lawless retreat from national security
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science
and International Law (Purdue University). He is author of many
books and articles dealing with international politics. His
columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington
Post, The Jerusalem Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press).
existence of `system' in the world
is at once obvious to every observer of nature . . .
Each element of the cosmos is positively woven from all the
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man
cumulative jurisprudential assets and liabilities of U.S. foreign
policy can best be determined from the standpoint of system.
Accordingly, the divergence of such policy from much broader
interests of the world as a whole represents a conspicuous harbinger
of failure. It follows, further, that any posture of America
First must signal a lose-lose prescription for the United States,
one minimizing both national power and world law.
is more. This noteworthy conclusion is most plausible wherever
such a self-defeating U.S. posture deteriorates to the lowest
possible level of implementation. Tangibly, this means a moment
when America First has managed to become both starkly retrograde
and viscerally primal. In these plainly bitter circumstances,
there could no longer exist any meaningful hopes for gainful
cooperation or general human progress.
that point, this country would be guided only by increasingly
corrosive commitments to competition and conflict, what the
philosophers prefer to call a bellum omnium contra omnes,
'a war of all against all.'
the president and his counselors, currently fashioning incoherent
policies toward North Korea, coping with multiple intersecting
perils will require more than noisy belligerence or rancorous
bravado. Ultimately, however counter-intuitive, Donald Trump's
national security policies will need to be based upon verifiably
sound principles of systematic investigation, intellect, and
mind. In acknowledgment of this assessment, a derivative "next
question" must be quickly raised and correctly answered:
What might such a suitably thoughtful American foreign policy
actually look like?
be sure, the answers here will be less than plain. They will
depend, after all, upon what can first be uncovered about myriad
individual human needs and expectations. Both intellectually
and operationally, this demonstrably global elucidation will
be sorely complex and hideously multilayered.
other words, these revelations will not be readily decipherable
by mere common sense, or by any simplistic analogy from the
microcosmic worlds of real estate and raw commerce.
most conditions here on earth, national security must begin
at the beginning, that is, with the individual human being.
More than anything else -- except for a sometimes corollary
apprehension of "aloneness, or of not conspicuously belonging
to a valued tribe, nation, or faith - the expressly primal fear
of simply not being is determinative. When considered together
with the understanding that individual human death fear often
creates more-or-less irresistible inclinations toward collective
violence, this oddly difficult insight may nonetheless reveal
a long overlooked foreign policy opportunity.
is that the universal apprehension of death, as an unambiguously
common human anguish, could help prevent war and terror. More
specifically, it could productively invite a steadily expanding
ambit of human empathy and worldwide compassion. Such an expansion,
by definition, would represent the conceptual and jurisprudential
opposite of American First.
generally overlooked, only this basic human universality and
commonality can eventually lift us above a frightfully lawless
future; that is, beyond an accumulating sequence of endlessly
destructive and self-perpetuating planetary fragmentations.
Worth noting, too, is that the looming portent of increasingly
explosive disunities could sometime prove to be sui generis.
Quite literally, should we experience a nuclear war with North
Korea in absolutely any form, it would be unprecedented and
the final analysis, only a serious attempt to understand an
imperative global oneness can save the United States from irremediable
national and international hazards. Significantly, however,
we are now moving in exactly the opposite direction. To wit,
President Trump's America First orientation represents the literal
antithesis of a badly needed global effort. It could, therefore,
decisively undermine any of our still-remaining chances for
meaningful legal order on planet earth.
this American president must no doubt struggle to recognize,
the United States can never be saved by narrowly political solutions
fashioned in public relations firms or in career marketing boardrooms.
American national security is never just about branding, making
the best deal, or ensuring that others"pay their fair share.
In the end, law and security are never about the money. At some
point, Mr. Trump must finally be made aware that U.S. foreign
policy is far more than just another mundane calculation of
alia, our national security policy must always be about
an overarching commitment to international law enforcement and
whole species survival. Only then, together with all others,
could America become truly 'first.' It's not really a new or
difficult idea to grasp. Already in 1758, Swiss legal scholar
Emmerich de Vattel noted, in his classic The Law of Nations
(Or the Principles of Natural Law): "Nations, being
no less subject to the laws of nature than individuals, what
one man owes to other men, one Nation, in its turn, owes to
in the same vein, the great eighteenth-century jurist continues:
"The first general law, which is to be found in the very
end of the society of Nations, is that each Nation should contribute
as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations."
Vattel's legal work was well-known to Thomas Jefferson, who
consulted it closely in fashioning the US Declaration of Independence.
is more. In global politics, durable remediations will expect
a more sincere and penetrating depth of analytic thought. At
the outset, this president will have to accept a fully imaginative
and broadly global set of legal policy understandings. This
challenging set expresses the subtle but indispensable awareness
that outer worlds of politics and statecraft are in fact a more-or-less
mirrored reflection of our innermost private selves.
outer worlds, in short, are merely epiphenomenal.
precisely, as Mr. Trump will sometime need to fathom, it is
deeply within the opaque mysteries of individual human mortality
- mysteries focused on the genuinely timeless and universal
preoccupation with power over death — that we must ultimately
seek to discover the largely reciprocal truths of human interdependence
and American national security. Whether we might prefer to look
toward better legal management of terrorism, war, or genocide,
any foolishly declared posture of America First will mean America
Alone and, subsequently, America Last.
looking more purposefully behind the daily news, as this president
must soon learn to appreciate, power over death will become
discernible as the single most eagerly sought after form of
power in world politics. Always, it has been this way. Indeed,
it has been this way since time immemorial.
what to actually do about it?
That is the question.
this very challenging regard, there is much more for the White
House to learn. At a minimum, President Trump ought not draw
any credible hopes for creating an improved and lawful U.S.
national security policy by clinging to well-worn and hackneyed
examples of American exceptionalism. In this connection, though
gleefully unacknowledged even in our best schools and universities,
there remains a noteworthy gap between humankind's advancing
technical understanding, and its persistently uncontrollable
passions. Today, in virtually all human communities, including
these United States, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Freud and Jung
could suggest far more promising policy ideas to the American
president than Bacon, Newton, Descartes, Galileo or even Einstein.
Greek tragedies had already recorded an incredulous query: "Where
will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and
cease, the bloody hatred, the destruction?"
add, we must now inquire, what about the revealing ironies and
compounding absurdities of human life on earth?
quia absurdum. I believe because it is absurd.
far, more perhaps than we might care to admit, education and
enlightenment have had precious little tangible bearing on the
human condition. Prima facie, too, steadily expanding technologies
of mega-destruction have done little or nothing to make us more
responsible stewards of this endangered planet. Instead, and
with an observably unhindered arrogance, whole nations and peoples
continue to revel in virtually every conceivable form of mass
violence and self-propelled barbarism. Could it possibly get
of the time, in world politics, this ominously primal immersion
is described with an air of inevitability, as some sort of immutably
zero-sum or us-versus-them struggle for global domination.
the planet's physical environment, President Trump displays
nary a scintilla of any serious or prudent foresight. This absence,
of course, is most glaringly underscored by his unhidden indifference
to climate change studies and the global ecology. By his still-planned
withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change accord, a recalcitrant
and law-undermining abrogation that will harm both US and global
interests by its stunningly anti-science commitment to America
First, President Trump will literally place billions of people
on a largely accelerating trajectory of human declension.
shall we go from here? Exeunt omnes? Our American president
seems to have demonstrably few original ideas, and, correspondingly,
a never-ending panoply of bewilderingly backward and law-violating
notions. Among the latter are manifestly unhelpful distortions
of global trade policies, and also a curiously counter-productive
interference with badly needed immigration.
other basic questions will need to be asked?
fundamental query is especially obvious and inescapable: What
precisely is wrong with us, not as Americans in particular,
but as humans, as a wider species? Somehow, shameless human
bloodletting not only persists, but remains geographically almost
worldwide, and ritually de rigueur. This is the relentlessly
unsettling case, moreover, even while the most predatory of
other animals are seemingly able to coexist in substantially
less murderous habitats.
then, we desperately need to inquire, is most fundamentally
wrong with us as humans, living irrevocably in an interconnected
and presumptively lawful global system?
aside certain incontestable intellectual advantages, we are
not the same as other species. There is rampant killing among
the lower animals, of course, but it is not usually wilful or
gratuitous. Mostly, it is survival driven. Such killing may
simply be natural. Biologically, at least, it can make sense.
sort of species, we will then need to inquire, can tolerate
or even venerate such a hideous source of gratification? To
what extent, if any, is this markedly venal quality related
to our steadily-diminishing prospects for building modern civilizations
upon aptly resurrected premises of human oneness? And once more,
to what extent, if any, does this murderous trait derive from
a primary and ubiquitous human death fear?
last question is more important than it is obvious, even for
the consciously rational formulation of American foreign policy
and for certain corollary obligations of global consciousness
and world law.
unconscious," wrote Freud, "does not believe in its
own death; it behaves as if it were immortal." What we
ordinarily describe as heroism may in some cases actually be
nothing more than denial. Still, however widely disregarded,
an expanded acceptance of personal mortality may effectively
represent the very last best chance we still have to endure
as an enviable American nation.
the very opposite of America First, this is because we could
otherwise continue to associate a still-wished for immortality
with inflicting grave harms upon others. Tangible examples of
such deleterious associations abound in both war and terrorism,
most recognizably, perhaps, in today's growing cadre of suicide-terrorists.
Significantly, the martyrdom-seeking suicide terrorist kills
himself or herself in order to avoid death.
back during the Trojan War, as we may learn from Homer, Achilles
led his Greek warriors to battle against Troy with the incomparable
rallying cry: "Onward, for immortality."
President Trump and his advisors learn something here that might
benefit both the nation, and thereby also the wider global community,
something that could move us gainfully beyond Schadenfreude,
and encouragingly toward certain viable forms of wider legal
cooperation? To be sure, the latter represents the only credible
path to the former. Again, these core orientations are not mutually
exclusive, but rather mutually reinforcing.
"happens" to us all, but our potentially useful awareness
of this expectation is normally blunted by deception. To accept
forthrightly that we are all authentically flesh and blood creatures
of biology is basically more than most humans can bear. Normally,
there is even a peculiar embarrassment felt by the living in
the presence of the dead and dying.
is almost as if death and dying had somehow been reserved exclusively
is, further, as if death were an affliction that can never expectedly
darken our own personal and presumptively eternal lives. Judged
by a now near-universal obsession with social media, and with
being recognizably "connected," this view may be rooted,
at least in part, in the potent idea of personal death as the
last and most insufferable extremity of being left "alone"
in a disconcertingly pointless universe.
we, as individuals, should still cleave so desperately to various
allegedly sacred promises of redemption and immortality is not,
by itself, a global-survival or national-survival issue. It
becomes a genuinely existential problem, and one that we may
thus convincingly associate with war, terrorism, or genocide,
only when these various promises are forcibly reserved to certain
selected segments of humanity, and are then openly denied to
other less-worthy segments.
the end, as President Trump must still learn to understand,
all national and global politics are epiphenomenal, a thinly
symptomatic reflection of more deeply underlying and compellingly
troublesome private needs. Undoubtedly, the most pressing of
all these accumulated needs is the avoidance of personal death.
all global politics, it is now worth repeating, there is no
greater form of power than power over death.
the most part, it is not for us to choose when we should die.
Instead, our words, our faces, and even our irrepressible human
countenance will sometime lie immeasurably far beyond any discernible
considerations of conscious decision or individual choice. Still,
we can choose to recognize our shared common fate, and thereby
our derivative and unbreakable interdependence. This uniquely
powerful intellectual recognition could carry with it an equally
significant global promise, one that remains distressingly distant
and unacknowledged in the White House.
as we might prefer to comfort ourselves with various qualitative
presumptions of societal hierarchy and national differentiation,
we humans are really all pretty much the same. This globalizing
attribute is already manifest to all capable scientists and
physicians. Our single most important similarity, and the one
least subject to any reasonable hint of counter-argument, is
that we all die.
whatever our more-or-less divergent views on what might actually
happen to us after personal death, the basic mortality that
we share could still represent the very last best chance we
have for global coexistence and more viable world law. This
is the case, however, only if we can first accomplish the astoundingly
difficult leap from acknowledging a shared common fate, to actually
operationalizing more expressly generalized feelings of empathy
an entire planet, we can care for one another as humans, but
only after we have first accepted that the indisputable judgment
of a resolutely common fate will not be waived by any palpable
harms that are deliberately inflicted upon others, that is,
upon the ritually unworthy. While starkly inconspicuous, modern
crimes of war, terror, and genocide are often just conveniently
sanitized or intentionally disguised expressions of religious
sacrifice. In the most egregious and predictable instances,
it is also worth noting, corresponding violence would represent
a consummately irrepressible human hope of overcoming private
mortality through the organized mass killing of certain specific
not a new thought. Consider psychologist Ernest Becker's paraphrase
of Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti in Escape From Evil:
" . . . each organism raises its head over a field of corpses,
smiles into the sun, and declares life good."
and even other residents of a legally interconnected planet
have an evident right to expect that any president of the United
States should at least attempt to understand these vital and
complex linkages, especially with reference to better human
controls over war, terrorism, and genocide. Here, as in so many
other crucial sectors of jurisprudential concern, our national
policies must build upon more genuinely intellectual sorts of
understanding. Always, our just wars, counter-terrorism conflicts,
and anti-genocide programs must be fought or conducted as intricate
contests of mind over mind, and not just narrowly tactical struggles
of mind over matter.
only a dual awareness of our common human destination, which
is death, and the associated futility of sacrificial violence,
can offer an accessible "medicine" against North Korea,
ISIS, Russia, Iran, and certain other foreseeable adversaries
in the global state of nature. This "natural" or structural
condition of anarchy was already well known to the Founding
Fathers (most of whom had read Locke, Rousseau, Grotius, Vattel,
and Hobbes). Only this difficult awareness can now relieve an
otherwise incessant and still-ascending Hobbesian war of "all
deserves a reasonable pride of place. America, President Trump
should recall, was expressly founded upon the philosophy of
Hobbes, and the religion of Calvin. But this means something
quite different in 2017, than it did in 1787.
should this particular history now signify for White House foreign
policy preparation and world law? This is not an insignificant
query, but it does presuppose an American democracy founded
upon some authentic learning, and not on flippantly corrosive
clichés, or abundantly empty witticisms.
death fear has much to do with a better understanding of America's
current enemies, both national and sub-national (terrorist).
Reciprocally, only a people who can feel deeply within itself
the unalterable fate and suffering of a broader global population
will ever be able to lawfully embrace genuine compassion, and
thereby to rationally reject collective violence. To be sure,
this president should finally prepare to understand what all
this implies, both with specific reference to the United States,
and also to America's various state and sub-state adversaries.
Trump, please consider this: America First means America Alone
means America Last. Looking ahead, America must lead together
with others in fixing what really matters. America can never
be truly "first" so long as its president insists
upon achieving such misconceived status at the unavoidable expense
of several or all others. Inevitably, President Trump must recognize,
American and global survival remain not only bewilderingly complicated,
but also mutually interdependent and lawfully intertwined.
existence of system in the world is both obvious and fundamental.
To try to deny or circumvent this core reality via America First
is a law-defying position that is destined to fail.