Special to Jewish Business News
by Louis Rene Beres (Ph.D. Princeton, 1971), Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University
“The earth from which the first man was made was gathered in all the four corners of the world.” Talmud
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Going forward, a core obligation of any American president must be to acknowledge global interdependence. Contrary to widespread misunderstanding, this is not merely an abstract or idealistic observation. Indeed, just to survive as a nation, there could be no more practical expectations.
What are the pertinent details? In such expressly existential matters, history deserves conspicuous pride of place, To begin, modern international relations remain rooted in Realpolitik or power politics. Though such traditional patterns of thinking are normally accepted as “realistic,” they actually undermine global order. It follows that any capable US president should finally acknowledge the inherent limitations of the world order’s global threat system. At a minimum, US power ought never to be founded upon vainglorious delusions of national exceptionalism.
There is more. With evident calculation, a dialectical explanation should unfold. The United States, in the fashion of every other state on this imperiled planet, is part of a larger world system – one created by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. More or less ignored by global leaders, especially by former US President Donald Trump, the “Westphalian” system of international law is destined to fail. And with the accelerating spread of nuclear weapons technologies, any such failure of anarchy-based law could prove remorseless and irremediable.
It’s a riveting but still-plausible warning.
It’s not just hyperbole.
Moreover, there are pertinent details. Catastrophic world system failure could take place in variously hard to fathom increments or with great suddenness, unexpected, as a “bolt from the blue.” On such fragile and unpredictable matters, any US policy resurrection of Trump’s “America First” could prove deeply injurious to the United States and to the planet as a whole.
It would prove “malignant” prima facie.
History will deserve a comprehensive and capable look. Belligerent nationalism has never succeeded in purposeful ways, or for longer than palpably brief intervals. In the future, this perpetually unsteady expression of global power management would be exacerbated by multiple systemic failures. Sometimes, these broad failures could prove mutually reinforcing or “synergistic.” At times, they could involve assorted “force-multiplying” weapons of mass destruction.
Rejecting the sterile banalities and empty witticisms of Donald Trump’s “America First,” a serious American president should always think along potentially useful lines of subject-matter interrelatedness. It is entirely realistic to acknowledge that “America First” is certain to fail as a guiding ethos of world politics. Inter alia, any such failure would prove endlessly degrading to United States interests and ideals.
“The visionary,” teases Italian film director Federico Fellini, “is the only realist.” But there was never anything “visionary” about “America First.” It was and remains an anti-intellectual amalgam of a former president’s humiliating clichés and persistent falsehoods. Should such a profound lack of vision find its way back into the American White House in 2024, the recycled harms could undermine whatever might still be left of a decipherable American democracy.
At some point, especially if it is strengthened and expanded by ill-considered resurrections of “America First,” world system failures could become tangibly dire and potentially 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. Among other things, at that decisive turning point, any US presidential reaffirmations of “America First” could only hasten the onset of a regional or worldwide nuclear war.
Intellectually, it’s not complicated. “America First” is still shorthand for “America Last.” In the longer term, the only sort of foreign policy realism that can make any sense for the United States and the wider planet is a posture that points toward “higher” awareness of global “oneness.” Whether or not we like the sound of such 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 would resemble what the ancients called “cosmopolis” or “city of man.” For the moment, the insightful prophets of a more consciously collaborative world civilization will remain few and far between. But this lamentable absence – one unimproved by any active intellectual interventions by “great universities” – does not owe to any lack of need or 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 that could rescue a self-destroying planet is one still willing to embrace humankind as a whole.
To be sure, this would represent a new and re-directed loyalty
Intellectually and historically, “America First” is all wrong and patently irrational. Now we desperately require a logic-based universalization of international relations. Though challenging, this requirement need not express a bewildering or incomprehensible idea.
Consider the argument: It is hardly a medical or biological secret that those 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 every state and person. This includes the “most powerful” states and individuals, even if their explicit policy mantras call for the pertinent subject to be “first.”
There is more. The most immediate security tasks in our Westphalian condition of global anarchy remain narrowly self-centered. Simultaneously, however, national leaders must learn to understand that our planet represents a recognizably organic whole, a fragile but intersecting “unity” that exhibits steadily diminishing options for genocide prevention and war avoidance.
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 contemporary summarizing observation of philosopher Lewis Mumford: “Civilization is the never ending process of creating one world and one humanity.” As a sine qua non for such necessary creation, an American president still has to understand the complex connections between microcosm and macrocosm, between collective survival and the “overcoming”of “mass man.”
Whenever we speak of civilization we must speak of law. Jurisprudentially, no particular national leadership can claim any special or primary obligation in this regard. Nor could such a leadership cadre afford to build its comprehensive security policies upon vaguely distant hopes. Nonetheless, 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 a time-dishonored “state of nature.”
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, the American president will have to do his or her significant part to preserve the global system as a whole. “America Together,” not “America First,” would express a markedly more rational and intellect-based security mantra.
However impractical this may all sound, nothing could be more fanciful 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 US president.
For the moment, at least, there is no need for detailing analytic or intellectual particulars. There are, of course, bound to be many. And these particulars will need to be held together by coherent and comprehensive 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 states in world politics continue to operate as archeologists of ruins still-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 international wars.
Until now, certain traditional expectations of balance-of-power world politics have been more-or-less defensible. But from the essential standpoint of longer-term options and global security prospects, an American president should soon open the nation’s latent security imagination to more visionary and intellect-based forms of understanding. Accordingly, resurrecting the “everyone for himself” extremity of former president Donald J. Trump’s “America First” would represent a US policy move in exactly the wrong direction. It could never make sense for the United States to construct any security “justification” along “the same plane” of belligerent nationalism.
“America First” remains a contrived and self-defiling national mantra. It ought never be allowed any reappearance in United States foreign policy. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with genuinely sensible manifestations of American patriotism, but such manifestations could never be defined at cross-purposes with planet-wide survival.
How could they be?
Talmud reminds us: “The earth from which the first man was made was gathered in all the four corners of the world.” Even in the absence of any compelling religious reinforcement, these origins are evident and incontestable. Though there are many good reasons to reject a second Trump presidency, none is more compelling (or less widely understood) than the leadership obligation to acknowledge global “oneness.”
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.