In world politics and international law, meaningful explanation must always begin with the solitary human being, with the microcosm. This generalized individual, regardless of nationality, seeks to maximize one form of power above all others. In essence, this searched-for ultimate power is power over death.
To continue, there is considerable legal detail for scholars to ponder. Cumulative individual hopes to rise “above mortality” can have critical consequences for the macrocosm, that is, for war, peace and human rights on planet earth. In the nineteenth century, at his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel had opined in Philosophy of Right (1820) that the state represents “the march of God in the world.”
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Today, these earlier-expressed linkages between Realpolitik or belligerent nationalism and any hoped-for immortality remain relevant to international law enforcement. To genuinely understand such determinative linkages, however, we must first understand “sovereignty.” Established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty quickly came to be regarded as the supreme human political power, absolute, and above all other recognizable forms of law.
In the oft-recited and oft-studied words of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: “Where there is no common Power, there is no law.”
When it is understood in terms of modern international law, the doctrine of sovereignty encourages the refractory notion that states lie above and beyond any legal regulation in their interactions with each other, and act rationally whenever they seek tangible benefits at the expense of other states. Following the time of very conspicuous Trump derangements, this primary doctrine began to threaten a wholesale collapse of world legal order. Now, with Vladimir Putin’s Nuremberg-level crimes against Ukraine, this order faces variously unprecedented and primal perils. Even in the darkest days of the Nazi Holocaust, wrongdoers did not have access to nuclear weapons technologies.
There is more. Inter alia, considered by itself, immortality remains an unworthy and unseemly human goal, both because it is scientific nonsense (“An immortal person is a contradiction in terms” says Emmanuel Levinas) and because it fosters such endlessly injurious human behaviors as war, terrorism, and genocide. The dignified task, therefore, is not to try to remove the individual human hope to soar above death (that is, to achieve some tangible sort of immortality), but to “de-link” this futile and vainglorious search from grievously destructive human behaviors.
But how best to proceed with such a multi-faceted and bewildering task? There are available here no science-based guidelines or answers. Even if there were such an availability, this is not just another ordinary problem that can yield to rationality-based solutions.
Not at all.
Aware of this dilemma, philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952): “There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason, but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought but for the whisperings of the irrational….” Always, and understandably, the most seductive of these irrational whisperings are those that offer to confer a selective power over death. But it is in the expressed criteria of any such “selection” that ostentatiously far-reaching evils must actually be born. This is because any promised for power over death requires the “sacrifice” of certain despised “others.”
Law breakers like Vladimir Putin do not emerge on the world legal scene ex nihilo, out of nothing. Rather, incoherent, corrupt and murderous national leaders represent the inevitable result of a society that had long since devalued any serious thought. When such a society no longer asks the “big philosophical questions” – for example, “What is the “good” in government and law”? or “How do I lead a good life as person and citizen”? or “How can I best nurture the well-being of other human beings”? – the hideous outcome can become inevitable.
What should be presumed now? Necessary will be a long-deferred obligation to acknowledge the fundamental inter-relatedness of all peoples and the binding universality of international law. To survive as a planet and as constituent mortal individuals, more people will need to become seriously well-educated, not as well-trained cogs in some vast industrial machine, but as empathetic and caring citizens. “Everyone is the other, and no one is just himself,” cautions Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (1932), but this elementary lesson, once discoverable in myriad sacred texts, is now not easily operationalized. Indeed, it is in this single monumental failure of such “operationalization” that human legal order has most glaringly failed.
“Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) “or a beginning.” The meaningful answer, which lies far beyond any measuring hands of clocks, is by no means self-evident. Determining this answer is now a fundamental expectation of global political destiny.
Nothing could be more important.
Soon, as we have just seen, humankind will need to get solidly beyond the demeaning banalities of geopolitics, beyond the distracting and potentially murderous “shadows” of what is important. Immutably, but also invisibly, most human residents of planet earth will continue to regard “power over death” as the highest conceivable form of power. Still, it will likely remain unclear just how such ultimate power can be linked purposefully to overturning Realpolitik-directed foreign policies.
There is more. To look suitably beyond Platonic “shadows,” humankind must discover that there are two other principal animating forces of its legal-political realm. These forces concern Meaning and Belonging. They represent other true images of world legal order – images additional to immortality or “power over death” – that can bestow tangible feelings of personal self-worth. Such images coalesce around activities that can confer pleasing human emotions of “time well spent” and/or group membership. The overriding problem is that such activities are not always benign, and can include war, terrorism and genocide.
In his modern 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, 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 all-too-quickly suffocate intellectual growth. For Heidegger’s ubiquitous “The They,” the crowning human untruth lies in “herd” acceptance of immortality at both institutional and personal levels, and in herd encouragement of the notion that personal power over death is sometimes derivative (recall earlier Hegel and Treitschke) from membership in nation-states.
History reveals, prima facie, that this can become an insidious notion.
Any reassuring notions about a potential for personal immortality are themselves contingent upon a specific nation-state’s alleged “sacredness.” Here, only membership in a presumptively “sacred” group can serve to confer life-everlasting. In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler underscores the ultimate form of power in world politics as power over death. In his own terminology, such power – long associated with belligerent international relations – is indispensable to the conquest of “metaphysical fear.” Though not readily apparent, what we are witnessing daily in Russia’s barbarous war against Ukraine is at least partially epiphenomenal; that is, a mere reflection of more utterly primal fears, hopes and expectations.
Though unknown even to himself, Vladimir Putin may see in Russia’s willful destruction of Ukraine the “realization of his earthly immortality.” Before Ukraine can be rescued from the Russian leader’s penchant for genocide and genocide-like crimes, therefore, scholars and policy-makers will require a more deeply conceptual understanding of all lethal intersections involved. These bewildering linkages represent variously complex fusions of mass murder and belligerent nationalism.
In the end, Vladimir Putin’s egregious crimes against Ukraine (crimes of war, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity) must be understood and explained at challenging jurisprudential levels. It will not be enough just to discuss them in expressly legal terms. Before the world simply throws up is hands in despair at what is happening in the 21st century, scholars and jurists will need to look more deeply behind the news.
Louis Rene 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 Jurist