Rising Above Realpolitik: America, Jewish Thought and International Law Commentary
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Rising Above Realpolitik: America, Jewish Thought and International Law

“The loftier the soul, the more it feels the unity that there is in us all.” – Rabbi Avraham Kook

By any reasonable standard, the belligerent nationalism of Realpolitik or power politics makes no sense. After all, without exception, this zero-sum mantra of “everyone-for-himself” clearly undermines every country’s national security. Most perplexing, perhaps, is that this self-harming condition has held sway for almost four hundred years; that is, since the mid-seventeenth century.

Why, we must finally inquire, has this continuously discredited “balance of power” managed to remain the determinative configuration of international relations and international law? To what extent is this ironic persistence related to core legal concepts of sovereignty and self-determination? And how could such a war-oriented configuration ever be reconciled with obligations to counter the crime of aggression?

There are further questions about law and world politics. Why are there still no significant movements to build constructively upon “the unity that there in us all?” Why has there been so little evident dissatisfaction with prevailing worldwide anarchy or even with a very conspicuously approaching global chaos? Are we humans merely “mass,” an inert species unable to act in its own overriding interests?

Moreover, is there a specifically Jewish-philosophical view to be taken into some productive account?

There is still more for capable legal scholars and philosophers to inquire. Why is there so little willingness in the United States and elsewhere to look behind the daily news in order to understand such urgent legal and ethical issues? Few in America would ever expect their political leaders to resemble Plato’s “philosopher king” – and for all-too evident good reason – but these citizens ought to at least have been able to expect a President who was more than marginally literate and who was at least residually attentive to major considerations of law and justice.

Inter alia, this means a US president who can suitably understand and value the dynamically-interrelated benefits of philosophy, literature, science and law. Donald J. Trump was anything but such a commendable President. Indeed, from the start, he represented the literal opposite of a philosopher-king. Trump was a national leader whose intentional disregard for law seriously exacerbated the multiple horrors of the coronavirus pandemic. Arguably, in de facto jurisprudential terms, this disregard represented a “crime against humanity.”

The only reasonable law-based exculpation that Trump could offer in this incomparably sordid matter was the apparent absence of mens rea or “criminal intent.”

Technically, crimes against humanity, in their codified form at the London Charter of August 8, 1945 and various subordinate codifications, require “an intent to destroy.” To be fair, this specific intent was likely absent in President Trump’s gross mishandling of the pandemic. Still, from the tangible standpoint of the all-too-many who are now dead or severely impaired, the presumptive absence of any such egregious intent is neither compensatory in law nor reassuring in spirit.

The victims remain victims.

From the beginning, for the United States, President Donald Trump’s dissembling ideology of “America First” – Realpolitik on steroids and stilts – was visibly refractory and plainly injurious. The inherently corrosive notion that such an exploitative and self-centered American philosophy could ever propel the United States in certain law-enforcing directions was incorrect prima facie. To wit, drawn in part from earlier Jewish philosophy, the Natural Rights premises of the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution emphasize equality and cooperation as indispensable legal values. In the words of Samuel von Pufendorf, whose work was essential to Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers: “One of the common duties of the Natural Law is that no one who has not acquired a peculiar right arrogate more to himself than the rest may have, but permit others to enjoy the same rights as himself.”

There is more. “America First,” as Donald J. Trump’s “personal brand” of belligerent nationalism, was fully reprehensible on basic moral and legal grounds. This second, but by no means secondary negative assessment, was also evident in specifically Jewish terms. More precisely, the multiple ethical derelictions of Donald Trump’s foreign policy violated certain timeless Jewish normative principles concerning correct behavior, most notably human cooperation, human “oneness,” and true law-based community. These principles have long been at the core of Western philosophy and jurisprudence.

More specifically, a clear and continuing connection exists between Jewish Law and Natural Law: “Whatever a competent scholar will yet derive from the Law, that was already given to Moses on Mount Sinai.” Over time, all humanly enacted laws are expected to be in accord with Natural Law and Reason. Wherever a human law is at variance with any particulars of the Natural Law, it is no longer genuinely legal, but a jurisprudential corruption.

Earlier, lamented the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “There is no longer a virtuous nation, and the best of us live by candle light.” Now, having lived by presidential “candle light” for four years, there is much for law-minded Americans to consider and re-consider. Under Donald Trump, policies that had once been “merely” wrong routinely became openly murderous and potentially genocidal. Among other things, this was because Trump’s egregious backing of “everyone for himself” patterns of world politics had been implemented at an especially inauspicious historical moment.

The Covid-19 pandemic mandated not a bitterly competitive world power politics, but a more fully far-reaching pattern of global cooperation, a pattern embracing numerous intersecting matters (some of them synergistic) operating on several multiple levels. Significantly, while such retrograde and frequently law-violating US foreign policies were accepted, Americans also ignored the obvious: No foreign policy prescriptions founded upon a contrived and cynical posture of rancor has ever succeeded long-term.

While it may at first have sounded a like obvious exaggeration or hyperbole, Donald Trump’s catastrophically existential inclinations were not just idle rhetoric or whimsical expressions of a benign national politics. Instead, they came to reflect a plausible or even probable outcome in an increasingly interdependent and indecently asymmetrical (very rich/very poor) world. More specifically, the abundantly shallow and flagrantly irrational Trump vision of “America First” led the United States in grievously mistaken directions; in essence, not toward any national or international advantage, but rather towards endlessly Darwinian global struggles for survival.

Here, amid crudely fierce competitions between states that would soon prove injurious to all of them, we could reasonably expect only more and more stubbornly recalcitrant global conflicts. Derivatively, in any such barbarously difficult circumstances, the futile standard of “everyone for himself” could only have produced more and more expansive human suffering. What else ought we to have expected from an American president who prided himself on his carefully cultivated illiteracy and indifference to law?

“Intellect rots the brain” said Joseph Goebbels at a Nuremberg Germany party rally in 1935.

“I love the poorly educated” said American presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 election rally in the United States.

Where should we go now, as we expectantly await the beginnings of a new Biden presidency? To be sure, it is time to distancing ourselves from any residual Trump policy law violations. More positively, only a suitable expansion of human empathy could realistically serve and perhaps even save this imperiled nation and planet. Any such willful expansion by the United States could represent not just some unilateral or unreciprocated act of charity – that is, a one-sided species of American benevolence – but instead a properly law-serving expression of coherent national policy.

Here there is a jurisprudential bottom line. US national interests can never be served at the intentional expense of other states. Always, these American interests must be served together with those of other states and nations, sometimes even where international relations have become more-or-less adversarial.

During the law-violating Trump years, Americans were bitterly reminded that every sham can somehow be obscured with a captivating patina. Still, in the end, only truth is genuinely exculpatory. In the end, and at every crucial level – military, economic, biological and of course legal – American security is integrally linked with the much wider “human condition.” This significantly primal link was known and recognized by the Founding Fathers of the United States, via Blackstone’s Commentaries (the principal foundation of US law) and Blackstone’s own jurisprudential roots in Emmerich de Vattel’s classic The Law of Nations or The Principles of Natural Law (1758).

“Each state,” says Vattel, “owes to every other state all that it owes to itself.” No principal could possibly be more basic to both national and international law.

In necessary candor, during their incessant and relentless Trump-era decline, Americans could no longer cling convincingly to any contrived promises of a resurrected national “greatness.” At best, the Trump-inscribed red hats represented a hideous self-parody of law and justice. At worst, they pointed approvingly toward a glaringly obvious and still-to-be trodden path to “apocalypse.” For the foreseeable future, and in consequence of still-ongoing Trump-government derelictions, America’s national policy expectations will need to be more conspicuously based upon law, reason and plausibly serious thought.

Truth is always the final arbiter, not just in pertinent matters of law and policy, but also concerning judgments of ethics. Today’s core national and geopolitical truth is grim and horrifying. Sadder, even at the end, there were no credible correctives to be found anywhere on this dying administration’s still-decipherable policy horizon. For former President Donald J. Trump and his still-remaining legions of loyal supporters, law and justice remained mere props of a desolate public relations.

There is more. Especially injurious and ominous about Donald Trump’s indifference to primal human interconnections and codified human rights was his sorely willful destruction of empathy. For Americans, the dreadful consequences of such relentless destruction ought by now to have finally become obvious. The unmistakably monstrous global consequences of “Germany First” – a very direct ideological antecedent of Trump’s “America First” – should immediately have exhibited a stinging historical resonance. Looking ahead, for any necessary expansions of empathy to become sufficiently serious will require a president and citizenry at least minimally versed in world history. It goes without saying that during the Trump years, America had neither.

There exist other and even deeper roots to the fundamental problems of insufficient empathy and cooperation. Divided into thousands of hostile tribes, almost two hundred of which are called “nation-states,” too many human beings still find it easy or distinctly pleasing to slay “others.” As for any remediating considerations of compassionate human feeling, that indispensable sentiment is typically reserved only for those who live within one’s own starkly delineated “tribe.”

Regarding law and justice on planet earth, any expansion of empathy to include “outsiders” remains a basic condition of peace and global union. Without such a necessary expansion, our entire species would remain inconveniently dedicated to its own continuous debasement and (however unwittingly) even to its own eventual or sudden disappearance.

Understanding this particular bit of geopolitical wisdom ought much earlier have become a helpful corrective to the law-underming nonsense of “America First.” Among other things, this resurrected Nazi-era political mantra was eerily reminiscent of America’s sordid “Know Nothing” history.

To be sure, we need viable remedies to this contemptible American resurrection. But what fixes, if any, are still plausibly available? What must Americans actually do in order to encourage a wider law-supporting pattern of empathy? How can a new U.S. president work to improve the state of our crumbling world legal order to best ensure a viable and dignified future for everyone?

These are not easy questions, but they do need to be asked. Incontestably, they comprise the same precise queries that will finally need to be addressed openly by President Joseph Biden. So what next?

Ironically, inter alia, legal scholars must soon acknowledge, the essential expansion of empathy for the many could quickly become “dreadful,” possibly improving human community but only at the cost 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, persons with distinctly recognizable and largely “impermeable” boundaries of private feeling. Were it otherwise, an extended range of compassion toward too many others could bring about our own individual emotional collapse.

All this should be easy to recognize and understand. As a ready example, consider how difficult it would be if all of us were to suddenly feel the same or similarly compelling pangs of sympathy and compassion for certain others outside our primary spheres of attachment as felt for those family and friends we have preferentially located “inside” this sphere.

This is not a simple problem. And it presents a markedly challenging intellectual paradox. Long ago, it was already examined in the ancient Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vov, a Talmudic tradition that scholars trace back to Isaiah. Here, the whole world is said to rest upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov. These suffering figures are otherwise indistinguishable from other ordinary mortals. Still, if just one of their number were ever absent, the resultant tribulations of humankind would be staggering, poisoning the souls of even the newly-born.

Such a Talmud-elucidated 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 represents also a lamentable Jewish source of near-unimaginable private anguish.

Still more questions arise. How shall President Joe Biden begin to deal capably with a core requirement for global law-based civilization that is both essential and unbearable? Newly informed that empathy for the many is a literal precondition of a decent and functioning world society, what can create such caring without simultaneously producing intolerable emotional pain?

Recalling Ralph Waldo Emerson and the American Transcendentalists, “high-thinkers” must duly inquire: How can we be released from the misconceived ideology of “America First,” a zero-sum posture that has been increasing the prospects not only of war, terrorism and genocide, but also of uncontrolled and uncontrollable pandemics?

The whole world, legal relations included, is a system. Very plainly. “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, President Biden must understand that the state of America’s national union can never be any better than the state of the wider and more deeply intersecting world. This key truth obtains not “only” in reference to the more usual issues of war, peace and international law, but also to conspicuously critical matters of pandemic and disease avoidance.

For the painfully imperiled United States, an overarching presidential objective must always be to best protect the sacred dignity of each and every individual human being. This is exactly the high-minded and ancient Jewish goal that should now give more specific policy direction to a new American President. Such indisputably good counsel could represent a starkly welcome corrective to Trump’s grievously law-violating endorsements of “America First.”

There is more. It will be easy to dismiss any such seemingly lofty recommendations for human dignity as silly, ethereal or “academic,” but, in reality, there could never be any greater American presidential naiveté than to champion the false extremity of “everyone for himself.” Not only is this defiling extremity illogical and self-destructive, it is patently contrary to this nation’s founding principles of Natural Law as expressed not only by Samuel von Pufendorf, but also Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius and – again – the Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel.

Among his other serious misunderstandings and falsifications, Trump’s “America First” represented a law-blemishing presidential mantra Devoid of empathy, intellect, and absolutely all principal obligations of decent human cooperation, it led only toward distressingly new heights of strife, disharmony and despair. Left intact and unrevised, “America First” would have pointed us all directly to a potentially irreversible vita minima, that is, toward badly corrupted personal histories, lives emptied of themselves; meaningless, shattered, rancorous, unfeeling and radically anti-law.

Here, located among so many other corollary misfortunes, we would have found it impossible to battle not only the usual and better-known social/political adversaries, but also the increasingly fearful (and now plainly merciless) biological ones. Was this in any way a properly “Jewish” orientation to public policy, one in some conceivable accord with Talmudic notions of human “oneness?” It’s a silly question.

In essence, even with a now sane and decent President Biden, we Americans -without a suitable expansion of empathy – we Americans would remain at the mercy not just of other predatory human beings, but also of certain exceedingly virulent pathogens. The corrosive synergies created by such unwelcome combinations would become too much to bear. This would take place incrementally or suddenly. What then?

The cumulative lesson is abundantly clear, especially to those with some refined appreciation of Jewish heritage, tradition or education. Only by placing “Humanity First” can an American president ever make “America First.” The latter, which now includes an utterly indispensable capacity to combat disease pandemics as well as war, terrorism and genocide is not possible without the former. But first there must be a suitable and widespread “conviction.”

As America and the wider world can learn from Rabbi Avraham Kook, global unity is never something “outside;” rather, it exists “inside,” within all of us. The first task is to acknowledge this benevolent in-dwelling of both jurisprudential judgment and Jewish philosophy. The second is to adapt it as a progressively guiding source of world policy transformations. Unless we can all move far beyond the belligerent nationalism that held such pernicious sway during the law-dissembling Trump years, there will be no sanctuary anywhere.

There is one last “linkage” to be noted. This is the critical nexus between macrocosm and microcosm, between world political processes and the singular person or “one.” In the end, always, everything on this planet must depend upon the dignity, courage and “emancipation” of the individual human being. Absolutely everything.

There is a hidden and vital issue here, one that has always “escaped” serious legal and philosophical analysis. This is the idea underlying Realpolitik that various killings in world politics can hold an incomparable promise of immortality for the calculating perpetrator. According to famed playwright Eugene Ionesco, “I must kill my visible enemy, the one who is determined to take my life, to prevent him from killing me. Killing gives me a feeling of relief, because I am dimly aware that in killing him, I have killed death….Killing is a way of relieving one’s feelings, of warding off one’s own death.”

In his very relevant essay Who is Man? (1965), modern Jewish philosopher Abraham J. Heschel laments: “The emancipated man is yet to emerge.” The remedy? Heschel asks all human beings to raise the following key questions with themselves: “What is expected of men?” “What is demanded of me?”

An obligation to resist Mass (Nietzsche would prefer “herd,” Freud “horde,” or Kierkegaard “crowd”) is taken by Heschel as prerequisite to any more sufficiently decent and peaceful “macrocosm.” Thinking, like Nietzsche, Freud, Kierkegaard, Jung, Freud, Ortega y’Gasset and certain others, that camouflage and concealment in the Mass must finally give way to “being-challenged-in-the- world, the Jewish philosopher clarifies our own current law-based obligation to “get beyond belligerent nationalism.” This is an obligation to demand of our national leaders a more consistently abiding respect for Law, Logic and Reason; and never to selectively turn away from truth because of some narrowly selfish presumptions of personal interest.

In this connection there is also a very great irony. For the all-too-many Americans who wittingly abided Donald Trump’s multiple and egregious derelictions – including his open indifference to pandemic disease that bordered on expressing a “crime against humanity” – the resultant benefits were meaningless or non-existent. After all, Reason must clarify, what is the conceivable gain of paying fewer taxes to the polity if the United States should thereby suffer a progressive and potentially existential weakening?

At a practical level of national and global law-making, there might seem no apparent purpose to remembering Rabbi Kook’s “loftiness” of “soul.” Still, such loftiness is a proper exemplar of traditional Jewish philosophy, and could help receptive policymaking principals to modify or reform belligerent nationalism in time; that is, before it produces yet another wave of catastrophic war and genocide. Even if it might first appear naive, implausible or idealistic, acknowledging Rabbi Kook’s high-thinking in such overriding matters could offer Americans a generally disregarded moral and legal guidance.

More specifically, other similarly untapped benefits of Jewish philosophy could prove enlightening and supportive for international law and – derivatively – for United States law.


Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Law at Purdue. He is the author of twelve major books and several hundred journal articles in the field. Professor Beres’ writings appear in many leading newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic, The Hill, U.S. News & World Report, The National Interest, The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times and Oxford University Press. In Israel, where his latest writings were published by the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, the Institute for Policy and Strategy and the Institute for National Security Studies, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). Dr. Beres’ strategy-centered publications have been published in such places as The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; JURIST; Special Warfare (Pentagon); Infinity Journal (Israel); The Strategy Bridge; The War Room (USA War College); Modern War Institute (West Point); The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Modern Diplomacy; Yale Global Online; The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); World Politics (Princeton); International Security (Harvard) and the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.


Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Rising Above Realpolitik: America, Jewish Thought and International Law, JURIST – Academic Commentary, January 27, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/01/louis-rene-beres-rising-above-realpolitik/.

This article was prepared for publication by Akshita Tiwary, JURIST’s Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org

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