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Utopias and Dystopias as Places of Mental Retreat and Cooperation with China

by Dieter Funke and Michael Klare
Joe Biden and his foreign policy team are in many ways still entrenched in the Cold War era, and his administration has generally taken a far more antagonistic stance toward China than Obama. It is not surprising, then, that the progress Kerry made with his Chinese interlocutors in Glasgow largely fizzled out as tensions over Taiwan grew more intense.
Utopias and Dystopias as Places of Mental Retreat
by Dieter Funke

[This article posted in December 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, Zeitschrift Wort und Antwort - Leseprobe 1 der archivierten Ausgabe 4/2020.]

With the loss of familiar daily routines during the Corona crisis, many people suddenly became aware of the stabilizing functions of the unquestioning and ritualized actions of everyday life: They create a sense of the world's permanence and reliability, they provide the certainty of the always-on and thereby protect against emerging fears of the unavailable and the uncertain. It was only in the interruption of everyday courses of action that many became aware of the value of these rituals as well as the unavailability of security, health, and the future.

Utopias: Reactions to loss

This experience of psychological, social, and economic uncertainty leads to the heart of what utopias are all about: Namely, to offer hope that things will go back to the way they were. But this longing also leads to making the lost state appear in a rosy light. The reason probably lies in the human tendency to idealize what is absent, which means as much as the elimination and suppression of reality in its conflicting and failing sides. This is already expressed in the term "utopia" (ou-topos), which means "not place" or "no place". Utopia thus consists in a wishful "placeless" fantasy detached from reality. In order to understand the dynamics of these utopian fantasies and their meaning for the mental and spiritual-religious life, a look at the probably most well-known utopian conception helps, namely that of the lost paradise. This ideal state of the Garden of Eden described in the second creation account of Genesis can be understood as a "nostalgic myth of separation". In human history, this happened as a response to the experience of having fallen out of the ring of time and the circle of nature through the so-called Neolithic Revolution, the sedentarization of mankind in the period from 5,000 to 1,800 BC.

Utopias as timeless and placeless states

Being bound to time and space is the basic prerequisite for understanding oneself as an individual being - psychologically as "I". Only through this spatiotemporal limitation is the early childhood fantasy of being immortal and omnipotent interrupted. This fantasy of placelessness and timelessness is rooted in the prenatal state as a fetus, as expressed in images and conceptions of the original paradise at the beginning of the incarnation. This prenatal state forms a self-contained, timeless world in which to seek the sources of longing for comfort, security, and harmony. This state is rooted in the unbroken supply of the fetus by the maternal organism and thus in the absence of lack and tension. This prenatal unit of supply with the mother forms the foundation from which the need for unlimitedness and omnipotence emerges. However, already in the early phase this longing shows two sides: The positive narcissism of wholeness and perfection, in which later abilities such as confidence and hope are rooted, is opposed to the destructive narcissism. Destructive because grandiose fantasies of omnipotence and rage against disturbing reality are rooted in it. With birth, the infant is forced to step out of its world of the womb, which is free of bodily tensions, and thus compelled to acknowledge the givenness of failure. Initially, the mother, by her presence, ensures that the infant's natal crash does not lead to disaster. A loving and empathetic relationship of the mother to her infant allows the infant to survive the abrupt loss of prenatal paradise reasonably unscathed. The mother is endowed by the infant (in fantasy) with such qualities that correspond to the life in her before birth, so that one can speak of an ideal image of the mother as the core of the paradisiacal utopia.

The loss of original perfection and wholeness represents on the one hand the birth of the individual, but on the other hand it is connected with the task of coping with the loss of paradisiacal perfection. The ability to bear this loss presupposes a reasonably functional ego. Those who have been at the mercy of all too strong experiences of lack of resonance, attachment and recognition, or traumatic experiences of loss and fear overload, lack the healthy mechanisms of coping with these experiences of lack and the fears associated with them. To ward off these fears and the suffering associated with them, the individual resorts to utopian fantasies which, as ideals, form a counter-image to the painful and sorrowful reality. As the most important characteristic of such utopian states, the psychoanalyst Heinz Weiss has named the timelessness just mentioned. The fantasy of the absence of time serves as a defense against the fear of finiteness, limitedness and mortality.

An example from therapeutic practice: An analyst suffers from his fear of getting involved in a partnership, because for him this is connected with exclusion from other relationships, an idea of limitation which is unbearable for him. Working through this fear of commitment allows him to experience the underlying narcissistic mortification of the experience of limitation in his own life. He would rather endure the never-satisfied longing for a love relationship than suffer the mortification of excluding other possibilities of relationship. It is impossible for him to bear this mortification of limitation because in his childhood he experienced too little security and attachment through a self-centered, resonance-incompetent mother, an emotionally absent father and traumatic loss of home through migration, which would have enabled him to learn to bear limitations. In the patient mentioned here, the fantasy of the limitlessness of one's life, and thus the defense against the certainty of death, serves to protect against the catastrophic revival of the trauma of loss and powerlessness. The denial of time, which always presupposes the integration of death as a limitation of one's own lifetime, has a protective function in many people, including this patient: instead, he takes refuge in the fantasy of being able to enjoy life with all its advantages in an ideal place in the South in the future, including a partner. The idea of such a utopian place makes him hope that working through his current difficulties will be worthwhile. In addition to its defensive function in terms of limitation, this utopia also establishes hope and confidence in him. It helps him to engage with the limited life in the present and to hold the disappointment about it in abeyance with the fantasy of a better life.

In the religious-spiritual realm, this productive utopia expresses itself in the belief in a loving God who leads everything to the better, or in the image of a new world that makes the travails of life in limitation, failure, and suffering bearable. [...]


What if the U.S. and China cooperate - and solve the biggest crisis?
by Michael T. Klare
[This article posted on 12/19/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Chinese President Xi Jinping greets the hand of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Dec. 4, 2013.

Periodically, there are tensions between Washington and Beijing. This has also repeatedly put the climate diplomacy of the great powers on hold. With fatal consequences. A peace roadmap that puts cooperation over disaster.

When President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping arrived for the summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on Nov. 14, relations between the two countries were in an unfathomable downward spiral, and tensions over the Taiwan issue were approaching boiling point.

At best, diplomats hoped for a modest reduction in tensions, which, to the relief of many, did occur. A political breakthrough was not expected, however, and it was not achieved. In one important area, however, there was at least a glimmer of hope: the world's two largest greenhouse gas emitters agreed to resume their stalled negotiations on joint efforts to address the climate crisis.
Michael T. Klare is professor emeritus of peace and world security studies and senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association.

These talks have been in a constant state of back-and-forth since President Barack Obama initiated them ahead of the December 2015 Paris climate summit, where delegates were expected to vote on a landmark measure to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (the amount scientists believe the planet can withstand without catastrophic consequences).

U.S.-China consultations continued after the adoption of the Paris climate agreement, but were suspended in 2017 by President Donald Trump, who denies climate change. They were resumed by Biden in 2021. After then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on Aug. 2, which was seen in Beijing as support for pro-independence activists on the island, disgruntled Chinese leaders suspended the talks again in retaliation. But thanks to Biden's intensive lobbying in Bali, President Xi agreed to turn the interaction switch back on.

Behind this modest gesture lies a much more significant question: what if the two countries not only talked to each other, but also worked together to commit to radically reducing global carbon emissions? What wonders would then be conceivable? To find answers to this momentous question, one must look at the recent history of U.S.-China climate cooperation.

The promise of cooperation

In November 2014, Presidents Obama and Xi met in Beijing and signed a declaration committing to joint action to ensure the success of the upcoming Paris climate summit, following extensive diplomatic groundwork. They affirm:

The United States of America and the People's Republic of China must play a critical role in addressing global climate change. The seriousness of the challenge calls on both sides to work together constructively for the common good.

Obama then directed Secretary of State John Kerry to work with Chinese officials to persuade the other participants in this summit - officially the 21st Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) - to agree on a firm commitment to meet the 1.5-degree limit. This joint effort, according to many observers, helped persuade reluctant participants such as India and Russia to sign the Paris climate agreement. At the summit's closing session, Obama stated:

With our historic joint announcement with China last year, we showed that it is possible to overcome the old divides that have for so long impeded global progress. That achievement has encouraged dozens of other nations to set ambitious climate goals of their own.

Obama also pointed out that any significant global progress along the way would depend on continued cooperation between the two countries.

No nation, not even one as powerful as ours, can solve this challenge alone.

Trump and the dangers of non-cooperation

This era of cooperation did not last long. Donald Trump, an ardent supporter of fossil fuels, made no secret of his distaste for the Paris climate agreement. Shortly after taking office, he signaled his intention to withdraw from the agreement. In 2017, in announcing his fatal decision, he said:

It's time to put Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along with many other places in our great country, above Paris, France.

With the absence of the U.S., implementation of the Paris Agreement has been slow. Many countries that had been pressured by the U.S. and China to agree to emission reduction timetables began to back out of those commitments in line with Trump's America.

China, the largest greenhouse gas emitter and a leader in the use of the dirtiest of fossil fuels, coal, also felt far less pressure to meet its commitments, even on a rapidly warming planet.

No one knows what would have happened if Trump had not been elected and U.S.-China talks had not been suspended, but in the absence of such cooperation, the continued rise in carbon dioxide emissions and temperature across the planet occurred.

According to CO.2.Earth, CO2 emissions increased from 35.5 billion tons in 2016 to 36.4 in 2021, an increase of 2.5 percent. Since these emissions are the largest contributor to the greenhouse effect that drives global warming, it should come as no surprise that the last seven years have also been the warmest on record, with much of the world experiencing record-breaking heat waves, wildfires, droughts and crop failures.

We can expect such disasters to become more frequent and severe unless U.S.-China climate cooperation resumes.

The eternal back and forth

Overcoming this frightening trend was one of Joe Biden's key campaign promises, and in the face of strong Republican opposition, he has indeed sought to undo at least some of the damage done by Trump.

It was a symbolic act when, on his first day in office, he rejoined the Paris climate agreement and directed his Cabinet to accelerate the transition to clean energy. In August, he made a major breakthrough when Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which provides $369 billion in loans, grants and tax credits for green energy initiatives.

Biden also sought to revive Washington's global climate change diplomacy and stalled talks with China by appointing John Kerry as his special envoy for climate action. Kerry, in turn, resumed relations with his Chinese counterparts from his days as Secretary of State.

At COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, he convinced China to join the U.S. in adopting the Glasgow Declaration, which pledged to strengthen efforts to mitigate climate change.

However, Joe Biden and his foreign policy team are in many ways still entrenched in the Cold War era, and his administration has generally taken a far more antagonistic stance toward China than Obama. It is not surprising, then, that the progress Kerry made with his Chinese interlocutors in Glasgow largely fizzled out as tensions over Taiwan grew more intense.

Biden, for example, was the first president to declare four times that U.S. forces would defend the island off China's coast in a crisis should it be attacked by Beijing, jettisoning Washington's longstanding position of "strategic ambiguity" on the Taiwan issue. In response, Chinese leaders increasingly vehemently asserted that the island belonged to China.

The Chinese responded to Nancy Pelosi's Taiwan visit in early August by launching ballistic missiles around the island and angrily ended bilateral talks on climate change. Now, thanks to Biden's initiative in Bali, the door appears to be open again for the two countries to work together to limit global greenhouse gas emissions.

At a time when evidence of the planet's warming is increasingly devastating - from a mega-drought in the U.S. to extreme heat in China - the question is: What might meaningful new cooperation entail?

Recommit to the centrality of the climate

In 2015, few leaders doubted the broad threat of climate change or the need to use international diplomacy to address the crisis. In Paris, Obama declared that "the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other." What should give us hope, he continued, ...

is the fact that nations are feeling a sense of urgency about the challenge and a growing realization is taking root that it is within our power to do something about it.

Since then, unfortunately, other challenges such as the rise of Cold War-style tensions with China, the Covid 19 pandemic, and Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine have defined the contours of this century.

Even as the consequences of the planet's overheating become increasingly apparent in 2022, few world leaders would claim that it is "within our power" to overcome the climate threat. So the first (and perhaps most valuable) outcome of renewed U.S.-China climate cooperation might simply be to put climate change back at the top of the world's agenda and prove that the major powers can successfully address the problem together.

Such an effort could begin, for example, with a climate summit between Washington and Beijing, led by Presidents Biden and Xi and attended by high-level delegations from around the world. American and Chinese scientists could recite the latest bad news about the likely trajectory of global warming while setting specific targets for significant reductions in fossil fuel use.

That, in turn, could lead to the formation of multilateral working groups, led by U.S. and Chinese agencies and institutions, that would meet regularly to implement the best strategies for mitigating the approaching catastrophe.

Following the example set by Obama and Xi at COP21 in Paris, Biden and Xi would agree to play a key role at the next Conference of the Parties, COP28, scheduled for December 2023 in the United Arab Emirates. After the inconclusive outcome of COP27, held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, strong leadership is needed to achieve something much better at COP28.

Among the goals the two governments would need to pursue, the top priority is full implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement, with its commitment to limit temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees, followed by far greater efforts by rich nations to help developing countries suffering the effects of climate change.

However, there is no way that China and the U.S. will be able to make a significant international impact on climate efforts unless both countries - the former currently the leading emitter of greenhouse gases and the latter the historical leader - make far greater efforts to reduce their carbon emissions and shift to renewable energy sources.

The Inflation Reduction Act will allow the White House to move forward with many new initiatives in this direction, while China is installing additional wind and solar energy facilities faster than any other country.

However, both countries still rely on fossil fuels for a significant portion of their energy - China, for example, continues to be the largest user of coal, burning more of it than the rest of the world combined - and so both will need to agree on more aggressive measures to reduce their carbon emissions in order to convince other nations to do the same.

A China-U.S. fund for the clean energy transition.

Also at the top of the list for revitalized U.S.-China cooperation should be a joint effort to fund the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Although the cost of deploying renewable energy, particularly wind and solar, has fallen dramatically in recent years, it is still significant, even for rich countries. For many developing countries, it remains a prohibitively expensive option to date.

The issue therefore became a major theme at COP27 in Egypt, where representatives of the Global South complained that, despite earlier promises, wealthy countries, which are largely responsible for overheating the planet, are not doing enough (or, in many cases, anything) to help them bear the costs of the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change and decarbonization of their countries.

Many of these complaints relate to the green climate fund established at COP16 in Cancún. Developed countries agreed to contribute $100 billion a year to this fund by 2020 to help developing countries pay the costs of switching to renewable energy.

Although that amount is now widely seen as woefully inadequate for such a transition - "all indications are that we need trillions, not billions," noted Baysa Naran, a manager at the Climate Policy Initiative research center - the fund has never even come close to meeting the $100 billion goal, a fact that has embittered many in the Global South as climate change strikes ever more terribly there with unprecedented flooding and extreme heat waves.

As the U.S. and China worked together on the climate issue at COP26 in Glasgow, it seemed possible that the green climate fund might actually be filled with money. In their November 2021 Glasgow Declaration, John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua affirmed that ...

both countries recognize the importance of the commitment made by developed countries to jointly mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 and annually through 2025 to meet the needs of developing countries [and] stress the importance of achieving this goal as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, not much came of this announcement in the months that followed, as U.S.-China relations continued to deteriorate. Now, after Biden's meeting with Xi and the resumption of their talks on climate change, it is at least possible to envision increased bilateral efforts to advance - and even go well beyond - the $100 billion goal (although we can expect fierce opposition from the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives).

I would also propose that, to accelerate the transition to green energy, a China-U.S. fund be established - an institution that would provide grants and loans jointly by the two countries, with the primary purpose of financing renewable energy projects in the developing world.

Decisions on funding commitments would be made by a board of directors, half of which would be from the two countries, and whose staff would be made up of experts from around the world. The goal would be: to supplement the green climate fund with hundreds of billions of additional dollars annually to accelerate the global energy transition.

The path to peace and the survival of peoples

U.S. and Chinese leaders recognize that global warming poses an extraordinary threat to the survival of their nations and that enormous efforts will be required in the coming years to minimize the climate threat while preparing for its most severe impacts.

The climate crisis is the existential challenge of our time,

... states the Biden Administration's October 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS).

Without immediate global action to reduce emissions, scientists tell us, we will soon exceed 1.5 degrees of warming, leading to more extreme heat and weather events, rising sea levels, and catastrophic loss of biodiversity.

Despite this all-too-accurate assessment, the NSS portrays competition with China as an even greater threat to U.S. security-without citing the same dangerous consequences-and proposes a massive mobilization of the nation's economic, technological, and military resources to ensure American dominance in the Asia-Pacific region for decades to come.

This strategy, of course, will require trillions of dollars in military spending, meaning insufficient resources to deal with the climate crisis and exposing the country to an ever-increasing risk of war - possibly even nuclear war - with China.

Given these dangers, the best outcome of revitalized U.S.-China climate cooperation or green diplomacy might be to build trust between the leaders of the two countries, allowing for a reduction in tensions and military spending. Indeed, such an approach represents the only practical strategy to save us from the catastrophic consequences of both U.S.-China conflict and unchecked climate change.

This article is published in cooperation with the U.S. magazine TomDispatch. The English original can be found here.

Michael T. Klare is professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the most recent of which is "All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change." He is a co-founder of the Committee for a Sensible U.S.-China Policy.
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