Abstract: Regarding American foreign policy, US President Joseph Biden has now correctly embarked upon a plan to reverse derelictions of his White House predecessor. As many Trump-inflicted harms were grievous and potentially catastrophic, this plan is commendable. At the same time, even in the most optimistic historical narratives, American foreign policy has always been shaped by assumptions of Realpolitik or power politics, assumptions that have “normally” led to national and international failure. Though Mr. Biden’s initial plan to bring United States foreign policy back to conditions of pre-Trump normalcy is indeed necessary and well-founded, it is also insufficient. Looking ahead, it is only by finally “rising above Realpolitik” that America can claim foreign policy progress. It follows, inter alia, that once Mr. Biden has more-or-less managed to place this country “back on course,” the course itself should be reconsidered and redefined. Without this visionary “second step,” both the United States and the wider world would remain vulnerable to ever-expanding indignities, “insults” (here in the medical sense) and existential harms.
“What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane.”
-Samuel Beckett, Endgame
To Soar Above Power Politics: A National and Global Imperative
In the beginning, in that primal promiscuity during which the swerve toward power politics first gathered strength, nation-states destined themselves to interminable failure. Today, the United States, still captivated by this original swerve, is imperiled less by any specific enemy aggressions or weapons than by continuously misguided premises of world politics. For President Joseph Biden and his pertinent counselors, the ultimate challenge of foreign policy is not just a return to geopolitical “normalcy” after the corrosive Trump era. It is the creation of a promisingly viable peace and justice system for planet earth as a whole.
Trump’s “America First” expressed the reductio ad absurdum of Realpolitik thinking, but any mere return to the traditional dynamics of power politics would be retrograde and shortsighted. In the end, to ensure a more satisfactorily law-based foreign policy for the United States, Mr. Biden will first have to align this policy with the needs of the planet in toto. To accomplish such an unprecedented task, antecedent analytic acknowledgement will be required. This is an awareness that the bedrock foundations for American foreign policy success must always be intellectual.
Immediately, inter alia, this acknowledgement should go tangibly beyond the endless banality of Trump-era political slogans and destructive anti-thought. But it must also go significantly beyond simple fence-mending with America’s variously aggrieved alliance partners. To have any plausible chance of success, the acknowledgment will need to be accompanied by serious erudition and by appropriate will. Among other things, this could not be a task for obeisant political functionaries or easily rented think tank “experts.”
Left un-revised at its core, the foreign policy prognosis for the United States must be plain and unpromising. But how best to proceed? Turning self-consciously away from our perpetually failed system of national and world politics, where should capable US policymakers now place their jurisprudential and conceptual “bets?”
This is not “merely” an important question; it is the single most important question confronting a new American administration. Even critically urgent problems of global warming and climate change are subsidiary issues; that is, ones with prospective solutions that must derive from certain prior national emancipations from power politics. In short, unless the United States can help prod the planet to rise above a recalcitrant worldwide ethos of belligerent nationalism, the “normal” dynamics of world politics will lead to directly to global self-annihilation.
This once-unimaginable prospect is expressed here not merely as a figure of speech, but literally, palpably and with resolute intellectual authority.
The Intellectual Starting Point
Where to begin? Even after continuing moral, legal and intellectual failure, latent US foreign policy hopes for transformation should be grasped and affirmed. Among other things, scholars and practitioners will finally need to take as axiomatic that American and global survival interests are inextricably bound up with each other. What we require is (1) an incremental but prompt escape from the contentious spirit of competitive tribes (a lethal spirit that is irreconcilable with human survival); and (2) a tangibly sincere conceptual acceptance of “human oneness.” For the moment, of course, the calculable odds of actually meeting any such requirement will seem discouragingly low. Still, the evident risks are well worth taking.
And that is evident understatement.
It’s not really complicated. What cannot benefit the world system as a whole can never benefit the individual nation-state. We may recall, in this connection, the splendidly elucidating parable of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: “What does not benefit the entire hive is no benefit to the single bee.”
Conceptually, at least, we are still at the beginning. Until now, we humans, not just Americans, have consistently managed to miss what is most urgently important on the world order stage. The missed opportunity is to finally acknowledge that there exists a latent and determinative “oneness” to all world politics. Prima facie, to continue to ignore this primal understanding is to doom ourselves to oblivion, to tinker foolishly at the margins of what is required.
A further query surfaces. Where should we look? For a start, this critical aspect of human identity can be encountered in certain vital but generally-ignored world literatures, especially such literary-philosophic thinkers as Sören Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, Miguel de Unamuno and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. This aspect’s persistent rejection in “real life,” even by the world’s great universities, reflects more than lamentable unworthiness. It reflects an elemental threat to every nation-state on the planet.
For survival, far greater respect for erudition is needed.
But respect will not be enough. The central analytic problem here is not the absence of presidential will and capacity per se, but rather the uncertainty felt by every state concerning reciprocal intentions of other pertinent states or sub-state decision-makers. To be more meaningfully effective, presidential efforts must be oriented toward expanding control over too many separate and independent national wills. Gaining such imperative control is a specific example of a more general human problem– the decisional difficulty that arises when benefits of common or collective action are contingent on a reliable expectation that certain other “players” will cooperate. The core dynamics of the problem were already described by the philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli in The Discourses:
The world is a stupendous machine, composed of innumerable parts, each of which being a free agent has a volition and action of its own; and on this ground arises the difficulty of assuring success in any enterprise depending on the volition of numerous agents. We may set the machine in motion, and dispose every wheel to one certain end; but when it depends on the volition of any one wheel, and the corresponding action of every wheel, the result is uncertain.
There are further specific hurdles, but the conceptual overview remains clear and lucid. Left un-revised, the stubborn human commitment to belligerent nationalism (a commitment that can strengthen private feelings of belonging and personal worth) signifies a grim future of pandemic (“plague”), war, climate catastrophe, terrorism and genocide. In the end, no state’s foreign policy that may be at cross-purposes with systemic well-being can ever be “realistic.” Inevitably, the rancorous logic of possessive individualism that drives Realpolitik-based world politics will ceaselessly undermine existential securities of national and international life.
At some point, the cumulative harms must prove intolerable and irremediable.
More on Conceptual Underpinnings
To further illustrate meaningful arguments against Realpolitik, or world system belligerence, we may now consider another metaphor. The nations in world politics coexist in the fashion of herdsmen who must share a common pasture and who feel it advantageous to continuously increase the size of their respective herds. Although these herdsmen have calculated that it is in their own best private interests to augment these herds, they have calculated incorrectly. This is because they failed to consider the cumulative impact of their multiple separate actions. This impact includes an overgrazed commons and consequent economic ruin.
Antecedent questions also arise. Why have we humans (and we Americans in particular) made ourselves existentially vulnerable? The only lucid answer here must embrace a pervasive willingness to seek personal identities as recognizable members of some particular group. From a purely intellectual standpoint, such an explanation ought not seem bewildering. To wit, we humans generally fear solitude or “aloneness” more than anything else on earth, sometimes even more than death.
Amid the “balance-of-power” chaos that is now stampeding across several continents, individuals willingly abide unswervingly primal loyalty to claims of the “tribe.” Always, everywhere, people desperate “to belong” subordinate themselves to the most substantially far-reaching expectations of nation, class or faith. But it is a Faustian bargain.
More often than we might first care to admit, such subordination carries within itself a more-or-less overriding acceptance of “martyrdom.” Recalling the marooned English schoolboys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, we can be usefully reminded that the veneer of human civilization is razor thin. Leaving vastly impressive scientific and medical discoveries aside, whole swaths of humankind still remain dedicated to atavistic practices of sacrifice and war.
What may first appear as “mere fiction” in Lord of the Flies is nonetheless darkly foreboding and enduringly real.
To change direction in time, a generic human obligation that is indispensable, we must begin at the beginning, with the microcosm, with the individual human being. In this connection, death remains the incontestable prototype of all injustice. More than anything else, the palpably primal fear of “not being” becomes determinative. When considered together with the understanding that human death fear can create relentless inclinations to collective violence, this difficult insight may nonetheless contain a US foreign policy opportunity.
Pertinent evidence abounds. Above all, we humans still generally fail to understand something absolutely primary: The always universal apprehension of death, when taken as common anguish, could sometimes prove helpful. More precisely, it could assist in the prevention of war, terror and genocide. If creatively “exploited,” this thoroughly ubiquitous apprehension could invite a steadily expanding ambit of international empathy and worldwide compassion.
By definition, inter alia, any such welcome expansion would represent the literal opposite of former US President Donald Trump’s “America First.”
“America First” represented both a defiled and defiling US foreign policy, one based not upon any measured analytic foundations, but on crudely caustic celebrations of personal self-centeredness. Of necessity, remembering Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin’s uncommon wisdom in The Phenomenon of Man (1955), this “egocentric ideal” is “false and against nature.”
Had it been left in place, “America First” could have rendered the United States increasingly vulnerable to multiple existential harms, including a genuine nuclear war.
National policy posture may reflect provenance. The United States can never be improved or rescued by narrowly contrived political solutions foreign policy was not, as Mr. Trump had steadfastly maintained, “about attitude, not preparation.” On the contrary, it must always be the well-reasoned product of historical and scientific understanding. American national security is never correctly about “branding,” about fashioning the “best deal” or about insisting that others “pay their fair share.” On these concerns, President Biden, in further distancing himself from his dissembling predecessor, has already reaffirmed that US national security is never just about raw commerce or the financial marketplace.
Knowing the Conceptual Details
To succeed in enduringly meaningful ways, US foreign policy must reflect on an expanding commitment to global cooperation, one based not merely on traditionally rational thought, but upon human species singularity. Only then, together with all others, could America become recognizably “first.” Already, back in 1758, Emmerich de Vattel noted, in 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 other Nations.” Later, the justly celebrated eighteenth-century jurist continued: “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.”
Above all, as we may learn from the eighteenth-century Swiss legal scholar, narrowly nationalistic or nativist foreign policies represent the opposite of what is most genuinely required.
But what exactly is required? In global politics, appropriately durable remediations will demand a more penetrating depth of analytic thought. At the outset of his sorely needed conceptual turnaround, President Biden will have to accept a more fully imaginative and global set of security policy understandings. Among other things, this set would express a subtle but unavoidable awareness that the outer worlds of politics and statecraft are actually a mirrored reflection of our innermost private selves.
In more aptly scientific or philosophical terms, these “outer worlds” are best described as epiphenomenal.
It is only within the deeply opaque mysteries of individual human mortality – mysteries focused on the effectively timeless and universal preoccupation with earthly power over death – that we must seek the core truths of human interdependence and American national security. It follows that whenever we look toward more the secure management of war, terrorism and genocide, any stubbornly continuous posture resembling “America First” would sorely undermine our most indispensable national objectives.
There is more. Continuing to transcend the stark errors and violations of his predecessor, President Joe Biden ought not continue with the egoistic narratives of American “exceptionalism.” Variously relevant questions and issues go back a long way. In this regard, Ancient Greek tragedies had wisely recorded a suitably primal query: “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatred, the destruction?”
For the United States, this remains a proper question.
Where, then, shall we go from here? Exeunt omnes? The prior American president had demonstrably few serious ideas, and, correspondingly, embraced a never-ending panoply of backward and law-violating postulates. Among the latter were manifestly unhelpful distortions of global trade policies, and a blatantly counter-productive interference with law-based immigrations.
But, back to the microcosm and current President Joe Biden. Leaving aside certain incontestable intellectual advantages, we humans are assuredly not the same as every other species. There is rampant killing among the “lower” animals, of course, but it is only residually willful or gratuitous. Mostly, it is authentically survival driven. Such killing, in short, may simply be “natural.” Biologically, at least, it can “make sense.”
What sort of human species, we will now need to inquire, can tolerate or venerate purely maladaptive sources of personal gratification? To what extent, if any, is this venal species quality related to steadily-diminishing prospects for building modern civilization upon dignified premises of human oneness? To what extent, if any, does human murderousness derive from an utterly primary and more-or-less ubiquitous human death fear? This last question is vastly more important than it is obvious. This holds even for the rational formulation of American foreign policy and for implementing corollary obligations of global consciousness and world order.
“Our unconscious,” observes Freud, “does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal.” What we ordinarily describe as heroism, therefore, may in some cases be nothing more than denial. Still, however widely disregarded, an expanding acceptance of personal mortality may represent the last best chance we still have to endure as a once-enviable American nation.
Already back during the Trojan War, as we may learn from Homer, Achilles led his Greek warriors to battle against Troy with the compelling rallying cry: “Onward, for immortality.”
History as a Murderous Quest for Immortality
Can President Biden and his advisors learn something further that might benefit both nation and the wider global community, something that could move us gainfully beyond Trump-like Schadenfreude (taking pleasure from the sufferings of others) and toward certain viable forms of wider human cooperation? The latter represents the only plausible path to the former. These core orientations are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are mutually reinforcing.
Death “happens” to us all, but our potentially useful awareness of this expectation is blunted by multiple and overlapping deceptions. Basically, to accept forthrightly that we are all authentically flesh and blood creatures of biology is more than most beleaguered human beings can bear. “Normally,” there is even a peculiar embarrassment felt by living persons in the presence of the dead and dying. Then it is as if death and dying had been reserved only for “others.”
That 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 an 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 national segments of humanity, and are then denied to others “less-worthy.” States are “the coldest of all cold monsters,” says Nietzsche in Zarathustra, but – from fellow German philosopher Hegel, “The State is the march of God through the world.”
In the end, all national and global politics are mere reflection, epiphenomenal, a thinly symptomatic expression of more deeply underlying private needs. The most glaringly pressing of these accumulated needs is “normally” the avoidance of personal death. In global power politics, there is no presumptively greater form of power than power over death.
For 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 beyond any discernible considerations of conscious decision or individual choice. Still, we can choose to recognize our shared common human fate and, concurrently, our derivative and unbreakable interdependence. This uniquely powerful intellectual recognition could carry along with it an equally significant global promise, one that remains distressingly distant and wholly unacknowledged in the “everyone for himself” world of Realpolitik.
Much as we might prefer to comfort ourselves with variously qualitative presumptions of societal hierarchy and national differentiation, we humans are really pretty much the same. This incontestable sameness is manifest to all capable scientists and physicians, and was resoundingly reaffirmed by the recent creation of effective Covid19 vaccines. Still, our single most important similarity, and the one least subject to any reasonable hint of compelling counter-argument, is that we all die.
Ironically, whatever our diverging views on what might actually happen to us after death, the basic mortality that we share still represents the last best chance we have for enhanced global coexistence and viable world community. This is the case, however, only if we can first accomplish the astoundingly difficult leap from acknowledging a shared common fate to “operationalizing” our expressly generalized feelings of empathy and caring. Any such “leap” is first and foremost an intellectual task.
Across an entire planet, we can care for one another as humans, but only after we have first accepted that the irrefutable judgment of a common fate will not be waived by harms that are inflicted upon “others,” that is, upon the presumptively “unworthy.” While inconspicuous, modern crimes of war, terror and genocide are often “just” conveniently sanitized or disguised expressions of human sacrifice. In the most egregious instances, corresponding violence could represent a consummate human hope of overcoming private mortality through the targeted mass killing and/or exclusion of specific “outsiders.”
It’s not a new thought. Consider psychologist Ernest Becker’s oft-quoted paraphrase of Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti in Escape from Evil (1975): “…each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”
A Moral, Legal and Intellectual Prerequisite
Americans and all other residents of our interconnected planet have a right to expect that any president of the United States would attempt to understand these vital linkages. Here, always, our national foreign policies must build upon more genuinely intellectual sorts of understanding. Without exception, our “just wars,” counter-terrorism conflicts and anti-genocide programs must be fought or conducted as intricate contests of mind over mind, not just as 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 ever offer accessible “medicines” against North Korea, Russia, China, Iran and/or other more-or-less foreseeable adversaries (state and terror group) who compete in the global “state of nature.” This “natural” or structural condition of anarchy was already well known to the American Founding Fathers, most of whom had read Locke, Rousseau, Grotius and Hobbes as well as Vattel. Only this difficult awareness can ultimately relieve an otherwise incessant and still-ascending Hobbesian “everyone for himself” war of “all against all.”
More than ever before, history, which Ortega y’Gasset calls “an illustrious war against death,” deserves an evident pride of place. America was expressly founded upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. But this means something quite different in 2021 than it did back in 1787.
What should this particular history now signify for White House foreign policy preparation? This is not an insignificant query, but it does presuppose an American democracy founded upon authentic reasoning.
Though still difficult to fathom, human death fear has much to do with a better understanding of America’s current and foreseeable enemies, both national and sub-national. Reciprocally, only a people who can feel deeply within itself the plausible fate of a much broader global population will ever be able to embrace compassion and to “rationally” reject collective violence. Now, President Biden should prepare to understand all that this implies, with pointedly specific reference to the United States and also to America’s various (and steadily increasing) state and sub-state adversaries.
Always, the existence of system in the world remains obvious and immutable. “America First” or any other resurrections of a “normal” Realpolitik, would signal irremediable failure. America can never be truly “first” so long as it insists upon achieving any such status at the zero-sum expense of other states. To merely sustain this country’s basic security in world politics, the current American president will have to move away from eternally futile forms of competition in military arms, and toward variously indispensable forms of competition on intellectual power.
We have already been reminded of this obligation by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s observation in Endgame: “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”
In the absence of meeting such an imperative US foreign policy challenge, future civilizations, such as might still arise, will examine the skeletal remains of our last Realpolitik epoch with a well-deserved sneer. Thrashing about in the paleontology of international relations, they will conclude that this once-avoidable epoch was already fetid upon its advent, that its accumulated national hopes were irrationally contrived from the start and that back “in the beginning,” in the seventeenth century following Westphalia (1648), its doctrinal foundations had been constructed only upon “sand.”
There is more. All such post-catastrophe “autopsy” is still avoidable, but only if American President Joseph Biden can soon begin to set his core foreign policy objectives more ambitiously than a conspicuous return to status quo ante Trump. Residually, for those who would argue that belligerent global power politics are simply irreversible and immutable, the summarizing words of Karl Jaspers could prove reinforcing.
“Everyone knows,” reminds the twentieth-century philosopher, “that the world-situation in which we live is not a final one.”