Looking to the New Year: Nationalism, Patriotism and World Law
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Looking to the New Year: Nationalism, Patriotism and World Law

“What does not benefit the entire hive is no benefit to the bee.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Back at the World War I Armistice Day ceremonies in France in 2018, Emmanuel Macron ventured a well-reasoned condemnation of Donald Trump’s belligerent nationalism. By describing the American president’s rancorous sentiments as a “betrayal of patriotism,” the French president was urging everyone present to “reject the selfishness of nations….” To have been even more analytically specific in this correct assessment, Mr. Macron could have added certain further legal clarifications.

Most importantly, he could also have explained that any presumed nationalistic selfishness undermines every state’s national interests, including those of the presumptively self-centered nation.

Looking ahead to 2019, there are urgent lessons here for the entire legal community of nations. This means learning, among other things, that the apparent benefits of traditionally-defined patriotism can prove manifestly harmful, illegal and effectively unpatriotic. In essence, because the effect of individual states that persistently confuse belligerent nationalism with patriotism is the cumulative weakening of all states, it is high time for national security decision-makers in Washington to think more seriously and also jurisprudentially about “America First.”

US President Trump’s “America First” foreign policies undermine national and international law and are destined to fail. This starkly deleterious outcome is what observers should reasonably expect of superficial, non-historic and endlessly clichéd strategic thinking, a self-defeating process whereby tweets, primal chanting and thoroughly empty witticisms continuously threaten to supplant both law and “mind.”

Sigmund Freud, while never directly concerned with the dynamics of world politics or international law, had examined such issues at the microcosmic or “molecular” level, that is, at the level of individual human beings. Looking over such psychologically focused examinations, his core conceptual understanding – that unfettered “liberty” among individual human beings must invariably lead to corrosive and presumptively zero-sum social conflicts – applies equally well to states. Accordingly, back at last year’s World War I memorialization ceremony, Emmanuel Macron’s cautionary remarks (however unwittingly) represented a timely reaffirmation of Freud. Macron (unlike Trump) must have understood that if left alone to pursue their collective lives “patriotically”- that is, within the anarchic global state-of-nature that seventeenth century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes had famously called a “war of all against all” – the separate states would be forced to endure unmanageable conditions of a permanent war.

Amid any such palpable outcomes of ferocious global anarchy – a structure of irremediable disorder originally bequeathed at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 – there could never arise any meaningful forms of world legal order. In this connection, special and still-expanding hazards would concern US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from certain key elements of the authoritative non-proliferation regime in international law; his more-or-less corresponding withdrawal from the July 2015 JCPOA multilateral nuclear pact with Iran; and his curiously blatant disregard for North Korea’s aggressive continuance of its destabilizing ballistic missile program.

Further recalling Thomas Hobbes Leviathan (1651, chapter XIII), the life of any states attempting to chase after narrowly nationalistic goals (what Donald Trump would today call “America First”) must assuredly be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

But how does one actually fix a system that is founded upon flagrantly erroneous notions of nationalism, patriotism and international law? How should well-intentioned states best plan their escape from the global state of nature, an escape that must be utterly indispensable? There are really just two defensibly coherent responses, and these need not even be mutually exclusive.

The first, and the most frequently recommended reaction, focuses on changing a perpetually anarchic context of world politics. Even before the formal appearance of academic World Order Studies back at Yale and Princeton in the 1960s, philosophers from Dante and Immanuel Kant to H.G. Wells, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Sri Aurobindo had already elaborated imaginatively on various configurations of world law.

The second response would take investigators back to the indisputable origins of the jurisprudential problem, that is, to always evident and undiminished imperfections of the individual human being. In this properly analytic posture, one that regards all world politics as epiphenomenal or as a manifestation of much deeper causes, the scholar’s overriding emphasis must somehow be placed upon “fixing people.” To be sure, if the first reaction could be reasonably critiqued as “unrealistic” or “utopian,” the second qualifies even more plainly for such pejorative characterizations.

But how to actually proceed in Washington?

Analytically, the most promising answers will require a consciously transformational focus upon the individual human being, on the microcosm, and on his or her primary place in global rescue preparations. To be sure, our incessantly nationalistic state system remains incapable of serving humankind’s most utterly basic security and justice obligations. Earlier, Friedrich Nietzsche had exclaimed in Zarathustra that the “state is the coldest of all cold monsters,” a darkly accurate view later reinforced by Jose Ortega y’ Gasset’s corresponding observation that “the state is the greatest danger.”

It is most urgent that the American president learn to supplant the relentlessly zero-sum aspects of world politics with more expressly legal visions of cooperation and “oneness.” Apropos of such imperative learning, both scholars and policy makers would be well-advised to recall the uniquely special wisdom of Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature.”

This succinct but correct warning in The Phenomenon of Man now assumes especially powerful relevance regarding US President Donald Trump’s corrosive emphases on “America First.” These retrograde emphases are incompatible with any reasonably sought-after outcomes of world peace and justice. Instead, they point only to enlarging unwanted prospects for human insecurity and further human degradation.

There exist myriad connections between intra-national and inter-national legal processes. These indissoluble links suggest that “fixing states” could soon represent a vital intermediary step between fixing individual human beings and world legal order transformations. In American universities, which are increasingly given over to narrowly vocational forms of “education,” we need to bring-back and even amplify “world order studies” as a designated legal field of academic inquiry.

In general, before humanity can achieve appropriately rule and value-based forms of global cooperation, there will first have to take place certain distinctly primary human changes. Although it may be premature to seek identification of a systematic and sequential inventory of such required changes, the core process needed is no longer ambiguous. This process willingly rejects the distracting delusions of a society given over to demeaning amusements (e.g., American society today) and accepts instead a genuinely challenging set of intellectual imperatives. Ultimately, any more forms of global legal cooperation – including eventually perhaps even global governance – demands dialogue not only among fractious nation-states, but also among individual human beings.

All this thinking can bring us back gainfully to Teilhard, to the immutable importance of system: “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.” There are complementary “lessons” in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata that conveniently recollect what used to be called “cosmopolitanism,” or a determined ideology of global integration: “Then you should card it and comb it, and mingle it all/in one basket of love and unity,/Citizens, visitors, strangers, and sojourners – all the/entire, undivided community.”

In the end, our true patriotic interests can be met only by cultivating a more unqualified legal loyalty to humankind in general. In turn, this rationally redirected loyalty, which would still likely be labeled “unpatriotic” within the separate states, will require an antecedent and robust global development of intellect or “mind.” Such a development would be at definitional odds with any exaggerated expectations of populism. Absolutely nothing could be solved by further encouraging the increasingly empty virtuosity of technology and/or the consistently dreary mechanizations of daily life.

Ultimately, we need to suitably replace a recognizably false communion of nation-states – one that is time-dishonored, anti-legal and close to collapsing – with a reassuringly gentle and new harmony. When such an ambitious replacement is tangibly successful, or at least recognizably underway, we could finally take seriously the long-distant promise of Sigmund Freud. While the seminal psychologist was assuredly not focused on world legal order per se, he would nonetheless agree with the following: A greatly expanded or fully supplanting power of world legal order makes sense only if there can first be rejected an inwardly-rotten “balance-of-power” communion, one that is based on fear, trembling and perpetual dread.

There is one last summary observation, one pointing toward a potentially damaging barrier to all conceivably plausible iterations of human transformation. This “fly in the theoretic “ointment” is the problematic assumption of human rationality. Even before Freud, and especially in Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, we may read purposefully about human irrationality as the all-too- frequent foundation of human behavior and political decision-making.

Though daunting, this literary/philosophic recognition of the “absurd” – Credo quia absurdum; “I believe because it is absurd” – must somehow be incorporated into all reasonably proposed programs for world legal order reform, however seemingly persuasive. Reciprocally, without such an indispensable incorporation, absolutely every otherwise carefully worked-out prescription for global “civilization” could sometime fail calamitously.

Back in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron was correct that traditional nationalism can never be authentically patriotic. The main reason behind this accurate assessment and meaningful indictment of President Trump’s “America First” is as follows:  Any true spirit of patriotism must inevitably recognize the essential singularity or “oneness” of our species and the corollary interdependence of all nation-states. In the end, any promising forms of patriotism must finally and firmly acknowledge that (1) all human beings are legally interconnected; and (2) what cannot benefit the world legal system (the “hive”) in its entirety can never benefit the separate sovereign state (the “bee”) in its feigned singularity.


Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with world order legal studies. Some of his most recent writings on this subject can be found at Yale Global Online; The Atlantic; The National Interest; JURIST: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Hill; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; and Oxford University Press.


Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Looking to the New Year: Nationalism, Patriotism and World Law, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Jan. 1, 2019, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2019/01/beres-nationalism-international-law/


This article was prepared for publication by Kelly Cullen, JURIST Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org

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