JURIST Guest Columnist Louis René Beres of Purdue University, critically analyzes Trump’s “America First” foreign policy…
“The existence of `system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature….Each element of the cosmos is positively woven from all the others.”
— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man
The cumulative jurisprudential assets and liabilities of U.S. foreign policy can best be determined from the standpoint of system. Accordingly, the divergence of such policy from much broader interests of the world as a whole represents a conspicuous harbinger of failure. It follows, further, that any posture of “America First” must signal a lose-lose prescription for the United States, one minimizing both national power and world law.
There is more. This noteworthy conclusion is most plausible wherever such a self-defeating U.S. posture deteriorates to the lowest possible level of implementation. Tangibly, this means a moment when “America First” has managed to become both starkly retrograde and viscerally primal. In these plainly bitter circumstances, there could no longer exist any meaningful hopes for gainful cooperation or general human progress.
At that point, this country would be guided only by increasingly corrosive commitments to competition and conflict, what the philosophers prefer to call a bellum omnium contra omnes, a “war of all against all.”
For the president and his counselors, currently fashioning incoherent policies toward North Korea, coping with multiple intersecting perils will require more than noisy belligerence or rancorous bravado. Ultimately, however counter-intuitive, Donald Trump’s national security policies will need to be based upon verifiably sound principles of systematic investigation, intellect, and “mind.” In acknowledgment of this assessment, a derivative “next question” must be quickly raised and correctly answered: What might such a suitably thoughtful American foreign policy actually look like?
To be sure, the answers here will be less than plain. They will depend, after all, upon what can first be uncovered about myriad individual human needs and expectations. Both intellectually and operationally, this demonstrably global elucidation will be sorely complex and hideously multilayered.
In other words, these “revelations” will not be readily decipherable by mere “common sense,” or by any simplistic analogy from the microcosmic worlds of real estate and raw commerce.
Like most conditions here on earth, national security must begin at the beginning, that is, with the individual human being. More than anything else – except for a sometimes corollary apprehension of “aloneness, or of not conspicuously “belonging” to a valued tribe, nation, or faith – the expressly primal fear of simply “not being” is determinative. When considered together with the understanding that individual human death fear often creates more-or-less irresistible inclinations toward collective violence, this oddly difficult insight may nonetheless reveal a long overlooked foreign policy opportunity.
It is that the universal apprehension of death, as an unambiguously common human anguish, could help prevent war and terror. More specifically, it could productively invite a steadily expanding ambit of human empathy and worldwide compassion. Such an expansion, by definition, would represent the conceptual and jurisprudential opposite of “American First.”
Although generally overlooked, only this basic human universality and commonality can eventually lift us above a frightfully lawless future; that is, beyond an accumulating sequence of endlessly destructive and self-perpetuating planetary fragmentations. Worth noting, too, is that the looming portent of increasingly explosive disunities could sometime prove to be sui generis. Quite literally, should we experience a nuclear war with North Korea in absolutely any form, it would be unprecedented and law-shattering.
In the final analysis, only a serious attempt to understand an imperative global “oneness” can save the United States from irremediable national and international hazards. Significantly, however, we are now moving in exactly the opposite direction. To wit, President Trump’s “America First” orientation represents the literal antithesis of a badly needed global effort. It could, therefore, decisively undermine any of our still-remaining chances for meaningful legal order on planet earth.
As this American president must no doubt struggle to recognize, the United States can never be saved by narrowly political solutions fashioned in public relations firms or in career marketing boardrooms. American national security is never just about branding, making the “best deal,” or ensuring that others “pay their fair share.” In the end, law and security are never about the money. At some point, Mr. Trump must finally be made aware that U.S. foreign policy is far more than just another mundane calculation of monetary exchange.
Inter alia, our national security policy must always be about an overarching commitment to international law enforcement and whole species survival. Only then, together with all others, could America become truly “first.” It’s not really a new or difficult idea to grasp. Already in 1758, Swiss legal scholar Emmerich de Vattel noted, in his classic The Law of Nations (Or the Principles of Natural Law): “Nations, being no less subject to the laws of nature than individuals, what one man owes to other men, one Nation, in its turn, owes to other Nations.”
Later, in the same vein, the great eighteenth-century jurist continues: “The first general law, which is to be found in the very end of the society of Nations, is that each Nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations.”
Fittingly, Vattel’s legal work was well-known to Thomas Jefferson, who consulted it closely in fashioning the US Declaration of Independence.
There is more. In global politics, durable remediations will expect a more sincere and penetrating depth of analytic thought. At the outset, this president will have to accept a fully imaginative and broadly global set of legal policy understandings. This challenging set expresses the subtle but indispensable awareness that outer worlds of politics and statecraft are in fact a more-or-less mirrored reflection of our innermost private selves.
These outer worlds, in short, are merely “epiphenomenal.”
More precisely, as Mr. Trump will sometime need to fathom, it is deeply within the opaque mysteries of individual human mortality – mysteries focused on the genuinely timeless and universal preoccupation with power over death — that we must ultimately seek to discover the largely reciprocal truths of human interdependence and American national security. Whether we might prefer to look toward better legal management of terrorism, war, or genocide, any foolishly declared posture of “America First” will mean “America Alone” and, subsequently, “America Last.”
In looking more purposefully behind the daily news, as this president must soon learn to appreciate, power over death will become discernible as the single most eagerly sought after form of power in world politics. Always, it has been this way. Indeed, it has been this way since “time immemorial.”
But what to actually do about it?
That is the question.
In this very challenging regard, there is much more for the White House to learn. At a minimum, President Trump ought not draw any credible hopes for creating an improved and lawful U.S. national security policy by clinging to well-worn and hackneyed examples of American “exceptionalism.” In this connection, though gleefully unacknowledged even in our best schools and universities, there remains a noteworthy gap between humankind’s advancing technical understanding, and its persistently uncontrollable passions. Today, in virtually all human communities, including these United States, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Freud and Jung could suggest far more promising policy ideas to the American president than Bacon, Newton, Descartes, Galileo or even Einstein.
Ancient Greek tragedies had already recorded an incredulous query: “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatred, the destruction?”
To add, we must now inquire, what about the revealing ironies and compounding absurdities of human life on earth?
Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”
Thus far, more perhaps than we might care to admit, education and enlightenment have had precious little tangible bearing on the “human condition.” Prima facie, too, steadily expanding technologies of mega-destruction have done little or nothing to make us more responsible stewards of this endangered planet. Instead, and with an observably unhindered arrogance, whole nations and peoples continue to revel in virtually every conceivable form of mass violence and self-propelled barbarism. Could it possibly get any worse?
Most of the time, in world politics, this ominously primal immersion is described with an air of inevitability, as some sort of immutably zero-sum or us-versus-them struggle for global domination.
Regarding the planet’s physical environment, President Trump displays nary a scintilla of any serious or prudent foresight. This absence, of course, is most glaringly underscored by his unhidden indifference to climate change studies and the global ecology. By his still-planned withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change accord, a recalcitrant and law-undermining abrogation that will harm both US and global interests by its stunningly anti-science commitment to America First, President Trump will literally place billions of people on a largely accelerating trajectory of human declension.
Where shall we go from here? Exeunt omnes? Our American president seems to have demonstrably few original ideas, and, correspondingly, a never-ending panoply of bewilderingly backward and law-violating notions. Among the latter are manifestly unhelpful distortions of global trade policies, and also a curiously counter-productive interference with badly needed immigration.
What other basic questions will need to be asked?
One fundamental query is especially obvious and inescapable: What precisely is wrong with us, not as Americans in particular, but as humans, as a wider species? Somehow, shameless human bloodletting not only persists, but remains geographically almost worldwide, and ritually de rigueur. This is the relentlessly unsettling case, moreover, even while the most predatory of other animals are seemingly able to coexist in substantially less murderous habitats.
What, then, we desperately need to inquire, is most fundamentally wrong with us as humans, living irrevocably in an interconnected and presumptively lawful global system?
Leaving aside certain incontestable intellectual advantages, we are not the same as other species. There is rampant killing among the “lower” animals, of course, but it is not usually willful or gratuitous. Mostly, it is survival driven. Such killing may simply be “natural.” Biologically, at least, it can “make sense.”
What sort of species, we will then need to inquire, can tolerate or even venerate such a hideous source of gratification? To what extent, if any, is this markedly venal quality related to our steadily-diminishing prospects for building modern civilizations upon aptly resurrected premises of human oneness? And once more, to what extent, if any, does this murderous trait derive from a primary and ubiquitous human death fear?
This last question is more important than it is obvious, even for the consciously rational formulation of American foreign policy and for certain corollary obligations of global consciousness and world law.
“Our unconscious,” wrote Freud, “does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal.” What we ordinarily describe as heroism may in some cases actually be nothing more than denial. Still, however widely disregarded, an expanded acceptance of personal mortality may effectively represent the very last best chance we still have to endure as an enviable American nation.
Representing the very opposite of America First, this is because we could otherwise continue to associate a still-wished for immortality with inflicting grave harms upon others. Tangible examples of such deleterious associations abound in both war and terrorism, most recognizably, perhaps, in today’s growing cadre of suicide-terrorists. Significantly, the martyrdom-seeking suicide terrorist kills himself or herself in order to avoid death.
Already back during the Trojan War, as we may learn from Homer, Achilles led his Greek warriors to battle against Troy with the incomparable rallying cry: “Onward, for immortality.”
Can President Trump and his advisors learn something here that might benefit both the nation, and thereby also the wider global community, something that could move us gainfully beyond Schadenfreude, and encouragingly toward certain viable forms of wider legal cooperation? To be sure, the latter represents the only credible path to the former. Again, these core orientations are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually reinforcing.
Death “happens” to us all, but our potentially useful awareness of this expectation is normally blunted by deception. To accept forthrightly that we are all authentically flesh and blood creatures of biology is basically more than most humans can bear. “Normally,” there is even a peculiar embarrassment felt by the living in the presence of the dead and dying.
It is almost as if death and dying had somehow been reserved exclusively for “others.”
It is, further, as if death were an “affliction” that can never expectedly darken our own personal and presumptively “eternal” lives. Judged by a now near-universal obsession with social media, and with being recognizably “connected,” this view may be rooted, at least in part, in the potent idea of personal death as the last and most insufferable extremity of being left “alone” in a disconcertingly pointless universe.
That we, as individuals, should still cleave so desperately to various allegedly sacred promises of redemption and immortality is not, by itself, a global-survival or national-survival issue. It becomes a genuinely existential problem, and one that we may thus convincingly associate with war, terrorism, or genocide, only when these various promises are forcibly reserved to certain selected segments of humanity, and are then openly denied to other “less-worthy” segments.
In the end, as President Trump must still learn to understand, all national and global politics are epiphenomenal, a thinly symptomatic reflection of more deeply underlying and compellingly troublesome private needs. Undoubtedly, the most pressing of all these accumulated needs is the avoidance of personal death.
In all global politics, it is now worth repeating, there is no greater form of power than power over death.
For the most part, it is not for us to choose when we should die. Instead, our words, our faces, and even our irrepressible human countenance will sometime lie immeasurably far beyond any discernible considerations of conscious decision or individual choice. Still, we can choose to recognize our shared common fate, and thereby our derivative and unbreakable interdependence. This uniquely powerful intellectual recognition could carry with it an equally significant global promise, one that remains distressingly distant and unacknowledged in the White House.
Much as we might prefer to comfort ourselves with various qualitative presumptions of societal hierarchy and national differentiation, we humans are really all pretty much the same. This globalizing attribute is already manifest to all capable scientists and physicians. Our single most important similarity, and the one least subject to any reasonable hint of counter-argument, is that we all die.
Ironically, whatever our more-or-less divergent views on what might actually happen to us after personal death, the basic mortality that we share could still represent the very last best chance we have for global coexistence and more viable world law. This is the case, however, only if we can first accomplish the astoundingly difficult leap from acknowledging a shared common fate, to actually “operationalizing” more expressly generalized feelings of empathy and caring.
Across an entire planet, we can care for one another as humans, but only after we have first accepted that the indisputable judgment of a resolutely common fate will not be waived by any palpable harms that are deliberately inflicted upon “others,” that is, upon the ritually “unworthy.” While starkly inconspicuous, modern crimes of war, terror, and genocide are often “just” conveniently sanitized or intentionally disguised expressions of religious sacrifice. In the most egregious and predictable instances, it is also worth noting, corresponding violence would represent a consummately irrepressible human hope of overcoming private mortality through the organized mass killing of certain specific “outsiders.”
It’s not a new thought. Consider psychologist Ernest Becker’s paraphrase of Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti in Escape From Evil: “….each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”
Americans and even other residents of a legally interconnected planet have an evident right to expect that any president of the United States should at least attempt to understand these vital and complex linkages, especially with reference to better human controls over war, terrorism, and genocide. Here, as in so many other crucial sectors of jurisprudential concern, our national policies must build upon more genuinely intellectual sorts of understanding. Always, our just wars, counter-terrorism conflicts, and anti-genocide programs must be fought or conducted as intricate contests of mind over mind, and not just narrowly tactical struggles of mind over matter.
Ultimately, only a dual awareness of our common human destination, which is death, and the associated futility of sacrificial violence, can offer an accessible “medicine” against North Korea, ISIS, Russia, Iran, and certain other foreseeable adversaries in the global “state of nature.” This “natural” or structural condition of anarchy was already well known to the Founding Fathers (most of whom had read Locke, Rousseau, Grotius, Vattel, and Hobbes). Only this difficult awareness can now relieve an otherwise incessant and still-ascending Hobbesian war of “all against all.”
History deserves a reasonable pride of place. America, President Trump should recall, was expressly founded upon the philosophy of Hobbes, and the religion of Calvin. But this means something quite different in 2017, than it did in 1787.
What should this particular history now signify for White House foreign policy preparation and world law? This is not an insignificant query, but it does presuppose an American democracy founded upon some authentic learning, and not on flippantly corrosive clichés, or abundantly empty witticisms.
Human death fear has much to do with a better understanding of America’s current enemies, both national and sub-national (terrorist). Reciprocally, only a people who can feel deeply within itself the unalterable fate and suffering of a broader global population will ever be able to lawfully embrace genuine compassion, and thereby to “rationally” reject collective violence. To be sure, this president should finally prepare to understand what all this implies, both with specific reference to the United States, and also to America’s various state and sub-state adversaries.
President Trump, please consider this: America First means America Alone means America Last. Looking ahead, America must lead together with others in fixing what really matters. America can never be truly “first” so long as its president insists upon achieving such misconceived status at the unavoidable expense of several or all others. Inevitably, President Trump must recognize, American and global survival remain not only bewilderingly complicated, but also mutually interdependent and lawfully intertwined.
The existence of system in the world is both obvious and fundamental. To try to deny or circumvent this core reality via “America First” is a law-defying position that is destined to fail.
Louis Rene Beres, an Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University, received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1971. Dr. Beres is a widely published author on the topics of philosophy and jurisprudence, and his writings have appeared in books, monographs, and law reviews. Dr. Beres is an international expert on nuclear weapons and has also served as a security consultant for the US and Israeli governments.
Suggested citation:Louis Rene Beres, “America First” As Lawless Retreat From National Security, JURIST — Academic Commentary, August 31, 2017, http://jurist.org/forum/2017/07/Beres-america-first-policy.php
This article was prepared for publication by Kelly Cullen, a JURIST Section Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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