Published On: Sun, Feb 24th, 2019

American national security and the rediscovery of ‘mind’

Louis René Beres

President Donald Trump likes to brag about America’s “much bigger and more powerful” weapons, but the core bulwark of American national security is not to be found in more lethal forms of destruction; rather, it must be located within generally expanding capacities for national strategic thinking, or “mind.”

This isn’t specific to the nuclear age; it was true in the ancient world. As we know from distinguished historians, especially Frank E. Adcock’s The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (1962), early strategists described their own wars as challenging intellectual contests of “mind over mind.” It was true of many of our greatest Civil War generals.

What is the “lesson” for us, in the present moment? President Trump and his advisors should stop asking themselves how we can most expeditiously kill more of the enemy and begin instead to ask how our expanding weapon systems can best enhance our already articulated and sensible national security goals.

Before any tangible American victories can be achieved, the U.S. will need to pay less attention to incessantly modernizing technologies and more attention to shaping imaginative security ideas.

We need to ask: “What determinants and correlates of war are recurrent, enduring, and most plainly consequential?” America cannot hope to “win” wars just by developing bigger and bigger bombs, hypersonic missiles, and the Trump-touted elements of space warfare.

At its most basic level, what we still experience in assorted theatres of military engagement is the malignant tribalism of belligerent nationalism. Faced with the unreason of corrosively competitive “tribes” — both states and sub-states — our nation stands little chance of achieving any sustained level of security. For a more promising prognosis, our president must first acknowledge the futility of undiminished geopolitical struggle.

We can never hope to dampen particular regional or global conflicts before we have understood the underlying goals and orientations of our adversaries.

Furthermore, American national security is never just a tactical or operational problem reserved exclusively for the generals. It is always a broadly conceptual quandary requiring the attention of the country’s most capable scientists, historians and thinkers.

President Trump and his counselors need to look much more seriously behind the news. The grinding chaos of our various and sometimes overlapping war zones should be identified as a visible symptom of “pathology” rather than as a disease unto itself.

In the end, global violence and disorder are largely epiphenomenal. The observable symptoms have their roots in the generally indecipherable disorders of private individuals. Such a primal malady of pain and anarchy reflects the incapacity of our enemies to discover human meaning and purpose within themselves — outside the deceptive comforts seductively proffered by some sort of presumed “tribal” victory.

No time-dishonored system of belligerent nationalism or balance-of-power can substitute for more determined U.S. presidential commitments to “mind.” Planetary rescue and U.S. security must be sought elsewhere. Above all, President Trump should acknoweldge that there’s a latent “inner meaning” to global order and U.S. national security. Uncovering it requires a willingness to examine the preference hierarchies of America’s principal enemies.

It does not require a nationally self-defeating posture of “America First.”

Seventeenth century Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius (a philosophic bedrock of the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence) argued that so-called “Just wars” must have a principled and permissible place in the world. Simultaneously, however, they must be fought only to protect the innocent, and never to slaughter anonymous “others” in the interest of some purported military advantage.

From the beginning, large-scale violence in world politics has been driven by well-orchestrated tribal conflicts, both between and within nations. Always, in one form or another, the destabilizing “danse macabre” extends a reassuringly “sacred” promise to reward the “faithful” with freedom from earth-bound mortality.

Could there possibly be any more persuasive sort of promise?

The lethal and irresistible exchange of violence for sacredness is not unique to our present historical American moment. It was already evident in the documented wars of ancient Greece and Rome, during the Crusades, and in the genocidal Third Reich. Now it can be detected not only among America’s various Islamist enemies, but even in religion-free North Korea, where many thousands of troops enthusiastically pledge their own lives to protect Kim Jung Un.

For now — up close and personal with statistics, charts, and numerical calculations — President Trump and his advisors misunderstand the animating sentiments of enemy war-planning. America’s most relentless foes can never be fully convinced or deterred by any threats of annihilation by doomsday weapons. Only when the American president can appreciate that each troublesome source of regional or global instability must be countered intellectually, that is, by apt considerations of “mind,” will the United States be ready to advance and sustain a sensible national security policy.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

This article was first published in The Hill

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