Prof. Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University
“Individual man sees in his country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Heinrich von Treitschke, Lectures on Politics
History: “An Illustrious War Against Death”
Where to begin?Why acknowledge that world politics holds a key for personal immortality? What are the revealing connections?
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To answer, history must be our starting point. In his magisterial and still-illuminating classic, Man and Crisis (1958), 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset observes thoughtfully: “History is an illustrious war against death.” Though this comment is captivating, and sets the stage for our sought-after answer, it represents only a partial piece of a much wider truth: Ultimately, power over death represents the greatest conceivable form of power here on earth; but acquiring such optimal power in world politics can often “demand” the killing of “others.”
Still, more specificity is required. To acquire a politically manageable “power over death,” individuals (microcosm) and states (macrocosm) must first make tangible preparations to bring fatality to identifiable “enemies.” At times, moreover, this belligerent thinking would involve seductive notions of “martyrdom.” Significantly, as we may learn from the evening news, these notions may call not “only” for war, but also for genocide.
In both cases, the planned mass killing of other human beings is more-or-less comparable to religious sacrifice, a primal custom oriented toward the ritualistic deflection of death to “others.”
There is more. Going forward, scholars and policy-makers must suitably re-examine vital underlying links between microcosm and macrocosm. In this regard, Elias Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, once wrote imaginatively of not being dead as the principal exemplar of all power. Confronted with what Canetti had called “terror at the fact of death,” humankind – both individually, and collectively – seeks one particular advantage above all others.
This conspicuous advantage is “to remain standing” while others must prepare to “lie down.” In the end, it is those who can remain upright, however temporarily, who are meaningfully “victorious.” It is these fortunate ones, after all, who have managed to “divert” death to less-fortunate “others.”
By definition, of course, there can be no greater or more advantageous diversion.
A key lesson obtains here for states as well as for individuals. For all “players,” microcosm and macrocosm, the situation of physical survival is the unambiguously central expression of all power. But as belligerent nationalism makes meaningful survival more and more problematic, Realpolitik or power politics effectively deprives states of their most genuine power lever. Left unmodified, the “all against all” Westphalian Process effectively creates or merely magnifies adversarial relations, and encourages state enemies to then enjoy “microcosmic” triumphs that will remain unrecognized or concealed. These triumphs are the deeply-satisfying human emotions experienced by persons when confronting powerless individuals who are preparing to “lie down.”
Achieving Victory Over Death
In world politics, the ultimate acquisition of power is never really about land or treasure or conquest or some other reassuring evidence of primacy. It is, rather, a presumed victory over death, ultimately a personal triumph, one described by Heinrich von Treitschke that is closely linked to the always-special prerogatives of sovereignty.
Relevant reasoning here is straightforward. When my state is powerful, goes the argument, so too am I. At some point, when this state seems ready to prevail indefinitely, I too am granted a personal life that is gloriously unending. Stated somewhat succinctly: An “immortal” state creates (as its citizen or subject) the “immortal” person.
These abstract ideas can be bewildering. Still, to actually feel such conceptual reasoning at a palpable level, one could intentionally recall the staggering images of mid-1930s Nazi party rallies at Nuremberg. Leni Riefenstahl’s monumental film celebration of Der Fuhrer, The Triumph of the Will, says it all best. Reminding the German people of Hegel’s famous aphorism, the legendary film underscores that a nation-state can actually become the “march of God in the world.”
Today, in 2021, neither the United States nor its enemies can seemingly understand this primal linkage. As a result, all states continue to be driven by policies that bring them neither personal satisfaction nor institutional safety. To the contrary, all they can continue to expect in a chaos-leaning Realpolitik world is a perpetual global landscape of war, terrorism and genocide. In the best of all possible worlds, however, humankind – recalling the ancient creed of Epicurus that death fear is foolish and irrational- would consider the one indispensable query:
What is death? A bogy. Turn it round and see what it is: you see it does not bite. The stuff of the body was bound to be parted from the airy element, either now or hereafter, as it existed apart from it before. Why then are you vexed if they are parted now? For if not parted now, they will be hereafter. Why so? That the revolution of the universe may be accomplished, for it has need of things present, things future, and things past and done with.”
There is more. All states fail to understand that death is generally identified by their enemies as a zero-sum event. Anything that is done to sustain one’s own national survival invariably represents, for these enemy states, an intolerable threat to their own “lives” and a diminution of their own power. Reciprocally, anything that is done to effectively eliminate hated enemies must expectedly enhance their collective life and augment their collective power. Ideally, these strategies will fare best whenever God is “on our side.”
There is still more. Because of the deeply intimate associations between collectivities/macrocosm (states) and (microcosm) individuals, the reciprocal life advantages of death and dying can be enjoyed doubly.
“Normally,” even if only at a subconscious level, the living person never really considers himself more powerful than at the very moment when he faces the dying person. Here, as we may learn again from Elias Canetti, the living human being comes as close as he or she can to encountering genuine feelings of personal immortality. In roughly similar fashion, the “living” nation-state never really regards itself as more powerful than at that moment when it confronts the apparently impending “death” of a despised enemy state. Only slightly less power-granting are those reassuring sentiments that arise from confrontation with a “dying” enemy state; that is, the same sentiments experienced by a belligerent state that seeks some tangible “victory” over another.
In both cases, personal and collective, convention, good taste and sometimes skilled statecraft require that zero-sum feelings about death and power be suppressed. Such polite feelings ought not to be flaunted; nonetheless, they do remain prospectively vital and determinative.
Power and Death
Oddly, perhaps, in all world politics, power is so closely attached to the presumed conquest of death (national and personal) that core connections have been overlooked. As a result, students and practitioners of international relations continue to focus mainly on epiphenomena, on easily recognizable ideologies, identifiable territories, tangible implements of warfare (arms control and disarmament) and so on. The problem is not that these conspicuous factors are unimportant to power, but rather that they are of a manifestly secondary or reflected importance.
There is more. During a war, any war, the individual soldier, a person who ordinarily cannot experience satisfyingly tangible power during peacetime, is offered an utterly unique opportunity to remedy such absence. Inter alia, the pervasive presence of dead bodies in war cannot be minimized. Actually and incontestably, it is a central fact of belligerency. To wit, the soldier who is surrounded by corpses and knows that he is not yet one of them is “normally” imbued with an absolute radiance of invulnerability, of immortality, of monumental and perhaps incomparable power.
Reciprocally, and in like fashion, the state that commands its soldiers to kill and not to die, “feels” similarly great power at the removal of a collective adversary. This surviving state, like the surviving individual warrior, is transformed, indisputably and correspondingly, into a potentially primal source of everlasting life. Such abstract observations are hardly fashionable among general populations; they may even appear barbarous and uncivilized. Yet, for now at least, scholars should be seeking not to prescribe more appropriate behavior for states, but rather to accurately describe such behavior. This means looking behind the daily news.
Always, truth must be exculpatory. True observations may sometimes be indecipherable or objectionable; but they are no less true.
In an apparent paradox, some of America’s non-state enemies also seek to “remain standing” vis-a-vis the United States, to seek power in the life-or-death struggle against a despised “other.” One must say “apparent paradox” here because some of America’s terrorist enemies seem not only unconcerned about being able to remain standing, but actually seek to die themselves. In these cases, it would appear, quite literally, that the perpetrators do “love death.”
What is most important to understand here is that “to die for the sake of God” in these calculations is actually to not die at all. For example, by “dying” in a divinely commanded act of killing presumed enemies the Jihadist terrorist really does seek to conquer death, which he fears with a special terror, by “living forever.” Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”
Paradoxically, the “love of death” described by Jihadist terrorists is the ironic consequent of an all-consuming wish to avoid death. Since the death that this enemy “loves” is temporary and temporal, leading “in fact” to a permanent reprieve from any real death, accepting it as a tactical expedient becomes an easy matter. If, for any reason, the normally welcome death of an individual engaged in “holy war” were not expected to ensure an authentic life ever-after, its immense attractions would immediately be reversed.
America’s non-state terrorist enemies, in the fashion of its state enemies, also seek to “remain standing,” and to believe that this critical objective can be realized only when America – the hated individual person in macrocosm – has already become the dead man lying down. Whenever the civilized and decent human being watching evening news about the latest suicide bombing asks incredulously, “Why do they inflict such horror?” there is an ascertainably correct answer: “They do this,” goes this reply, “out of an unhindered passion for the ultimate form of power; that is, to acquire power over death.”
The greater the number of enemy corpses, the more powerful terrorists will feel. Real power, understood as an irremediably zero-sum commodity, is always to gain in “aliveness” through inflicting death upon enemies.
Deflection and Genocide
An enemy, whether state or non-state, cannot possibly kill as many foes as his primal passion for survival may demand. This means, among other intersecting considerations, that he may seek to induce or direct others to satisfy this particular passion. As a practical matter, this deflecting behavior points toward an undeniable impulse for genocide, an inclination that could be actualized, in the future, by adversarial resort to higher-order forms of terrorism (chemical/biological/nuclear), and/or to crimes against humanity.
The United States still has much to learn. But before its leaders can fully understand the true nature of enemy intentions and capabilities, they must first acknowledge the most primary connections between power and survival. Once it can be understood that enemy definitions of the former are contingent upon loss of the latter, these leaders will be positioned intellectually to take appropriate remedial action.
Always, the true goal of certain adversaries is as grotesque as it is unrecognized. This goal is to be left standing while assorted others are made to disappear. These relentless enemies must survive just so that their enemies do not. They cannot, by this zero-sum reasoning, survive together. So long as the enemy is “allowed” to exist, no matter how cooperative or congenial it has been, some states will not feel safe. They will not feel powerful. They will not feel power over death.
It is always a mistake to believe that Reason governs the world. The true source of governance on this imperiled planet is power, and power is ultimately the conquest of personal death. This conquest, which displays a zero-sum quality among enemies, is not limited to conflicts in any one region. Rather, it is always a generic matter, a more or less universal effort that is made especially manifest between enemies. On this generic matter, one should consider the revealing remark of Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco in his Journal in 1966. Describing killing as a purposeful affirmation of one’s own survival, Ionesco observed:
I must kill my visible enemy, the one who is determined to take my life, to prevent him from killing me. Killing gives me a feeling of relief, because I am dimly aware that in killing him, I have killed death. My enemy’s death cannot be held against me, it is no longer a source of anguish, if I killed him with the approval of society; that is the purpose of war. Killing is a way of relieving one’s feelings, of warding off one’s own death.
There is more. While certain enemies accept the zero-sum linkages between power and survival, others do not. Although this may suggest that some states stand on an enviably higher moral plane than their enemies, it may also place the high-minded or virtuous state at a security disadvantage, one that will make it too difficult to “remain standing.” This disturbingly consequential asymmetry between state enemies may be addressed by reducing certain adversarial emphases on power-survival connections, and/or by increasing enemy emphases on power-survival connections.
Questions must be asked. Must a state ultimately become barbarous in order to endure? Must it “learn” to identify true power with survival over others, a predatory species survival that cannot abide the survival of enemies?
Prima facie, what is required is not a replication of enemy leadership crimes, but policies that finally recognize death-avoidance as the essential starting point for national security and national defense. With such recognition, visceral hostility and existential threat could be rejected in toto, and an altogether new ethos – one based on a firm commitment to “remain standing” at all costs – could be implemented.
A Retrograde Notion
Core changes are necessary. All must finally rid themselves of the retrograde notion that killing another can confer immunity from personal mortality. In his Will Therapy and Truth and Reality, psychologist Otto Rank affirms: “The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the Sacrifice, of the Other. Through the death of the Other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of being killed.” What is being described here is still the greatest form of power discoverable anywhere: power over death. Americans and other residents of a deeply interconnected planet have a right to expect that any president of the United States or major world leader would attempt to understand these complex linkages.
At a minimum, all of our national policies must build upon more genuinely intellectual and scientific 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 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 offer an accessible “medicine” against foreseeable adversaries in the global “state of nature.” Only this difficult awareness can we relieve an otherwise incessant and still-ascending Hobbesian war of “all against all.”
More than ever before, history deserves reasonable pride of place. The United States, America’s current president should recall, was founded upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. Nonetheless, this means something very different in 2021 than it did back in 1787.
What should this particular history now signify for American foreign policy preparation? This is not an insignificant query, but it does presuppose an American democracy founded upon authentic learning, not (recalling the Trump presidency) on flippantly corrosive clichés or abundantly empty witticisms. In this connection, individual human death fear has much to do with a better understanding of America’s national security prospects. Only a people who can feel deeply within itself the unalterable fate and suffering of a broader global population will ever be able to decently embrace compassion, coexistence and empathy.
In the end, a “triumph of death” in one form or another is irresistible and inevitable, and attempts to avoid death by killing certain “despised others” are both futile and inglorious. Going forward, therefore, it is high time for new and more creative thinking about global security and human immortality. Instead of simply denying death, a cowardly and potentially corrosive emotion that Sigmund Freud labeled “wish fulfillment” in The Future of an Illusion (1927), we must finally acknowledge the obvious, and view it as a too-long-overlooked blessing. Ultimately, with such an eleventh-hour acknowledgment, all people and all nations on this endangered planet could begin to think more insightfully about our immutably common destiny. In turn, this means using an always-overriding human commonality as the secure basis for expanding empathy and worldwide cooperation.
Retreat from Realpolitik
This is a visionary and fanciful prescription, one rather unlikely to be grasped in time. But there is still a plausible way to begin. This way would require the leaders of all major states to recognize that they are not in any meaningful way “world powers” (all are equally “mortal;” none have any verifiable “power over death”) and that a coordinated retreat from Realpolitik or traditional geopolitical competition would now be self-interested.
There are other considerations. The primary planetary survival task is a markedly intellectual one, but unprecedented human courage will also be needed. For the required national leadership initiatives, we could have no good reason to ever expect the arrival of a Platonic philosopher-king; still, even some ordinary political leaders could conceivably prove themselves up to the extraordinary task at hand. For this to happen, enlightened citizens of all countries must first cast aside all historically discredited ways of thinking about world politics, and (per the specific insights of twentieth-century German thinker Karl Jaspers) do whatever possible to elevate empirical science and “mind” over blind faith and stultifying “mystery.”
“In endowing us with memory,” writes philosopher George Santayana, “nature has revealed to us a truth utterly unimaginable to the unreflective creation, the truth of mortality. The more we reflect, the more we live in memory and idea, the more convinced and penetrated we shall be by the experience of death; still, without really knowing it, this very conviction and experience will have raised us, in a way, above mortality.”
The legacy of Westphalia (1648 treaty) includes sacrilization of the state. Although we may discover such murderous sacrilization in the writings of Hegel, Fichte, von Treitschke and various others, there have also always been voices of a different sort. For Nietzsche, the state is “the coldest of all cold monsters.” It is, he says in Zarathustra, “for the superfluous that the state was invented.” In a similar vein, we may consider the corroborating view of Jose Ortega y’Gasset in the Revolt of the Masses. Here, the Spanish philosopher identifies the state as “the greatest danger, always mustering its immense resources “to crush beneath it any creative minority which disturbs it….”
In all global politics, it now warrants further repeating, there can be no greater form of presumed power than power over death.
Human Commonality or Species “Oneness”
For the most part, it is not for us to choose when we should die. Instead, our words, our destinies, will lie far beyond any discernible considerations of conscious decision or individual selection. Still, we can choose to recognize our shared human fate and especially our derivative interdependence. This unbreakable intellectual recognition could carry with it significant global promise, one that remained distressingly distant and unacknowledged in the dissembling Trump White House years.
Much as we might prefer to comfort ourselves with various qualitative presumptions of societal hierarchy and national differentiation – the stock in trade of Donald J. Trump’s administration – we humans are all pretty much the same. Already, this incontestable sameness is plainly manifest to capable scientists and physicians. Our single most important human similarity, and the one least subject to any reasonable hint of counter-argument, is that we all die.
It is from the universal terror of this common fate that Westphalian law invests nation-states with the singularly “sacred” attributes of sovereignty.
And it is from the incontestable commonality of death that humankind can finally escape from the predatory embrace of power politics or Realpolitik in world politics.
Ironically, whatever our more-or-less divergent views on what might actually happen to us after death, the basic mortality that we share could still represent the last best chance we have for viable global coexistence and governance. This is the case, however, only if we can first accomplish the astoundingly difficult leap from acknowledging a shared fate as mortal beings to “operationalizing” our species’ more expressly generalized feelings of empathy and cooperation.
There is more. Across an entire planet, we can care for one another as humans, but only after we have first accepted that the judgment of aresolutely common fate will not be waived by any harms that we may choose to inflict upon “others,” that is, upon the “unworthy.” While markedly inconspicuous, modern crimes of war, terror, and genocide are often “just” sanitized expressions of religious sacrifice. In the most starkly egregious instances, any corresponding violence could represent a consummate human hope of overcoming private mortality through the targeted mass killing or exclusion of certain specific “outsiders.”
It’s a murderous calculus, and not a new thought. Consider psychologist Ernest Becker’s ironic paraphrase of Elias Canetti in Escape from Evil: “…. each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”
There is a deeply insightful observation latent in this idea. It is the uniquely dangerous notion that killing can confer immunity from one’s own mortality. Similarly, in Will Therapy and Truth and Reality, psychologist Otto Rank affirms: “The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the Sacrifice, of the Other. Through the death of the Other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of being killed.” What is being described here is plainly the greatest form of power discoverable anywhere: power over death.
Problems of Mind
Americans and various other residents of our interconnected planet have a right to expect that any president of the United States should attempt to seriously understand such vital and complex linkages. Here, America’s 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 fully intricate contests of mind over mind, and 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 offer accessible “medicine” against North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, and assorted other more-or-less foreseeable adversaries in the global “state of nature.” This “natural” condition of anarchy was already well known to the Founding Fathers of the United States (most of whom had read Locke, Rousseau, Grotius, Hobbes, Vattel and Blackstone. Now, only this difficult awareness can relieve an otherwise incessant and still-ascending Hobbesian war of “all against all.”
More than ever before, history deserves a reasonable 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 more precisely should this particular history signify for Biden White House foreign policy preparation? This is not an insignificant query, but it does presuppose an American democracy founded upon some measure of authentic learning, not on flippantly corrosive clichés or abundantly empty witticisms. For the foreseeable future, this is not a plausible presupposition.
Human death fear has much to do with acquiring 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 much broader global population will ever be able to embrace compassion and “rationally” reject collective violence. To be sure, this new American president should prepare to understand what this implies, both with pointedly specific reference to the United States and to this country’s various (and still increasing) state and sub-state adversaries.
Always, the existence of system in the world is obvious, immutable and pertinent.Accordingly, America First actually meant America Alone and America Last. America could never be truly “first” so long as its president insisted upon achieving such status at the grievous expense of so many others, and while failing to understand that international law is part of the law of the United States. To again seek to secure ourselves by diminishing others would merely be a retrograde playbook for ever-recurrent instances of war, terror and genocide.
In the end, of course, for all humankind, the “triumph of death” is irresistible and inevitable. Attempts to somehow avoid death by killing certain despised “others” are both futile and inglorious. Going forward, it is high time for new and more creative thinking about global security and human immortality. Instead of denying death, a cowardly and potentially corrosive emotion that Sigmund Freud labeled “wish fulfillment” (see The Future of an Illusion, 1927), we must finally acknowledge the obvious, perhaps even viewing it as a long-overlooked blessing. With such an eleventh-hour acknowledgment, all people and all nations on this imperiled planet could begin to draw purposefully from our immutably common destiny – that is, from our conspicuously shared mortality. Among other things, this means using that always-overriding commonality as the intellectual basis for expanding empathy and a closely-corresponding pattern of worldwide integration.
It is, to be sure, a visionary and fanciful prescription, one unlikely to be grasped in time. But there is still a practical way to begin. It would require the leaders of major states to recognize that they are not in any genuinely meaningful way “world powers” (in the sense that all are equally “mortal;” that none has “power over death”) and that a coordinated retreat from Realpolitik or traditional geopolitical competition must be utterly self-interested and indispensable.
Courage and Mortality
It follows from all this that the primary planetary survival task is a markedly intellectual one, a matter of “mind,” but unprecedented courage will also be needed. For the required national leadership initiatives, we could have no reason to expect the timely arrival of a Platonic philosopher-king, but even some ordinary political leaders could conceivably be up to the task, to become extraordinary. For this to happen, enlightened citizens of all countries would first have to cast aside all historically discredited ways of thinking about global survival, and do whatever deemed possible to elevate science over blind faith and “mystery.”
“In endowing us with memory,” writes George Santayana, “nature has revealed to us a truth utterly unimaginable to the unreflective creation….the truth of mortality….The more we reflect, the more we live in memory and idea, the more convinced and penetrated we shall be by the experience of death; yet, without knowing it, perhaps, this very conviction and experience will have raised us, in a way, above mortality.”
Though few will actually understand, such a “raising” is necessarily antecedent to human survival in world politics, though only if it is linked purposefully and self-consciously to global integration. Is it an end that draws near,” inquired Karl Jaspers, “or a beginning?” The correct answer will depend, in large part, on what another major post-war philosopher had to say about the Jungian/Freudian “mass.”
In his 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 as well as 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 quickly suffocate indispensable intellectual growth. For Heidegger’s “The They,” the crowning untruth lies in (1) its acceptance of immortality at both institutional and personal levels, and (2) its encouragement of the seductive notion that personal power over death is associated with (or actually derivative from) the “sacredness” of nation-states.
Some Final Clarifications
The arena of world politics (macrocosm) is endlessly violent because individual human beings (microcosm) compulsively fear death. Though patently ironic, the murderous connections are utterly longstanding and difficult to dispute. Already, in the 19th century, Heinrich von Treitschke convincingly linked world politics and “earthly immortality.” Even before this author of Lectures on Politics, George F. Hegel had identified the state in The Philosophy of Right as the “march God in the world.”
Ultimately, states battle against other states on behalf of individual human salvation. While the typical result of such battles has always been death and mega death, and not long or eternal life, an overriding mythology still endures. This is the strange belief that it is in war, not in perpetual peace, that humans are able to acquire power over death. Sometimes, this acquisition is intended to be direct – that is, an immediate consequence of killing on the side of God. More generally, however, such power over death devolves indirectly to general populations that are not actually involved in the business of killing. After all, even such de facto “bystanders” can still have God on their side.
None of this is to deny the validity of more traditional and conspicuous explanations of Realpolitik or power politics, namely that these strugglers are about tangible goods, geography or “national security.” To be sure, these conspicuous explanations are not mistaken; they are however, both trivial and epiphenomenal. Such explanations are generally correct, but merely as secondary reflections of what is most genuinely important.
In William Goldings’ novel Lord of the Flies, the marooned boys make grotesque war upon one another because they have suddenly been thrust into a netherworld of anarchy and chaos, but only because this dissembling exile from “civilization” now threatens them with personal death. It is only after they have settled upon an amorphous but ubiquitous horror (“the beast”) that they decide to wage a titanic struggle to survive. And in what amounts to yet another irony of upholding policies of inflicting death in order to bring freedom from death, the boys are rescued by a military ship, a naval vessel that will transport them from their primal state of nature on the island to the more comprehensive state of nature in world politics.
In essence, readers learn, the rancorous and barbarous conditions that had obtained on the deserted island were actually just a microcosm of the wider system of international relations. But who can now rescue this wider system of Realpolitik from itself? Before we can meaningfully answer this core question, scholars and policy-makers will need to probe more closely behind the visible events the day, beyond mere reflection. Above all, this probe will have to be suitably theoretical.
Theoretic generality is a trait of all serious scientific meaning, and scientific inquiry in such matters is indispensable.
In the beginning, in that primal promiscuity in which the lethal swerve toward politics first arose, forerunners of modern nation-states established a system of perpetual struggle and violent conflict, a system absolutely destined to fail. Captivated by this self-destroying system of international relations, states still allow the degrading spirit of Realpolitik to spread everywhere unchecked, like an ideological gangrene on the surface of the earth. Rejecting all pertinent standards of logic and correct reasoning, this inherently false consciousness of power politics imposes no reasonable standards upon itself. It continues to be rife, despite its endless rebuffs. Somehow, Realpolitik takes its long history of defeat as victory. Prima facie, it’s a-historical proponents have never learned anything.
The vast majority of human beings are unable to accept the biological truth of mortality. Understood in terms of world politics, this suggests, inter alia, that state sovereignty will likely continue to be viewed by many as a suitable institutional antidote to personal death. To be sure, such a view may not be explicitly apparent even to Realpolitik adherents, and it would very likely disregard certain palpable benefits other than a presumed power over death (e.g., enhanced personal status of belonging to a “powerful” country). Nonetheless, it is a perspective that will not simply fade away graciously on its own.
It is high time for candor. Whatever our in-principle preferences, the plain fact of having been born augurs badly for the promise of immortality. Accordingly, the primal human inclination to deny an apparently unbearable truth will continue to generate the same terrors from which we allegedly seek refuge. The irony is staggering, but incontestable.
In its obvious desperation to live perpetually, humankind has embraces a cornucopia of faiths that offer life everlasting is exchange for unchallengeable loyalty. Such loyalty is then transferred from faith to State, which battles (or prepares to battle) with other states. Though historians, political scientists and pundits routinely describe such conflicts as a tangible struggle for secular influence (power politics), it is often something different altogether. This is a struggle between Good and Bad, Right and Wrong, Decency and Indecency, even the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness.” In this last example, apocalyptic imagery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is invoked not because any or all of a combatant state’s rationale is necessarily religious, but because such imagery best portrays the enormity of ideological attachments.
In the United States, ideas of prevailing apocalyptic contest obtained widely during the 1950s Eisenhower years, and also later during the Reagan Administration. More recently, Donald Trump’s core message of “American First” was assuredly not without underlying or implicit references to righteous struggles in world politics with
“God on our Side.” Unambiguously, for several million Trump supporters, their leader’s slogan of “America First” was essentially an eschatological code term used to signal impending End Times.
“Death,” says Norbert Elias, “is the absolute end of the person. So the greater resistance to its demythologization perhaps corresponds to the greater magnitude of danger experienced.” Now, major state sin world politics must strive more vigorously to reduce the magnitude and likelihood of anticipated existential danger. In this connection, they must remain wary of planting new false hopes that offer only illusions of personal survival through perpetual international war or war-planning.
Today, the world remains full of corrosive noise and gratuitous rancor, but it is still possible to listen for real “music.” For this to happen, however, leaders, citizens and subjects will first have to detach themselves from various mythical promises of acquiring power over death. In the most promising of all possible worlds, the pervasively underlying human death fear could itself be made to disappear, but this auspicious prospect seems blatantly implausible. It follows, inevitably, that more “gentle” orientations will be required for world politics than those still discoverable within the perpetually self-destroying dynamics of Realpolitik.
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.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear
This article was first published in horasis