Power and Primacy: False Goals of a Nation in Peril Commentary
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Power and Primacy: False Goals of a Nation in Peril

“All our dignity consists in thought.” – Blaise Pascal, Pensées

For the most part, penetrating thought on politics remains the veiled province of academic specialists. Though such thought can never become appropriate for any wider consumption by “mass,” it nonetheless warrants a more prominent place in world affairs and international law. Nowhere is this assertion timelier and more pertinent than regarding the United States.

Many evident and intersecting details should be considered. In certain conspiracy-oriented portions of the American polity, which are not insubstantial, citizens will need to acknowledge still-decipherable differences between “truth and shadow.” Ironically, what will likely matter most to this imperiled country about power and primacy are outcomes that “We the people” have never even bothered to recognize.

How can this be?

Determinable answers should come readily to mind. Immediately, specialists and policymakers should look back dialectically, not just in linear historical terms. Oddly, perhaps, few human beings are ever capable of understanding what it is that they really want. In consequence, few human beings would be able to confront the considerable challenges of relevant political thought.

Though millions of Americans can appreciate that they value assorted religious attachments and affiliations with high esteem, only a few could subsequently connect these ties to any tangible promises of personal power or national primacy. Inter alia, such ultimate promises center on variously presumed bestowals of human immortality. Succinctly, these hoped-for bestowals represent grants of ecstatic satisfaction, genuinely incomparable “rewards” of power over death.

Individuum est ineffable, reminds the poet-philosopher Goethe, author of Faust: “The individual cannot be grasped.”

Living in a society that is generally unaccustomed to troubling itself with history, erudition, or law (former President Donald J. Trump repeatedly assured his loyal followers that “attitude is more important than preparation”), there remains little reason to expect knowledge-based political thinking in the United States. Still, whatever the anti-intellectual baggage of an American mass that routinely disregards any challenging considerations of “mind,” lucid explanations or prescriptions of political behavior will require reason-based analyses at appropriately conceptual levels. But what would be the plausible origins of such indispensable analyses?

There will be many factors to consider. Specifically, three principal concepts will need to be highlighted. Intersecting and subtle, these concepts are death, time and immortality. At the same time, the discovery of any usefully deeper meanings can never be left to those who are inclined to celebrate “attitude” over “preparation.” Recalling the apt warnings of twentieth-century German philosopher Karl Jaspers, this will not be a job for those who would choose to “follow the magicians.” Any such visceral choice of anti-reason would be more-or-less destructive.

How best to begin? At the outset of any serious political inquiry, relevant phenomena will need to be examined at a conceptual level. Concepts always represent the “building blocks” of any comprehensive theory, and well-fashioned theory always represents the origins of any legitimate science. In turn, science identifies an optimal method of reaching meaningful conclusions, a systematizing process that involves the stipulation, examination and subsequent confirmation or disconfirmation of alternative hypotheses.

Inevitably, this is what serious political inquiry is all about. Taken together, these operations provide the textbook definition of science. Ipso facto, to believe in science is to reject “the magicians,” those breathtakingly vapid conspiracy-theorists and proponents of ideological anti-reason. Here in the United States, of course, the daily news offers precious little evidence of pertinent rejections. After Trump, this country succors millions who remain determined to follow the prestidigitating dissemblers anywhere. Almost always, a corollary of such injurious determination would be stark indifference to law and jurisprudence.

A “next question” dawns. How shall Americans proceed if both their national and sub-national governance is to be improved, especially amid a steadily corrosive world legal order shaped by belligerent nationalism?  More precisely, what can be done to mitigate the synergistically harmful effects of persistent acrimony and nuclear weapons? What can the three intersecting concepts of death, time and immortality teach us about America’s political and legal landscapes, present and future? How shall this increasingly law-violating nation become able to advance beyond the gratuitous rancor of its domestic politics?

In law and politics, this is always an interconnected world. Now, such an advance has become necessary to everyone’s physical survival. But what to do next?

To answer thoughtfully, and with law-abiding reason, analysts should begin with the individual human being, with the microcosm. With such commencement, though widely disregarded and de facto invisible, power over death could finally be recognized to represent the ultimate reward for “patriotic” political compliance. Although spoken sotto voce, inaudibly, and in solemnly furtive whispers, there can never be greater power to confer in any political sphere than the power of immortality.

Personal Faith and the “Hunger of Immortality

“I believe,” says Oswald Spengler in his 20th century classic, The Decline of the West” (1918-1923), “is the one great word against metaphysical fear.” In this inherently abstract connection, we may learn from Emmanuel Levinas something of genuinely head spinning import: “It is through death,” says the modern philosopher, “that there is time….” It follows, among other things, that any nation that can seemingly enhance the promise of personal immortality among its people can heighten the promises of time.

These are multiple and mutually reinforcing promises.

They are anything but mundane or banal.

But what can any such dense abstraction have to do with American politics and international law? These are not easy concepts to understand, especially in the context of America’s defiling preoccupation with dissembling personalities, multiplying superficialities and relentlessly escalating rancor.  No society so willing to compromise truth on behalf of a doctrinal “anti-reason” can reasonably expect to endure, let alone progress.

These are not easy concepts to unravel or interpret. And yet, they are more plainly explanatory of this nation’s dynamic existential problems than are the commonly ritualistic recitations of public political personalities. If chronology is in fact contingent upon death – in essence because human mortality puts an irreversible “stop” to each individual’s personal time – an antecedent question must also be posed: How does one gain tangible power over death and what does any such gain have to do with the fate of a particular state or nation?

It is with precisely this near-preposterous question in hand that genuinely promising political inquiries should be launched.

What next? Before venturing a proper answer to any such many-sided question, analysts and thinkers must first distinguish between actual or tangible power and the personal expectation that such power lies in variously decipherable ties to God.  Naturally, though not in any way a matter of science, we humans have always sought reassuring links to the divine. In identifying humankind’s purported ties here to the sacred – ties that are expectedly prior to relevant acquisitions of power over death – the most evident and “time-tested” path involves faith.

It is hardly a coincidence that every one of the world’s major religions offers its adherents variously alluring and more-or-less comparable promises of immortality.

There is more. Such powerful assurances come with assorted contingencies, some of which would prove far more difficult to satisfy than others. Nonetheless, in the main, whatever the specific contingencies or nuances of differentiation involved, it is a bargain being offered to individuals who usually hope most fervidly not to die. Seemingly, at least, it is a gainful pact, one whereby the faithful adherents of any pertinent religion (1) commit wholly to the affirmation of all true piety (“I believe),” and (2) prioritize this sacred affirmation above all others. 

Immortality and Martyrdom

Additional particularities still need to be noted. On occasion, the doctrinal priority “I believe” can demand a faith-confirming end to an individual believer’s physical life on earth, that is, an act of martyrdom.  At other times, assorted high-minded doctrines of charity, caring and compassion notwithstanding, this priority can require the torture and/or killing of designated “unbelievers,” “heathen,” “apostates,” etc., in order to safeguard “the one true faith.”

Whatever special circumstances of “sacrifice” may be involved – and they need not be mutually exclusive – Reason must give way to Unreason. Ironically, as we have already seen, such grotesque surrender is no less likely in the Age of Science than it was in any earlier Age of Belief. Regarding this worrisome allegation, the daily news offers endlessly corroborative “evidence” ex hypothesi.

Several core truths are being revealed here. Any cumulative hopes for an individual rising “above mortality” can have critical consequences for the macrocosm, for war and peace on Planet Earth. In the nineteenth century, at his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined in his Philosophy of Right (1820) that the state represents “the march of God in the world.”

 These widely cited views in political science and philosophy tie loyalty to the state (usually unquestioned loyalty) with the promise of power over death. This must always represent a monumental promise, one generally recognized only in the Platonic “shadows” of political activity. Whenever the historian looks beyond the distracting shadows of true images, he discovers no plausible evidence of any such promise having been kept.

There is more. This is an extraordinary and always unfulfilled promise, but one that remains incomparable. During his rabidly law-breaking tenure as US president, Donald J. Trump’s openly pernicious brand of belligerent nationalism (“America First“) offered “patriotic” adherents this dangerously seductive promise. In the end, because it was founded upon a humiliating fusion of stark ignorance with doctrinal anti-reason, “America First” brought with it a vision of time that could only hasten death at several levels.

It did nothing to help “overcome” mortality.

Certain additional nuances now warrant competent examination. In related matters, faith and science intersect with coinciding considerations of law. The fearful “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation of ideology from simple principle of action to sacred end in itself, drew germinal strength from the doctrine of sovereignty. First conceived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a juridical principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent far-reaching metamorphoses, whence it then became the justifying legal rationale for international anarchy (known also by political philosophers as the global “state of nature.)”

Sovereignty and Power Over Death

To understand all such complex intersections, we must first understand “sovereignty.” Established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty quickly came to be regarded as the supreme human political power, absolute and above all other forms of law. In the oft-recited and oft-studied words of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: “Where there is no common Power, there is no law.”

As to any correspondences with time, which is how we have come to consider such complex issues in the first place, Hobbes explains why this “no law” condition should be called “war,” even when there exists no actual “fighting.”  More precisely, because  “war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of Time….,scholars and policy-makers will need to broaden their most fundamental ideas of “war.” Though this would first appear to be an esoteric requirement, one without any discernible links to real world policymaking, exactly the opposite is true.

There is still more. When it is understood in terms of modern international relations, the doctrine of sovereignty encourages the refractory notion that states  (a) lie above and beyond any legal regulation in their interactions with each other, and (b) act rationally whenever they seek tangible benefits at the expense of other states or the global system as a whole. Still, following the time of conspicuous Trump derangements, this doctrine threatened a wholesale collapse of civilizational cooperation and world order, a dis-establishment spawned  ultimately by the “timeless” human wish for immortality, and by variously misconceived human associations of “wish fulfillment” with “everyone for himself” foreign policies.

Time and the Hobbesian “State of War”

Without suitable changes in the Hobbesian “tract of time,” the global State of War nurtured by refractory ideas about absolute sovereignty points not only to immutable human mortality, but also toward death on unprecedented levels. One such notion is climate change denial, a stubbornly preferred posture of ideological anti reason. Left unaffected by proper considerations of scientific analysis and refined intellect, such denial could ultimately produce another mass extinction on Planet Earth. At that irreversible point, time will have lost all its once-residual meanings and death will inherit all that still is.

Considered by itself, immortality remains an unworthy and unseemly human goal because it is scientific nonsense (“An immortal person is a contradiction in  terms”) and because it fosters such endlessly injurious human behaviors as war, terrorism, genocide and “martyrdom.” The dignified task should not be to try to remove individual human hopes to soar above death (that is, to achieve some tangible sort of immortality), but to “de-link” this futile search from variously destructive human behaviors. What now?

The question is plain. How best to proceed with such a multi-faceted task? This is not an easy question. It can never be answered in terms of Platonic “shadows” or “reflections” of reality. There would be available here no science-based guidelines. And even if there were such availability, this is not just another ordinary problem that can yield ipso facto to rationality-based solutions. On the contrary, and infinitely-distressing, the nearly ubiquitous human wish to immortality is so deeply compelling that it could never be dispelled by any logical argument.

A Perilous Political Lure: “Whisperings of the Irrational”

Aware of this dilemma, philosopher Karl Jaspers writes in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952): “There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought but for the whisperings of the irrational….” Understandably, the most seductive of these irrational whisperings are always those that offer to confer a selective power over death. But it is in the criteria of any such “selection” that far-reaching human evils can quickly become lethal and ostentatious .

In essence, this is because the promised power over death would require the “sacrifice” of certain expressly despised “others.”

For science, inevitably, death is a function of biology. Moreover, because it “presents” together with decomposition and decay – and even calls for human comprehension of nothingness within a “flow of time” – there exist no plausible ways of replacing mystery or anti-reason with reason or rationality. By its very nature, which brings forth inconsolable fears and paralyzing anxieties, death will never submit to even the most refined sorts of intellectual management.


It’s simply not that sort of “nemesis.”

Nonetheless, at least in principle, some measure of existential relief can be discovered in transience, that is, in the unassailable awareness that nothing is forever and that everything is impermanent. What is required at this stage is the conceptual reciprocal of any imagined human decomposition or disintegration. This would mean deliberately cultivating the imagery of expanded human significance that stems from life’s limited duration. In scientific terms, one might usefully describe this quality as life’s “scarcity value.”

Though seemingly paradoxical, any such gainful mental cultivation may effectively represent the optimal human strategy of achieving “immortality” or of “not dying.”

How did we arrive at such a complex and intellectually challenging conclusion?  We began this assessment with the view that daily news reports are just changing reflections or shadows of much deeper human activities. To deal more satisfactorily with the incessant horrors of national politics we will first have to understand the verifiably true sources of such reflections.

To remind, these underpinnings of daily news events are rooted in certain conceptual intersections of death, time and immortality. It is only with a more determined understanding of these many-sided intersections that America and Americans can ever reasonably hope to understand the false political promises of immortality.

The Barbarism of Specialization

In the end, American politics – like all politics – must remain a shadowy second-order activity, hence, a distorting reflection of what is truly important. For now, in the United States, such politics continues to thrive upon a vast personal emptiness, on a collective infirmity that represents the disfiguring reciprocal of personal fulfillment. “Conscious of his emptiness,” warned the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “man (human) tries to make a faith for himself (or herself) in the political realm. In Vain.”

“In vain.”

Even in an authentic American democracy, only “few” could ever hope to redeem themselves and the wider nation, but these self-effacing souls would expectedly remain silent, hidden in “deep cover,” even from themselves. Plausibly, in a democracy where education is increasingly oriented toward narrowly vocational forms of career preparation, a limiting orientation toward Ortega’s “barbaric specialization,” these individuals can expect to be “suffocated” by “mass.” Significantly, any such “asphyxiation,” and in any one of its conceivable particularities, would represent a “bad way to die.”

Donald J. Trump did not emerge on the American political scene ex nihilo, “out of nothing.” His incoherent, corrupt, and intentionally disjointed presidency was the direct result of a society that had for too long abandoned any serious political thought. When such a society no longer asked any of the “big” philosophical question – for example, “What is the “good” in government and politics”? or “How do I lead a good life as person and citizen”? or “How can I best nurture the well-being of other human beings”? – a lamentable outcome was inevitable. It was an outcome that we are currently living through in the United States, and that we may come perilously close to “dying through.”

What Americans ought to fear most of all in their political universe is the continuously self-defiling outcome of “shadows” or “reflections,” not any particular electoral result. At this vital turning point in US history and law, nothing could become more urgently important for the nation than to fully rid itself of Donald J. Trump’s witting movement against Constitutional democracy. These afflictions are mutually reinforcing and potentially synergistic. But even such much needed eradications could only be transient and partial.

Above all, the United States needs a commitment to learning that could benefit the whole human being, not just his or her tiny work-related corner of the national universe.

Also necessary will be a long-deferred obligation to acknowledge the fundamental interrelatedness of all peoples and the correspondingly binding universality of international law. To survive as a nation and as individuals, more Americans will need to become seriously educated, not just as well-trained cogs in a vast industrial machine, but as empathetic and caring citizens. “Everyone is the other, and no one is just himself,” cautions Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (1932), but this elementary lesson, originally discoverable in myriad sacred texts, is not easily operationalized.

Indeed, it is in this single monumental failure of “operationalization” that human civilization in general has most conspicuously failed.

In Trump-era American governance, the former president’s core message was never about the co-responsibility of every human being for his or her fellows, but about “winners,” “losers” and a presumptively rational citizen obligation to “Make America Great.” In this steeply twisted Trumpian context, “greatness” always assumed a Darwinian or zero-sum condition, not one in which each single individual person could ever favor harmonious cooperation over belligerent competition. Plainly, the last thing any sane person could ever seek in this abysmally crude condition is personal immortality.

Next questions arise. How shall we change all this, or, recalling Plato’s wisdom in The Republic, how shall we “learn to make the souls of the citizens better?” This is not a question that anyone can ever answer in elucidating detail. It is, however, a query that ought to be placed before the imperiled American polity before the next election, continuously, and before it is once again “too late.”

Donald Trump’s electoral removal from office was a sine qua non for all necessary remedies, but even such needed removal could target only a singular symptom of America’s underlying national pathology. By itself, saving the United States from Donald Trump was an unambiguous obligation, but it left unchanged this country’s most sinister “disease.” In the end, because Americans will finally need to bring less “specialized” forma of learning to their citizenship responsibilities, “We the people” will have to figure out practical ways of restoring the nation’s educational “wholeness.”

Can this sort of rational calculation be reasonably expected? Maybe not. Perhaps, like the timeless message of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, this warning may “have come too soon.” But if such a premature warning turns out to be the case, there may simply be no “later.”

What is “Drawing Near”?

“Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) “or a beginning.” The correct answer, which lies beyond any measuring hands of clocks, is by no means self-evident. Determining this meaningful answer is now a primal expectation of American political destiny.

Nothing could be more important.

Soon, as we have just seen, Americans will need to get solidly beyond the demeaning banalities of partisan politics, beyond the distracting and potentially murderous “shadows” or “reflections” of what is important. Immutably, but also invisibly, most human residents of planet earth continue to regard “power over death” as the highest conceivable form of power. And yet it will likely remain unclear how such an ultimate power can be linked purposefully to American politics, even America’s Realpolitik-directed foreign policies.

Meaning and Belonging

There is more to consider. To look suitably beyond what merely lies on the surface, Americans should also discover two other principal animating forces of their political realm. These elemental forces concern Meaning and Belonging. They represent other true images of American politics – images additional to immortality or “power over death” – that can bestow variously tangible feelings of personal and collective self-worth.

Such images coalesce around activities that can confer pleasing human emotions of “time well spent” and/or of group membership. The overriding problem here is that such activities are not always well-intentioned or benign. Sometimes they can include war, terrorism and/or genocide.

In his modern classic study, Being and Time (1953), Martin Heidegger laments what he calls (in German) das Mann, or “The They.”  Drawing fruitfully upon certain earlier seminal insights of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jung and Freud, Heidegger’s “The They” represents the ever-present herd, crowd, horde or mass, an “untruth” (the term favored by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) that can all-too-quickly suffocate intellectual growth. For Heidegger’s ubiquitous “The They,” the crowning human untruth lies in “herd” acceptance of immortality at both institutional and personal levels, and in herd encouragement of the notion that personal power over death is sometimes derivative (recall earlier Hegel and Treitschke) from membership in nation-states.

History reveals on its face that this can frequently become an insidious notion.

Any reassuring notions about a potential for personal immortality are themselves contingent upon the specific nation-state’s “sacredness.” Here, only membership in a presumptively “sacred” group can serve to confer life-everlasting. This connection is now markedly evident amid America’s rancorous “identity” politics.

“In the end,” says Goethe, “we are creatures of our own making.” But to best ensure that such “creatures” are dignified, decent and meaningfully cooperative with one another, all societies must first be able to distinguish true human feelings and expectations from “shadows.” Here in the United States, where a nation’s most basic tonality has long since become dissonance, one core conclusion is unassailable: Americans should finally acknowledge the survival risks of “following the magicians” and detach themselves from the perpetually grave distortions created by “reflection.”

At this quivering moment in time, when a Russian president openly threatens United States populations with nuclear weapons and nuclear war, such distortions could quickly become lethal, perhaps even on an existential scale. Ideally, in the best of all possible worlds, a more binding system of international law would already be operational, but this is not the case. The “Westphalian” world legal order remains firmly in place, retrograde, conflict-centered, and conspicuously distant from any more purposeful patterns of international law enforcement. Inter alia, before this untenable condition can change, power and primacy would need to be acknowledged as inappropriate goals of both nations and individuals.

Anything less would imperil us all.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of twelve major books and several hundred journal articles dealing with international relations and international law. Some of his publications have appeared in The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); The Atlantic; US News & World Report; The National Interest; e-Global (University of California, Santa Barbara); Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); The Brown Journal of World Affairs; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; JURIST; The New York Times; The Hudson Review; American Political Science Review; American Journal of International Law; Daily Princetonian; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The American Journal of International Law; The Atlantic; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College (Pentagon); Modern Diplomacy; Air and Space Operations Review (USAF); Special Warfare (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); INSS (Tel Aviv); Horasis (Zurich); and Oxford University Press. He is a regular contributor to the Oxford University Press Annual Yearbook of International Law and Jurisprudence. Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II.

Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Power and Primacy: False Goals of a Nation in Peril, JURIST – Academic Commentary, October 1, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/10/Louis-Rene-Beres-international-law-Trump/.

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