Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Credo quia absurdum, “I believe because it is absurd”-Tertullian
There are many reasons to fear Donald J. Trump’s return to the White House, but one remains especially worrisome. It stems from the former president’s conspicuous ignorance of international law and US foreign policy. Among assorted particulars of this debility, a previously failed Trump posture – “America First” – would likely prove more injurious the second time around.
Will you offer us a hand? Every gift, regardless of size, fuels our future.
Your critical contribution enables us to maintain our independence from shareholders or wealthy owners, allowing us to keep up reporting without bias. It means we can continue to make Jewish Business News available to everyone.
You can support us for as little as $1 via PayPal at email@example.com.
Prima facie, its restoration, thoughtless in the most literal sense, would dignify a numbingly vacant US president’s indifference to science, logic, history and law.
Could it get any worse?
Could anything be more absurd?
Here is a basic answer: Following escalating aggressions by Russia in Ukraine and potentially destabilizing aggression by China and North Korea in Asia, America needs a leader who can read and think meaningfully. The American White House is not a proper place for foreign policy pretenders, especially a former president who already displayed a pernicious fusion of historical indifference and intellectual incompetence.
There are also relevant specifics. Any future presidential retrogressions to “America First” would stem from misapplied US cultural underpinnings. These backward steps, absurd steps, would reflect variously intersecting declensions of “mass-man.” Though Donald Trump remains a celebrated leader of the American “mass,” not just a member, he has never actually risen above the capacities of his chorus. Rather, amid the constant rancor and noisy defilement, he has remained one of mass man’s most fervid exponents.
From time immemorial, international relations have been rooted in Realpolitik or power politics. Though such traditional patterns of thinking are normally accepted as “realistic,” they actually undermine world law and global order. It follows that any sitting US president should finally acknowledge the lethal limitations of our planet’s global threat system,and recognize, as inevitable corollary, that US power ought never be founded upon delusions of national primacy.
“America First” has a pleasing resonance with the Many, with those who like to chant in crowds. But this narrow political resonance does not extend to the Few, to those who would prefer to think as conscious individuals. About the “Few,” German-Swiss philosopher Thomas Mann attributes the downfall of civilizations to gradual absorptions of the educated classes by the Mass, to the “simplification of all functions of political, social, economic and spiritual life.”If nothing else, America’s Trump era was a humiliating period of deliberate and falsifying simplifications. Is it anything less than preposterous to actually seek its return?
Americans require intellect-based answers, not an endless barrage of silly clichés and partisan rancor. In turn, such answers will call for dialectical (mind challenging) thinking. Analytically, in these calculations, the United States should always be considered as one significant part of the larger world system, the world system configuration created by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
Though more or less ignored by global leaders, the “Westphalian” system of international law (a system of institutionalized global anarchy) is destined to fail. Moreover, together with the accelerating spread of nuclear weapons technologies and infrastructures, any such failure would prove remorseless, unprecedented (sui generis would say the logicians) and irremediable. At another level, it would signal the potentially insufferable triumph of anti-reason.
There are also relevant nuances. Grievous world system failure could take place in hard to fathom increments, or with great suddenness, as an unanticipated nuclear “bolt from the blue.” On such bewilderingly unpredictable matters, any US policy resurrection of Donald Trump’s “America First” would prove starkly injurious.
Conceptually, it’s not complicated. In these indispensable calculations, history deserves a much more manifest pride of place. False bravado and belligerent nationalism have never succeeded in any decipherable ways or for longer than brief intervals. Indeed, from an historical standpoint, no observation could be more obvious.
Plausibly, in a Trump-resurrected future, unsteady expressions of national security policy would be exacerbated by multiple system failures. At times, these failures could be mutually reinforcing or “synergistic.” At other times, they could involve “force-multiplying” weapons of mass destruction. In any case, they could be brought about by the defiling restoration of an absurd presidency.
Rejecting the banalities of “America First” and its derivative foreign policy deformations, a capable US president should think along clarifying lines of subject-matter interrelatedness. It is preposterous to deny that “America First” would fail US national security obligations. Moreover, any such failure, even one that did not produce catastrophic war or terror, would be degrading to United States.
“The visionary,” teases Italian film director Federico Fellini, “is the only realist.” But there can be nothing “visionary” about “America First.” Whether in its previous Trump-defined iteration or in a future modified version, this stitched together amalgam of a former president’s clichés would be absurd. Should such a lack of vision find its way back into the American White House in 2024, its multiple and recycled harms could fatally undermine whatever might still remain of American Reason.
At some point, especially if strengthened and expanded by manipulative resurrections of “America First,” world system failures could become both tangibly dire and irreversible. In the final analysis, it will not help the United States or any other country to tinker “thoughtlessly”at the ragged edges of our “Westphalian” world legal order. At that decisive turning point, any US presidential reaffirmations of “America First” could significantly hasten the onset of a regional or worldwide nuclear war.
It’s not complicated. “America First” is just mass-defined shorthand for “America Last.” In the longer term, the only sort of foreign policy realism that could make any sense for the United States is a posture that pointed toward much “higher” awareness of global “oneness.”Whether or not we like the sound of such “intellectual” cosmopolitanism, world system interdependence is not a matter of policy volition. It is an incontrovertible fact.
In its fully optimized expression, such an indispensable awareness – the literal opposite of former US President Donald Trump’s “America First” – would resemble what the ancients called the “city of man.” For the moment, the insightful prophets of any more consciously collaborative world civilization will remain few and far between. But this lamentable absence, one unimproved even by active intellectual interventions by our “great universities,” does not owe to any witting analytic forfeiture. Above all, it reflects an imperiled species’ stubborn unwillingness to take itself seriously. This means an unwillingness to recognize that the only sort of patriotic loyalty still able to rescue a self-destroying planet is one finally willing to embrace humankind as a whole.
Any such embrace would represent a new and re-directed focus of patriotic loyalty. Almost by definition, therefore, it would not be discoverable by American mass.
There is more. Intellectually and historically, “America First” remains misconceived and irrational. Now, more desperately than ever before, we require a logic-based universalization and centralization of international relations. Though challenging, this complex requirement need not express a bewildering or incomprehensible rationale. But there will still be demanding intellectual prerequisites. In the United States especially, such expectations will almost certainly be unrealizable.
Nonetheless, it is hardly a medical or biological secret that core factors and behaviors common to all human beings greatly outnumber those that differentiate one person from another. Unless the leaders of all major states on Planet Earth can finally understand that the survival of any one state must be contingent upon the survival of all, true national security will continue to elude everyone. This includes the “most powerful” states and individuals, even if their explicit policy mantras call foolishly for the subject to be “first.”
What cannot benefit the entire “hive,” warns Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations, can never help the individual “bee.”
The most immediate security tasks in our Westphalian condition of global anarchy remain narrowly self-centered. Simultaneously, national leaders must finally learn to understand that our planet represents a recognizably organic whole, a fragile but intersecting “unity” that exhibits diminishing options for genocide avoidance and war avoidance. This is the indispensable unity of human “oneness.”
It’s finally time for candor. Though clichéd, America is “running out of time.” Quickly, to seize rapidly disappearing opportunities for longer-term survival, our leaders must learn to build upon the critical foundational insights of Francis Bacon, Galileo and Isaac Newton, and on the more contemporarily summarizing observation of philosopher Lewis Mumford: “Civilization is the never ending process of creating one world and one humanity.”
Whenever we speak of civilization we must also speak of law. Jurisprudentially, no particular national leadership can claim any special or primary obligation in this regard. Nor could any such leadership cadre ever afford to build comprehensive security policies upon the vaguely distant hopes of mass. But the United States remains a key part of the community of nations and must do whatever it can to detach an already collapsing “state of nations” from our time-dishonored “state of nature.”
There is more. Any such willful detachment should be expressed as part of a wider vision for a more durable and justice-centered world politics. Over the longer term, an American president will have to do his or her part to safeguard the global system as a whole. Then, “America Together,” not “America First,” would express a markedly more rational and intellect-based security mantra.
However impractical or fanciful this may all sound, nothing could be more perilous than continuing on a long-discredited “Westphalian” course. “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another,” inquires Samuel Beckett in Endgame, “of seeking justification always on the same plane?” It’s a critical question, one that should now be asked of any sitting or aspiring US president, especially an aspirant who has already demonstrated his consummate unfitness.
For the moment, there is no need for detailing any further analytic or intellectual particulars. There are, of course, bound to be many. Always, these will need to be held together by coherent and comprehensive (science-based) theory.
In The Plague, Albert Camus instructs: “At the beginning of the pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric…It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words – to silence.” As long as the nation-states in world politics continue to operate as glib archeologists of ruins-in-the-making – that is, as “political prisoners” of a vastly-corrupted philosophic thought – they will be unable to stop the next series of catastrophic wars.
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”
Until now, certain traditional expectations of balance-of-power world politics may have been more-or-less defensible. Nevertheless, soon, from the essential standpoint of longer-term options and global security survival prospects, an American president should open up this nation’s latent security imagination to more visionary and intellect-based forms of foreign policy understanding. Resurrecting the “everyone for himself” extremity of former president Donald J. Trump’s “America First” would represent a US policy move in the wrong direction. No move could conceivably be more wrong.
It could never make sense for the United States to construct security justifications along the incessantly brittle lines of belligerent nationalism.
“America First” remains a self-defiling national mantra, nothing more. Recently championed by an American president who was proudly detached from historical or analytic understanding, it ought never be allowed to reappear in United States foreign policy. To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with any sensible manifestations of American patriotism, but these primacy-oriented (zero-sum) manifestations could never be reconciled with any dignified human survival.
Portending inevitable failure and existential peril, an “America First” redox would be anything but sensible. At the same time, the United States remains a nation shaped and dominated by “mass,” and this ill-fated hegemony must be suitably countered before we could ever expect a sustainable and law-based American foreign policy.
How shall this counter-friction be accomplished? How shall the requisite efforts be undertaken? How shall beleaguered Americans stave off a continuing and no longer tolerable triumph of absurd political choices?
The answer to these interrelated questions is not until Americans begin to value genuine intellectual achievement more highly than continuously demeaning and anesthetizing amusements. For the moment, we remain an amusement society. Such vacant societies can’t last, even during pre-nuclear epochs. Ipso facto, their members become ghosts of any tangible doing, thinking or feeling. Quickly, they must descend to vita minima, human lives emptied of themselves, unstable, visceral, incompetent.
There remains one final clarification. In this elucidated context, “genuine” references an achievement that bestows no monetary rewards, but is still taken as valuable. In this challenging calculation, a purposefully heightened American regard for “mind” will seem impractical or even unimaginable. Nonetheless, it could represent all that still stands between American democracy and naked barbarism.
Then the visionary will emerge as the only realist.
Louis Rene Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and world order reform. Dr. Beres, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Purdue, publishes at The New York Times; The Atlantic; Jewish Business News; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); JURIST; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Yale Global Online (Yale University); World Politics (Princeton); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Infinity Journal (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); INSS Strategic Assessment (Tel Aviv); Modern War Institute (West Point); The War Room (Pentagon); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Armed Forces and Society; global-e (University of California); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Horasis (Switzerland); Modern Diplomacy; JURIST; Brown Journal of World Affairs (Brown University); International Security (Harvard); Air-Space Operations Review (USAF); American Political Science Review; American Journal of International Law; Strategy Bridge; Strategic Review; and Middle East Review of International Affairs.
This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy.