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The Limits of Global Power Politics

Opinion: Israeli strategists must begin to look toward identifying substantially more durable global power arrangements than Realpolitik

By Louis René Beres

“The visionary is the only realist.” (Federico Fellini)

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For many years, I have been lecturing and publishing widely about Israel’s nuclear strategy. By definition, of course, much of this work has been irremediably speculative; hence, it’s derivative policy prescriptions have had to flow not from any pertinent compilations of facts, but rather from any still-calculable inferences or extrapolations. For the most part, of course, there is nothing here for which any serious scholar should apologize, but one corollary point remains to be made: Although analytic emphases on Israel’s nuclear strategy are correctly drawn from Realpolitik or power politics assumptions, such presumptively pragmatic bases can’t plausibly succeed in the longer term.

It follows that Israeli strategists, in the very same fashion as would concern their American or other national counterparts, must begin to look toward identifying substantially more durable global power arrangements than Realpolitik. This means, above all, that what might seem promisingly “realistic” to strategists in the shorter-term global “state of nature” is still apt to prove futile for any longer-term survival prospects. Israel, again, in the fashion of every other state, is necessarily part of a much larger world system; moreover, this vastly more comprehensive system has distinctly diminishing chances for success within the seemingly permanent anarchy of world politics.

To be sure, Realpolitik or balance of power world politics have never succeeded for more than very brief intervals. In the future, multiple systemic failures could involve assorted weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Here, a failure of Realpolitik would be not “only” catastrophic, but potentially sui generis in the cumulative scope of its unprecedented declension.

In candor, a determinedly zero-sum orientation of world politics has become so darkly unpromising and so corrosively competitive that it increasingly resembles genuine chaos. Accordingly, in the shadowy years ahead, one thing is reasonably certain. It is that the longstanding Hobbesian universe of a bellum omnium contra omnes – a war of all against all – cannot be sustained. All states that rely upon some form of nuclear deterrence, including Israel, must therefore prepare to begin to think more self-consciously about creating alternative systems of world politics, ones that are authentically more cooperative. While any hint of such an interest in global integration, or what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls “planetization,” will sound unacceptably utopian or fanciful to “realists,” it is actually more realistic to understand the following: Our still-prevailing “every man for himself” ethos in world politics is time-dishonored and utterly destined to fail.

Indeed, again and again, at some point, perhaps, irretrievably – world systemic failures could become irreversible. In the final analysis, it will not help to merely tinker tentatively at the ragged edges of our current world order, naively forging ad hoc additional agreements between assorted recalcitrant states, or between these states and various surrogate sub-state organizations who have no tangible incentives to abide by any such formal commitments. “What is the good,” inquires playwright Samuel Beckett in Endgame, “of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane.”

No, in the longer term, the only sort of realism that can make any sense, the only sort of Beckettian “good,” is a posture that points unhesitatingly toward a meaningfully “higher” awareness of both global oneness and world system interdependence.

In its fully optimized expression, such an awareness would likely resemble what the ancients had correctly called “Cosmopolis,” or world city. For the moment, the prophets of a more integrated world civilization remain few and far between, but this is not because of any intrinsic lack of need. Rather, it reflects a progressively imperiled species’ stubborn 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 fundamentally redirected commitment (individual and national) to all humankind.

At its heart, this is not really a very complicated idea. To wit, it is hardly a medical or biological secret that those core factors and behaviors common to all human beings greatly outnumber those that artificially differentiate one from another. Unless leaders of all major states on Planet Earth can finally understand that the survival of any one state will inevitably be contingent upon the survival of all, true national security will continue to elude absolutely every nation, including even the allegedly “most powerful.”

The bottom line? For Israel, the immediate security task must remain a proper conceptualization and refinement of national nuclear strategy (preferably, within the informed guidelines coherently identified in Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy). Simultaneously, however, leaders of the Jewish State must somehow learn to understand – and together with other far-sighted national leaders – that our planet always represents an organic whole, a fragile but intersecting “unity” that already exhibits rapidly disappearing opportunities for essential war avoidance.

To seize these residual opportunities, Jerusalem, Washington and all others must learn to build solidly upon the critical foundational insights of Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, and upon the much more recent summarizing observation of Lewis Mumford: “Civilization is the never-ending process of creating one world and one humanity.”

Obviously, Israel has no special country obligations in this regard, nor can it reasonably afford to build its own most immediate security policies upon such plainly distant hopes. Nonetheless, expressed as an ultimate vision for a more durable and correspondingly just world politics, Jerusalem ought soon recognize an indissoluble link between its own physical survival, and that of the much wider international system. Over the longer term, at least, merely to keep itself “alive,” Israel will also have to do whatever it can to help preserve the global system as a whole. For the moment, at least, there is no need for analytic or intellectual particulars – of which there are bound to be a great many – only for a more conspicuous and serious awareness of such a thoroughly basic obligation.

In the end, for Israel and all other states in world politics, policies of realism will still be indispensable.

But in the end, augments filmmaker Federico Fellini, “The visionary is the only realist.”


Louis René Beres is professor emeritus of political science at  Purdue University. Beres is the author of twelve books including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield. He is lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law.

This article was first published in Israel Defense



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