Forget the helpless

There is little reason for geopolitical optimism in 2021, and this grim trend continues in early 2022. Almost every month in the past few years, a new emergency has dominated the news, creating a sense that the tide of crises is growing and threatening us.
The massive outbreak of COVID-19, the rise of non-free forces in many countries, the failure of international intervention, the intensification of conflicts, and the military buildup of major powers are all taking place at the same time. Beyond these immediate concerns, the effects of climate change — a major long-term threat to humanity — have become apparent, and political leaders have yet to respond forcefully enough. Who is to blame for feeling overwhelmed?
In the eyes of many citizens, politicians seem far from grasping the pressing issues of the day and steering the world away from disaster. And a seemingly endless series of crises threatens to erode public confidence in their ability to shape a better future.
The current malaise is akin to “learned helplessness”. This is a phenomenon first described by Psychologist Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and Steven Maier of the University of Colorado in the 1960s. In one experiment, Seligman and Maier were surprised to find that dogs that had been conditioned to expect a shock after hearing a sound did not try to avoid the shock, even though in a later environment, they could avoid the shock by jumping over a small obstacle.
Psychologists theorize that these animals already believe that no matter what they do, they have no control over their fate. So, they give up — despite the chance to escape.
Seligman and his colleagues compared the dogs’ behavior to symptoms exhibited by people with depression, and suspected that clinical depression was due to a lack of actual or perceived control over the outcome of a situation. The same is true of groups. Smaller or larger groups, or even societies as a whole, may collectively decide that they cannot achieve positive change and so stop trying.
If so, the recent spate of crises, and the apparent inability of most political leaders to deal with them, may be developing a collective learned sense of helplessness. Based on the latest data from the Munich Security Index 2022, opinion polls in the G7 and BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) showed that those who agreed to feel helpless in the face of global events were the largest group of respondents in any country.
In the democracies surveyed, the “helpless” dominate: 57 per cent of respondents agreed with this statement, while only 12 per cent disagreed. In addition, majorities or relative majorities of respondents in all 12 countries agreed that their countries had no control over global events.
Of course, one might ask, why should anyone believe that they or their country can participate in leading global events? But the promise of control, even an illusion, has always been a vital element in modern politics. In this age, man, not God or fate, should be in charge.
This helps explain why loss of control, and the desire to regain it, is widely regarded as the key political theme of our time. Slogans such as “take back control”, “America first” and “European sovereignty” all reflect the same underlying impulse.
The danger is that a general sense of collective helplessness may prevent the world from resolving its most important crises until it is too late. Societies overwhelmed by a wave of emergencies may eventually become resigned to what happens to them, even if they have the tools and resources to change it. In many countries, for example, people do not trust the international community to succeed in mitigating climate change, nor do they trust other countries to share the burden fairly.
While today’s challenges are enormous, our ability to meet them depends to a large extent on how we perceive ourselves. Do we really believe that we are collectively helpless, or are we willing to use our collective resources and strengthen international cooperation because we believe we can turn things around?
Above all, political leaders need to show that we can collectively “forget helplessness”. Leaders need to inspire new confidence at home and abroad that they can deal with the current crisis.