Where Are We Heading?: Journeys from “First Man” to the “Last” Commentary
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Where Are We Heading?: Journeys from “First Man” to the “Last”

“The dust from which the first man was created was gathered in all four corners of the earth.”

         – Talmud

Reforming International Law

In the midst of Russia’s escalating crimes against Ukraine, the United States and other nations have one widely  overlooked obligation: To re-examine and re-conceptualize core elements of authoritative international law. Finally able to acknowledge the intolerable limitations of our seventeenth-century global threat system, nations must do even more than seek justice for Ukraine and its sorely beleaguered people. These sovereign states must also  commence the intellectual process of identifying more justice-based configurations of international relations.

There will be many interrelated parts to this complex process. Among other things, proposed identifications would have to be systematic in nature. Above all, the associated efforts must be informed by variously creative imaginations and by plausible hypotheses. Appropriate rules for conducting this bewildering process will need to include useful descriptions of relevant analytic models and properly scientific explorations of these models.

There is more. What might first seem promising in the historic “state of nature” (the global condition of anarchy dating back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) is apt to prove injurious for planetary civilization’s survival prospects.  Grievous harms could sometime be experienced not merely as implicit debits in a particular country’s national security calculus, but as an explosive set of literally intolerable costs. Thinking beyond Russia’s egregious crimes against Ukraine as a narrowly singular or transient matter, humankind’s most overriding task must now be to think meaningfully beyond power-politics in general. In this regard, the American nation should bear in mind that all fundamental obligations under international law regarding peace and human rights are already a binding part of US Domestic Law.

Identifying the World as System

In the fashion of every other state, the United States is part of a larger and interdependent world system.  Now, especially after Russia’s conspicuous crimes against Ukraine, this vastly more comprehensive system has steadily diminishing chances for sustainable success within the extant (and 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 itself destined to fail?

The core issues here are both 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?” Though the celebrated Irish playwright was certainly not thinking specifically about world politics, the generalized query must remain 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 all national power.

Truth is exculpatory. Worldwide, the pain is always “deep” (see here). This pain cannot be overridden by visceral chanting of nonsense at political rallies or by the routine substitution of empty witticisms for historical fact. 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 be further exacerbated by multiple systemic failures, failures that are sometimes mutually reinforcing or “synergistic” and that sometimes involve weapons of mass destruction.

Most evidently portentous, in this regard, would be nuclear weapons.

There is more. By definition, any failure of nuclear Realpolitik could prove not “only” catastrophic, but also sui generis in the most conceivably negative sense. This observation would hold true as long as any such failure were judged in the cumulative scope of its unprecedented declensions.

Specific steps will 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 such an interest in 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 prove more plausible.

Seeing the Planet as One

At this fearful point in human evolution, it is realistic to acknowledge that a traditional “every man for himself” ethos in world politics is endlessly degrading. Even more importantly, this ethos is incapable of offering 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, therefore, it will not be enough to tinker tentatively at the ragged edges of our current world legal order. At that decisive turning point, simply continuing to forge assorted ad hoc agreements between stubborn or recalcitrant states or as “hybridized” actors between these states and surrogate or sub-state organizations would prove disastrous.

Ipso facto, any such forged agreements would prove conclusively wrongheaded. In the longer term, the only sort of legal realism that can make any sense for America and other leading states in world politics is a posture that points presciently toward a “higher” awareness of global “oneness” and  greater world system interdependence.

In its fully optimized expression, such a now-indispensable awareness 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 to 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 Goal of Collaborative Self-Centeredness

The most immediate security task in the global state of nature must be to become more collaboratively self-centered. Simultaneously, the leaders of all countries, especially the United States, must learn to understand that our planet always represents an organic whole, a fragile but variously intersecting “unity.” In candor, however, it is plain that the United States has never been a nation driven by fundamentally intellectual considerations.

Some conclusions are incontestable. To wit, Westphalian anarchy now exhibits rapidly diminishing options for managing world power or providing viable mechanisms for successful war avoidance. Quo Vadis?

To seize upon disappearing opportunities for longer-term survival, our leaders must build sensibly upon 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 may mean  little per se to America’s policy planners, but there will still likely emerge capable advisors who can draw seriously upon the dignities of meaningful study and dialectical thought.

Even in America, erudition deserves some evident pride of place.

Accordingly, there are variously 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.”  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 true national mantra. However silly or impractical this imperative may sound at first, nothing could be more fanciful than continuing indefinitely on a patently discredited “Westphalian” course.

For the moment, there is no further need for detailing analytic or intellectual particulars. There are bound to be many. But for now, at least, only a more evident and dedicated awareness of this civilizational obligation need be expected.

Plague and Empty Rhetoric

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 archeologists of ruins in-the-making – they will be unable to stop the next wave of terror attacks, genocides 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, American planners and decision-makers must expand their visionary imaginations.

By ignoring the complex interrelatedness of all peoples and all states, Trump’s “America First” represented the literal opposite of what was most desperately needed. And yet, 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 altogether 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.”

Prospectively Dreadful Synergies

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 to 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 (1955): “Each element of the cosmos is positively woven from all the others….”  Before a visionary leader could meaningfully oppose the traditional and crippling dominance of power politics in world affairs, he or she would first have to understand what Chardin calls “the idea of a worldwide totalization of human consciousness.”  This is the incomparable idea of the world as a single, major organic unity.

Whatever its apparent differences and divergences, the world always displays an ineradicable and irrepressible “oneness.” To wit, all human beings are cemented to each other not by the nefarious aggregations of belligerent nationalism, but by their immutably basic likeness and 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….”

The State and the False Promise of Power over Death

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 leading states upon firmly logical foundations, ones more firmly reason-based than those that have been supplied by recurrent human myths of “sacrifice.” By finally discarding the verifiable gibberish of Realpolitik or belligerent nationalism, all cooperating states could finally affirm what ought to have been obvious from the very beginnings of world politics. This is the determined replacement of a “state of nature” ethos with variously incremental affirmations of human oneness.

In part, Russia’s barbarous war crimes and genocide-like crimes against humanity in Ukraine are the result of a structurally fragmented world legal order. Though this authoritative amalgam of rules and procedures was strongly reaffirmed at Nuremberg, it has remained a fragile and contingent fusion. Now, at the eleventh hour, humankind must take certain visionary steps to ensure that cosmopolitan lessons of the “first man” are finally understood by the “last man.” Most urgent, in this regard, will be the immutably primal wisdom of human interdependence (Teilhard de Chardin’s “planetization”) or “human oneness.” Without this indispensable wisdom, there could be only continuously destructive wars and escalating genocides.


Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of twelve major books and several hundred articles dealing with world politics and international law. Professor Beres was an original member of the World Order Models Project at Princeton and Yale during the 1960s. Some of his pertinent writings can be found at The New York Times; The Atlantic; The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The American Political Science Review; American Journal of International Law; The Hudson Review; Yale Global Online (Yale); Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); JURIST; World Politics (Princeton); International Security (Harvard); The Hill; Horasis (Switzerland); The National Interest; US News & World Report; Oxford University Press Yearbook of International Law; The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); and the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II.


Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Where Are We Heading?: Journeys from “First Man” to the “Last”, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 23, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/03/louis-rene-beres-where-are-we-heading/.

This article was prepared for publication by Sambhav Sharma, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org

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