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Empathy, Pandemic, and “America First”: Legal Meanings for a Nation in Peril
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Empathy, Pandemic, and “America First”: Legal Meanings for a Nation in Peril

“What does not benefit the entire hive is no benefit to the bee.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

From the beginning, Donald Trump’s ideology of “America First” has been misconceived. In essence, any concocted presidential notion that exploitative and self-aggrandizing American postures can propel the United States in gainful directions is grievously fanciful. Looked at somewhat differently, that is, from another equally valid level of foreign policy assessment, the current presidential notion of American “realism” is deeply immoral and contrary to peremptory legal expectations.

“Each state,” recognized William Blackstone back in the eighteenth century, “is expected to aid and enforce the law of nations.”

Worrisome conclusions about Trumpian “realism” are both evident and irrefutable. Among other things, they offer an elucidating summation of binding and correspondingly timeless principles of human legal cooperation. Always, but now more than ever before – now, as America suffers previously unimaginable leadership derelictions – many of the usual policy urgencies must be revised. Now, it must quickly be understood, a commonly felt agony has become more fundamental to human survival and law-based coexistence than any more ritually standard accumulations of fact.

There is more. Today, as we may learn from contemporary European thinker E.M. Cioran, “…a cry of despair is more revealing than the most subtle thought; and tears always have deeper roots than smiles.”

Despair is ubiquitous. Accordingly, there is much more for us to consider and continually reevaluate. “Yes,” for certain, our American national policies must be based upon competently gathered facts and on a correlative body of theory and science.

But something else is also necessary. To wit, certain acts that were once “merely” wrong or injurious have become prospectively murderous and potentially genocidal. In large part, this is because the Covid-19 pandemic mandates more substantially far-reaching patterns of serious global cooperation, on various densely intersecting national matters and also on various legal elements of world order.

Quo Vadis? Where should we go from here? It follows, among other things, that for the United States to continue blithely with Donald Trump’s law-challenging policies of belligerent nationalism would represent a dire choice and prescription. This would mean accepting a manifestly futile plan to further neglect a world already caught up in the suffocating throes of planet-wide declensions.

Though it may sound like an exaggeration, such an existential expectation is no longer just hyperbole or rhetorical contrivance. It reflects, instead, a plausible outcome of manifestly corrosive national policies operating “against the grain” in an interdependent and asymmetrical world. More specifically, the conspicuously shallow and degrading Trump vision of “America First” could only lead the United States toward endlessly Darwinian global struggles and to an eventual chaos. Here, amid fiercely crude competitions between nation-states, we would necessarily expect more and more stubbornly refractory global conflicts.

In these fully conceivable circumstances, the barbaric standard of “everyone for himself” would produce more and more intense levels of profound human suffering. Ipso facto, such unhappy results would reflect tangibly wide deviations from all assorted legal obligations, most notably the statutory and customary obligations of national and international law.

Once again, we are obliged to ask: Where should we go from such a narrowly inauspicious decisional precipice? Significantly, in our war and disease-ravaged world, a world already teetering at the most vertiginous “heights of despair,” only a law-based expansion of human empathy could still possibly save us. This suggests, inter alia, that any such expansion by the United States would represent not just some altruistic or generously unreciprocated act of charity – that is, a mistakenly one-sided species of “traditional” American benevolence – but rather a simultaneously positive and self-serving expression of rational US policy.

The reasons? They are actually all quite clear. In very brief summation, US national interests can no longer be served at the calculably deliberate and zero-sum expense of certain other states and nations. Period.

There is more. At every crucial level of evaluation, military, economic and biological, American security is integrally linked with a much wider “human soul.” Accordingly, for the United States, any further misplaced confidence in vacant presidential witticisms or contrived “smiles” could fatally undermine this country’s historical benevolence and its overall security. Though, until now, any such open reference to US national morbidity would have seemed a gross exaggeration, this is no longer true.

We are now in mortal danger, both individually and collectively.

What we are witnessing today, hour by hour, minute by minute, is the incremental dismantling of a once preeminent and decent world power. Once again, in world history, an immutable element of transience has become tragically self-evident.

In all candor, during their Trump-based and pandemic-hastened decline, the American “mass” can hardly cling convincingly to this president’s contrived promises of “greatness.” At best, the childishly-inscribed red hats represent an embarrassingly thin parody of genuine thinking, a demonstrably hideous caricature. For the foreseeable future, lest we forget the unchanging lessons of transience in world affairs, we will need to settle not for “greatness,” but for elementary physical survival.

All this is hardly reassuring or comforting. But Trumpian false reassurance is assuredly not what we must seek. Truth is exculpatory. And this particular truth about America’s mortal vulnerabilities is not subject to any credible contradictions.

None at all.

There is more. For the United States, today’s national and geopolitical truth is expectedly grim and undeniably sobering. Even worse, there are no discoverable correctives visible anywhere on this bewildered administration’s law-violating policy horizons. On the contrary, the “medicine” offered by a persistently defiling Trump administration is merely more and more of the same.

Nothing else is being offered, whether it might concern threats of war, genocide, terror and/or planet-wide pandemic.

The finding of regularities constitutes the beginning of any scientific inquiry. Apropos of this understanding, there is a commonly core problem here. Most fundamentally injurious and ominous about Donald Trump’s studied indifference to human interconnections and properly codified legal rights is his willful destruction of empathy. For any still-thinking Americans, the palpably dreadful consequences of such relentless destruction ought already have become obvious. The unmistakably monstrous global consequences of “Germany First” – a readily recognizable antecedent of Trump’s “America First” – should immediately exhibit painfully stinging historical resonances.

Still, for any necessary expansions of empathy to become sufficiently practical would first require a president and a citizenry at least minimally versed in history and law.

And there are other even deeper roots to rudimentary American deficiencies of empathy and cooperation. Divided into thousands of hostile tribes, almost two hundred of which are called “nation-states,” too many human beings now find it easy or even pleasing to slay “others.” As for any remediating considerations of compassionate human feeling, that particular sort of commendable sentiment is typically reserved only for those who live within one’s own expressly delineated “tribe.”

Nonetheless, looking ahead, any expansion of empathy to include “outsiders” remains a genuinely basic condition of law-based peace and a viable global union. Without such a needed expansion, our entire species would remain very inconveniently dedicated to its own continuous debasement and, by extrapolation, to its own incremental disappearance.

Understanding this particular bit of geopolitical wisdom ought already have become a helpful corrective to amply debilitating Trump nonsense of “America First.” Among other things, this poorly resurrected political mantra has been eerily reminiscent of America’s sordid “Know Nothing” history. “I love the poorly educated,” said candidate Donald Trump in 2016. “Intellect rots the brain,” advised Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels at the Nuremberg rallies of 1934 and 1935.

Incontestably, the two separate but side-by-side assertions are the product of soiled kindred spirits. In essence, let us be candid, even if well-intentioned and unintended, “America First” represents Donald Trump’s cynically Americanized version of “Deutschland uber alles.” Like Goebbels, we have assuredly now seen, this president likes (nay, loves) his incoherent and dissembling “rallies.”

We need functioning remedies to all such contemptible histories. But what fixes, if any, remain plausible? What must Americans actually do to encourage a wider pattern of empathy, and thereby foster more deeply caring feelings between as well as within “tribes”? How can a U.S. president work to improve the state of our rapidly crumbling world legal order so as to best ensure a dignified future for us all?

These are not easy questions, but they do need to be asked. Incontestably, they represent the precise queries that will finally need to be addressed openly by Donald Trump or (much more hopefully) by a well-prepared successor.

Ironically, as we must initially acknowledge, the essential expansion of empathy for the many could quickly become “dreadful,” possibly improving human community, but only at the intolerable costs of private sanity. This prospectively insufferable consequence is deeply rooted in the way we humans were originally “designed,” that is, as more-or-less “hard wired” beings, individuals with distinctly recognizable and largely “impermeable” boundaries of personal feeling.

Were it otherwise, an extended range of compassion toward too many others would inevitably bring about our own emotional collapse. As an easy to understand example, consider how difficult it would be if all of us were suddenly to feel the same compelling pangs of sympathy and compassion for certain others outside our primary spheres of attachment that we already have for family and friends located “inside” this sphere.

Intellectually, this challenge presents a challenging paradox. It was already examined long ago, in the ancient Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vov, a Talmudic tradition that certain scholars trace back to Isaiah. Here, the whole world is said to rest upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov. Along normal criteria of differentiation, these figures are otherwise indistinguishable from ordinary mortals.

Still, if just one of their number were somehow absent, the resultant sufferings of humankind would then become staggering, perhaps even poisoning the souls of the newly-born.

This Talmud-explained paradox has potentially useful contemporary meaning for the United States. This modernized signification reveals that a widening circle of human compassion is both indispensable to civilizational survival and also represents a promising source of private anguish.

According to the Jewish legend, such overwhelming anguish would literally be unimaginable.

Still more questions must be raised. How shall President Trump or his successor begin to deal capably with a requirement for global civilization that is both essential and unbearable? Newly informed that empathy for the many is a precondition for any decent and functioning world legal order, what can create such caring without simultaneously producing intolerable emotional pain? Recalling Ralph Waldo Emerson and the American Transcendentalists, remaining “high-thinkers” must now duly inquire: How can we quickly be released from the misconceived ideology of “America First,” a deranging posture that has been increasing the prospects not only of aggression, terrorism and genocide, but also of an uncontrolled disease pandemic?

There is more. The whole world, the world in toto, is a system. “The existence of system in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” says the Jesuit philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “no matter whom…Each element of the Cosmos is positively woven from all the others…”

Above all, this president or his successor must fully and finally understand that the state of America’s national union can never be any better than the state of the wider and always deeply intersecting world. This key truth now obtains not “only” in traditional reference to the enduring issues of war, peace and law-based human rights, but also to urgently critical matters of disease avoidance.

Always, for the imperiled United States, the overarching presidential objective must be to protect the sacred dignity and law-based rights of each and every individual human being. It is exactly this high-minded and ancient goal that should now give preeminent policy direction to a bewildered and bewildering American President. Inter alia, such indisputably good counsel could represent a law-based corrective to Trump’s continuously misleading endorsements of “America First.”

Naturally, it will be easy for many to dismiss any such seemingly lofty recommendations for human dignity and legal obligation as silly, ethereal or “academic.” But, in reality, there could never be any greater American presidential naiveté than to champion the patently false extremities of “everyone for himself.”

Among Trump’s other egregious misunderstandings and falsifications, “America First” represents a sorely blemished presidential mantra. Devoid of empathy, intellect, and absolutely all principal obligations of human legal cooperation, it can lead only toward distressingly new heights of strife, disharmony and collective despair. Left intact and unrevised, “America First” would point us all directly toward a potentially irreversible vita minima; that is, toward badly corrupted personal lives emptied of themselves – meaningless, shattered, rancorous, unfeeling and radically unstable.

Here, located among so many other corollary melodramas and misfortunes, we would find it impossible to battle not just the usual adversaries involving violence, but also our increasingly fearful biological/pathogen-centered enemies.

There is more. Without a suitable expansion of empathy, we Americans will remain at the mercy not just of other predatory human beings, but also of certain exceedingly virulent pathogens. Progressively, the harmful synergies created by such dangerous combinations would sometime likely become too much to bear.

For all, the cumulative lesson should be clear. We are all part of the very same planetary whole. Only by placing “Humanity First” can an American president truly make “America First.” The latter placement, which must now include the capacity to combat disease pandemics as well as war, terrorism and genocide, is simply not possible without the former. Today, the “cosmopolitan” reason behind this key conclusion remains entirely valid and largely unchanged.

Looking ahead, it really all boils down to this: What does not benefit the world as a whole (“the hive”) can be of no enduring benefit to the United States (“the bee”).

 

Louis René Beres(Ph.D. Princeton 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with literature, art, philosophy, international relations, and international law. Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue, he was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II. Dr. Beres’ twelfth and latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published by Rowman and Littlefield, in 2016. Dr. Louis René Beres’ essays have appeared at The Hudson Review; Yale Global Online; Harvard National Security Journal; The Atlantic; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The New York Times; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; BESA Perspectives (Israel); JURIST; US News & World Report; The Hill; The Jerusalem Post; International Security (Harvard); The Daily Princetonian; The Hudson Review; Modern War Institute (West Point); World Politics (Princeton); The War Room (Pentagon); and Oxford University Press.

 

Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Empathy, Pandemic, and “America First”: Legal Meanings for a Nation in Peril, JURIST – Academic Commentary, May 11, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/louis-beres-america-first-2/


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


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