must, finally, with nuance and long-term commitment, address our long divisive racial inequalities and our rapidly growing wealth inequalities. We must love ourselves, which means, according to the foremost expert on love — bell hooks — that we must care for the soul of the nation. We must care about its growth and development, its progress towards a healthier, more just, more peaceful, and more whole nation. As President Biden pointed out in his inauguration speech, we must “lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
In Manson’s work “Love is not Enough,” he outlines two toxic personalities — the narcissist and the enabler. We, as an international partner, can be neither. American exceptionalism can be a powerful motivator, when used to self-regulate and hold ourselves to the highest standards. But this thinking can also lead to American narcissism, turning this great nation into the washed-up ex-prom king still hanging around high school parties, reliving that time we, “Almost made it to the state championship!” like a back cover of a Bruce Springsteen song. We all know that guy. We don’t want to be that guy.
We also can’t be that guy’s mom, still washing his boxers and letting his immature and self-centered behavior slide with shrugs of “boys will be boys.” We need to wash our own underwear, and make sure others are washing theirs.
We must abandon the principles that warped “America First” into “America Alone,” and look at how we can both be served by and serve our international community. We cannot enable the narcissistic leadership of despots and tyrants around the world, nor be like them. We must recognize our nation’s own needs as our priority, but also, not the only needs of the international community.
Finally, we cannot write about relationships without proper homage to Abigail Van Buren, more widely known as Dear Abby. In columns across the country, across the decades, Abby has time and time again advised husbands and wives to communicate. I’m not talking about the abbreviated texts and hurried reminder notes on the refrigerator. I’m talking 36 questions to love, a few glasses of whiskey confessions, and “I have this thing with lime jello” type communication. Open communication and trust is never more important than in international relations. Trust and clear communication are the very foundations of both treaties and threats, key in our engagements with allies, adversaries, and everyone in between. We must understand the needs and desires of our fellow actors on the international stage first, before engaging in public or private. Furthermore, we cannot ignore our allies’ needs, lest they find comfort and aid in the arms of another.
The #NatSec space has gotten a little too stuffy and stale the past few decades, and it’s time we look outside the traditional international theorists for some guidance. Where better to look than to Esther, Mark, bell, and Abbie? All in all, the United States could learn quite a bit from the relationship experts (and let’s be frank, most DC policy wonks could stand a session or two of couples counseling). With an acceptance of a new and changing international system, serious self-reflection and improvement, and open communication, the Biden Administration can navigate these complex, yet critical, international relationships to a safer, healthy world. No couch required.