Louis Rene Beres, professor emeritus of international law at Purdue, discusses how the Biden Administration can move beyond the "America First" policies of its predecessor to restore America's place in the international community...
“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.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man
From time immemorial, world politics have been rooted in Realpolitik or power politics. Although such patterns of thinking are normally accepted as “realistic,” these acquiescent postures have actually proven to be consistent failures. It follows that US President Joseph Biden would be well-advised to acknowledge the inherent security limitations of a global threat system, and begin the process of identifying more durable configurations of international relations and international law.
Among other things, this identification would have to be expressly systematic. This means, above all, a process informed by creative intellectual imagination and plausible hypotheses. The appropriate rules for conducting this process should include useful description of relevant analytic models and also the subsequent exploration of the models by suitably verifiable methods of empirical-scientific inquiry.
What might first still seem promising in the historic “state of nature” (the current global condition of anarchy dating back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) is still apt to prove injurious for America’s longer-term survival prospects. Pertinent national harms could sometime be experienced not merely as debits in our country’s implicit national security calculus, but as an explosive and irremediable set of intolerable costs. From the start of the previous U.S. administration, of course, such costs literally defined the core trajectory of President Donald J. Trump’s “America First.”
On national security matters, Joe Biden’s most immediate task must be a far-reaching rejection of “America First.” But there is significantly more to be accomplished on these urgent matters. Accordingly, it is high time for an American president to think meaningfully beyond power-politics in general.
In the fashion of every other state, the United States is part of a larger and interdependent world system. This vastly more comprehensive system now has steadily diminishing chances for sustainable success within the recalcitrant pattern of competitive sovereignties. What is the point, our national decision-makers should promptly inquire, of endlessly seeking to maintain a qualitative military edge in a system that is plainly destined to self-destruct?
The core issues are broadly philosophic and scientific. “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another,” asks Samuel Beckett in Endgame, “of seeking justification always on the same plane?” Thought the celebrated Irish playwright was not thinking specifically about world politics, the generalized query remains perfectly valid. For scholars of world politics and world law, the “bottom line” is the perpetual primacy of intellect or “mind” as the basic source of a nation’s purposeful power.
Truth is exculpatory. Worldwide, the pain is always “deep.” It cannot be overridden by visceral chanting of nonsense at presidential rallies or by the routine substitution of empty witticisms for historical fact. In essence, Realpolitik or balance of power world politics has never succeeded for longer than palpably brief and dreadfully uncertain intervals. In the future, this unsteady foundation could even be further exacerbated by multiple systemic failures, failures that are sometimes mutually reinforcing or “synergistic,” and that sometimes involve weapons of mass destruction.
Most conspicuously portentous, in this regard, would be nuclear weapons.
There is more. By definition, any failure of nuclear Realpolitik could prove not “only” catastrophic, but potentially sui generis in the most conceivably negative sense. This would hold true if any such failure were judged in the full or cumulative scope of its unprecedented declensions.
Specific steps need to be taken. Immediately, all states that depend upon some form of nuclear deterrence (and this includes American nuclear ally Israel) must think more self-consciously about alternative systems of world politics; that is, about creating prospectively viable configurations that are reliably both war-averse and cooperation-centered. While any hint of interest in such speculative patterns of global integration (of what Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man calls “planetization”) will sound utopian or fanciful to “realists,” an opposite interpretation would actually be more plausible.
At this point in human evolution, it is patently more realistic to acknowledge that a traditional “every man for himself” ethos in world politics is endlessly degrading. Most importantly, this ethos is sorely incapable of serious survival reassurances.” The visionary,” reminds Italian film director Federico Fellini, “is the only realist.”
Again and again – and at some point, irretrievably – “Westphalian” world systemic failures could become tangibly dire and potentially irreversible. In the final analysis, it will not be enough to tinker tentatively at the ragged edges of our current world order. At that decisive turning point, simply continuing to forge assorted ad hoc agreements between stubborn states or (as “hybridized” actors) between these states and various surrogate or sub-state organizations would prove conclusively wrongheaded.
In the longer term, the only sort of realism that can make any sense for America and other leading states in world politics is a posture that points presciently toward some “higher” awareness of global “oneness” and (however incrementally) toward greater world system interdependence.
In its fully optimized expression, such a now-indispensable awareness – the literal opposite of former US President Donald Trump’s “America First” – would resemble what the ancients had called “cosmopolitan.” For the moment, let us be candid the insightful prophets of a more collaborative “world city” civilization must remain few and far between, but this consequential absence would not be due to an intrinsic lack of need or a witting forfeiture. Rather, it would reflect a progressively imperiled species’ retrograde unwillingness to take itself seriously – that is, to recognize that the only sort of loyalty that can ultimately rescue all states must first embrace a redirected commitment (both individual and national) to humankind.
At its heart, this is not a bewilderingly complicated idea. To wit, it is hardly a medical or biological secret that the core factors and behaviors common to all human beings greatly outnumber those that unnaturally differentiate one from another. Unless the leaders of all major states on Planet Earth can finally understand that the survival of any one state must inevitably be contingent upon the survival of all, true national security will continue to elude absolutely every nation. This includes even the purportedly “most powerful” states, and especially those that fitfully declare themselves “first.”
The bottom line? The most immediate security task in the global state of nature must be to become more collaboratively self-centered. Simultaneously, the leaders of all pertinent countries, especially the United States, must learn to understand that our planet always represents a recognizably organic whole, a fragile but variously intersecting “unity.”
Incontestably, Westphalian anarchy now exhibits rapidly diminishing options for managing world power or providing mechanisms of successful war avoidance.
More precisely, to seize upon the disappearing opportunities for longer-term survival, our leaders must build sensibly upon certain foundational insights of Francis Bacon, Galileo, Isaac Newton, and on the more contemporary observations of philosopher Lewis Mumford: “Civilization is the never ending process of creating one world and one humanity.” These earlier names will mean little or nothing to America’s present-day policy planners – even after the necessarily liberating replacement of Trump with Biden – but there will still likely be capable advisors who can draw properly upon the incomparable dignities of serious study and dialectical thought.
Even in present day America, erudition deserves some pride of place.
There are also related matters of law. Jurisprudentially, no particular national leadership has any special or primary obligations in this regard, nor could it reasonably afford to build a nation’s most immediate security policies upon vaguely distant hopes. Nonetheless, the United States remains a key part of the interrelated community of nations, and must do whatever it can to detach a steadily wavering state of nations from the time-dishonored “state of nature.”
There is more. Any such willful detachment should be expressed as part of a much wider vision for a durable and law-centered world politics. Over the longer term, Washington will have to do its very primary part to preserve the global system as a whole. Immediately, “America Together,” not “America First,” must become our national mantra. However silly or impractical this imperative may sound at first, nothing could be more fanciful than continuing indefinitely on discredited course.
For the moment, in this connection, there is no further need for detailing analytic or intellectual particulars. There are bound to be many, but at least for now, only a more evident and dedicated awareness of this civilizational obligation need be expected.
In The Plague, Albert Camus instructs: “At the beginning of the pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric….It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words – to silence.” As long as the states in world politics continue to operate in narrowly zero-sum terms of engagement – that is, as grim archaeologists of ruins endlessly-in-the-making – they will be unable to stop the next wave of terror attacks, genocides and/or catastrophic wars.
Until now, for various unsound reasons, the traditional expectations of Realpolitik have managed to appear fundamentally sensible. Accordingly, there are no good reasons for expressing any still-lingering or retrospective regrets. Nevertheless, from the overriding standpoint of improving our longer-term security prospects, both national and global, the American president must substantially expand his visionary imagination.
By ignoring the complex interrelatedness of all peoples and all states, “America First” represented the literal opposite of what was always most urgently needed.
Nothing could have been more obvious.
Now more than ever, affirming the extremity of “everyone for himself” in world politics is a prescription not for realism, but for recurrent conflict and far-reaching despair. Should this perilous prescription be allowed to stay in place, the costs to us all could sometime be nuclear. At that hard-to-imagine point, it will already be too late to discover that “America First” was once a captivating but nonetheless lethal presidential mantra.
There is more. Before we can ever hope to survive as a nation, we will first have to survive as a species; that is, as a planet-wide civilization. In matters of world politics, this means, among other things, understanding vital differences between the traditional anarchy of “Westphalian” international relations and the more disruptive dynamics associated with a genuine “chaos.” When compared to “Westphalian” anarchy, an impending chaos could be more expressly primal, more starkly primordial, even self-propelled or palpably “lascivious.” For further elucidation, we may think here of the “state of nature” described in William Golding’s prophetic novel, Lord of the Flies. Before Golding, the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (see Ch. XIII of Leviathan) warned that in any such rabidly dissembling conditions, the “life of man” must inevitably be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Looking ahead, such fearsome warnings could become manifestly more plausible in circumstances where expanding threats of a nuclear war would coincide with expanding levels of pandemic or biological plague. There does remain one potential source of optimism, however; this is the paradoxical prospect of a beneficent or peace-guided chaos. Whether described in the Old Testament or in certain other evident sources of Western philosophy, chaos can be as much a source of large-scale human improvement as a manifest source of decline. It is this prospectively positive side of chaos that is intended by Friedrich Nietzsche’s seemingly curious remark in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883): “I tell you, ye have still chaos in you.”
When expressed in aptly neutral tones, chaos is that condition which prepares the world for all things, whether sacred or profane. More exactly, it represents that yawning gulf of “emptiness” where nothing is as yet, but where some still-remaining civilizational opportunity can originate. As the 18th century German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observes: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic, which stands at the roots of the things, and which prepares all things.”
Insightfully, in the ancient pagan world, Greek philosophers thought of this particular “desert” as logos, a primal concept which indicates that chaos is anything but starkly random or inherently without merit. Getting meaningfully beyond Trump’s retrograde “America First” and also its more generic “template – that is, beyond Realpolitik – will first require “fixing the microcosm.” In other words, before anyone can conceptualize a system of world politics that rejects the refractory mantra of “everyone for himself,” a far-reaching and prior re-conceptualization must take place at the individual human level.
In the final analysis, Donald J. Trump’s “America First” was merely reflection, a painful symptom of a much longer lasting and time-dishonored pattern of global affairs. Though it would be tempting to supplant only this reflective expression of mistaken thinking, it would inevitably represent a temporary and partial strategy. This is not to suggest that because US President Joseph Biden should expect nothing more ambitious than transient national improvements in the short term, he ought thereby lose sight altogether of the longer-term. In this connection, the “prize” should not be just another few years of planetary political life, but also a more lastingly durable pattern of global survival.
Always, worldwide security and renewal must come back to the individual human being. Building upon Dante’s De Monarchia (1310) and the later cosmopolitanism of H.G. Wells, Lewis Mumford and J.W. von Goethe, 20th century French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin concludes helpfully in The Phenomenon of Man: “Each element of the cosmos is positively woven from all the others….” Before an American leader can meaningfully oppose the traditional and crippling dominance of power politics in world affairs, an opposition that would inevitably outlast his own presidential tenure, he will first have to understand what Chardin calls “the idea of a worldwide totalisation of human consciousness.” This is the idea of the world as “a single, major organic unity.”
Whatever its apparent differences and divergences, the world displays an ineradicable and eventually irrepressible “oneness.” All human beings are cemented to each other not by the nefarious aggregations of belligerent nationalism, but instead by their immutably basic likeness and by their inevitable interdependence. When Siddhartha listened attentively to the river, says Herman Hesse in his great novel of the same name, “…he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it is his Self, but heard them all, the Whole, the unity….”
There is one last indispensable observation, one that concerns various presumed connections between individual nation states and the divine. Here, the German philosopher Georg F. Hegel had commented famously: “The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth….We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth, and consider that, if it is a difficult to comprehend Nature, it is harder to grasp the Essence of the State….The State is the march of God through the world….” To be sure, to date, this is an idea that is responsible for literally uncountable numbers of individual human deaths and collective disasters.
This brings us back to the connected phenomena of individual human death fears and belligerent nationalism. In the nineteenth century, as part of his posthumously published lecture on Politics (1896), Heinrich von Treitschke looked insightfully beyond the daily news. Citing to Johan Gottlieb Fichte, the German historian had opined prophetically: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Here, Fichte understood something of utterly uncommon and incomparable importance. It is that there can be no greater power on earth than power over death. We may also be reminded by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas that “An immortal person is a contradiction in terms.”
A starkly illogical search for immortality has long been at the very heart of human wrongdoing, including war, terrorism and genocide. This is because so many diverse civilizations have regarded death-avoidance as a necessarily zero-sum commodity, a goal that can be met only at the correlative expense of certain designated “others.” In such “traditional” calculations, the presumed prospects for success have typically been linked to the de facto degree of hatred expressed for these despised “others.” The greater the hatred, the greater the justifications for killing, the greater the personal chances of living forever.
Though perverse, this operational calculus has been captured perfectly by psychologist Ernest Becker’s paraphrase of author Elias Canetti: “Each organism raises it head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”
Similarly, we may consider psychologist Otto Rank: “The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.”
What next? Looking ahead, the United States must act together with other states upon more firmly logical foundations than those that have been supplied by recurrent myths of “sacrifice” and determined anti-Reason. By discarding the verifiable gibberish of Realpolitik or belligerent nationalism (most recently codified, in the United States, as “America First”), all cooperating states could finally affirm what ought to have been obvious from the very beginnings of world politics. This is an obligatory replacement of the extremity of “everyone for himself” with an indispensable affirmation of human oneness.
Anything else, we may learn from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, would be “false and against nature.”
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, Looking Beyond “America First”: Thought-Based Legal Strategies for Long-Term Survival, JURIST – Academic Commentary, February 17, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/02/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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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