Over the past year I have taken what I initially thought was a side-step from my usual work in foreign affairs to research the behaviour — and failings — of family courts. Yet what I have discovered is that instead of venturing outside of my field I’ve actually come to better understand the emotional and psychological forces that drive international relations. How insecurity in the home mirrors insecurity within and between states.
Central to disputes within the family court is the idea of “natural authority”. Many men will unashamedly — or by subterfuge — claim that they have the right to dominate and abuse their family members. They believe their authority is a predetermined social structure that requires respect and submission. Far too often the court is sympathetic to this idea.
International relations is also built around this idea of natural authority. Great powers are perceived to have the right to manage and manipulate their “sphere of influence”, and, like abusive fathers, their power is deemed to be an entitlement, not a responsibility.
We are currently witnessing a brutal example of the natural authority that Russian president Vladimir Putin believes he has over Ukraine. For Putin, Russia’s dignity is tied to its ability to control the behaviour of Ukraine, as well as many other surrounding states. These states are given no agency of their own, like children forced into contact with fathers they are frightened of.
One of the central insights we have to come to understand how violent men try to defend their authority is that of DARVO — Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. This is an observation of abusive men with narcissistic personality disorders developed by Dr Jennifer Freyd, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon.
The concept highlights how often perpetrators of violence not only deny their actions, but launch counter-offensives, attacking the credibility of anyone who provides evidence against them, while also claiming that the victim of abuse — or those reporting it in the case of child abuse — is actually the real perpetrator, and the accused is the real victim. This tactic has proved surprisingly effective in family courts.
This victimhood is based on the instinctive belief that any attempt to constrain men’s perceived natural authority is a form of persecution. In its most extreme forms many men believe that they have the right to violence. An assertion that violence is a critical component of masculinity, and to deny men this right — or punish them for it — is to strip masculinity of its essence. This is why many men defensively assert that feminism is “anti-men.”
One can easily see how this behaviour is mirrored by authoritarian states that seek to exert control over their own self-declared natural domains. DARVO is a form of disinformation and propaganda, designed not only to create confusion, to gaslight, and intimidate, but to establish a new narrative. To make people believe that what is obvious is actually fake — that murkier forces are at play, like Putin’s absurd claim that drug-addled Nazis are ruling Ukraine. The goal is to ferment a perpetual cynicism, to create a space where the truth has no power.
Russia’s initial response to the reporting of its massing of troops on Ukraine’s border was to mock the West as hysterical and crazy — a tactic that victims of male violence will be familiar with. Despite its clear display of military aggression, Russia claimed that it was actually the real victim. That the West had been encroaching into Russia’s sphere of influence, that it was doing so out of jealousy at Russia’s unity and strength, and was driven by a hostile “anti-Russia” sentiment.
That Russia subsequently invaded Ukraine, to Moscow, was irrelevant. As establishing the truth was not the point of Russia’s denial of its own actions. Saying one thing today and doing the opposite tomorrow is not a failing for states like Russia. It is how they exert dominance. Real power is the ability to enforce irrationality. If one can transcend not just basic human ethics, but also not be bound by the truth, then this is the true demonstration of one’s might.
What often binds the home and international relations is a fascination with — and veneration of — the idea of might. We still find ourselves bound to a traditional archetype of what a man should be; a towering figure, manifesting physical strength, power and control. This leads many men to seek to personify these traits in their relationships, while for societies at large we fantasise about great men engaged in great power politics. We see men like Putin as having immense virility and cunning, playing a game of 3D chess that lesser men (and of course women) could never fathom.
Yet rather than a strategic genius, Putin instead seems to be consumed by an emotional maelstrom. Making decisions that are informed by grievance, obsession, and narcissism. He is a chaotic actor, struggling to come to terms with his own psychological impulses. While, horribly for the people of Ukraine, using one of the world’s most powerful militaries to demonstrate these inadequacies.
Putin’s chaos is not incompatible with his desire for dominance. Often chaos is dominance’s primary tool; a way to confuse and demoralise a target. Yet dominance and control are also not the same thing. The impulse to exert dominance is often driven by a lack of control. The most dangerous time for women in abusive relationships is when they try to leave. With the abuse often escalating to murder. Putin’s brutal reaction to Ukraine’s desire for self-determination is clearly driven by the same violent resentment.
We are currently in an era of heightened male emotion. It is the thread that connects almost all of the world’s current destabilising forces. There are, of course, a great diversity of factors that are driving these emotive and often destructive responses. But as men, there is a pressing need for us to confront certain aspects of masculinity that are antithetical to peace — the lust for power and control, the instinct to see aggression as a positive, and the impulse to use intimidation as a tool to advance our interests.
Realists will claim that this is simply the nature of men and therefore it is the nature of states. But states are not bound to behave in preconceived ways regardless of who governs them. We are capable of infusing them with new values, and new modes of operation. An emerging idea like Feminist Foreign Policy is designed to reshape the way we think about power, how we understand the roots of violence, and how we seek to mitigate it. And crucially, who we choose to make our decisions.
Central to Feminist Foreign Policy is the recognition that it is not just national or international instability that threatens individual security, but that insecurity also flows in the other direction. That there are concentric circles of violence that compound and ripple up from the individual and household to the state and international level. We cannot solve war without solving domestic violence; the world’s primary security problem.
Rather than confront these domestic horrors, the family court finds itself trapped by the need to coddle the egos of abusive men, for fear of what they may do otherwise. Here in Australia, the spectre of Leonard Warwick — the family court bomber — haunts the institution. For many of those who seek to blame Russia’s aggression on eastern European states’ desire to join NATO it is the same calculation — that we need to placate Putin so he doesn’t become worse. The title of Australian journalist Jess Hill’s book on domestic abuse “See What You Made Me Do” comes to mind.
What the current crisis in Ukraine should inspire is a reckoning with machismo. An understanding that our conceptions of masculinity, what we expect men to be, and what behaviours we tolerate from them, are central to our stability. As men, we need to comprehend that the seeds of authoritarianism, war and chaos, lie in our individual relations with those around us.
The courage currently on display by Ukrainians is not bravado. It is instead strength of character — the ability to orientate and commit oneself to a moral imperative. Strength is not the ability to intimidate, coerce and harm. Societies that submit themselves to this behaviour, or be attracted to these kinds of traits as individuals or in leaders, will only ever repeat the brutal failures that stem from them.