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Empathy, Survival and Human Oneness: Informed Reflections on Trump’s Atavistic Worldview

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“Each of us is both the subject and the protagonist of his own nontransferable life.” José Ortega y Gasset, Man and Crisis

America First,  the most conspicuous mantra of Donald Trump, makes no logical or diplomatic sense. Indeed, contrary to the American president’s narrowly imagined expectations, Americans, both individually and collectively, will soon need to identify more broadly with the world as a whole.  In essence, to survive and prosper, the United States must quickly change direction from such plainly refractory political mantras, and prepare instead for greatly expanded patterns of international cooperation.

Before we can all become true beneficiaries of modern diplomacy, we will first finally have to acknowledge that we inhabit a single and indissoluble global habitat.

Even from an expressly American standpoint, there is nothing unpatriotic about articulating any such universalizing prescription. To wit, the alternative Trump vision can lead the United States only toward an endlessly Darwinian global struggle. Inter alia, this would mean a fully consuming and retrograde conflict in which the corrosive principles of “every man for himself” would produce further chaos and perpetual suffering.

Significantly, especially for those concerned with modern diplomacy and international law, the attendant and sometimes reciprocal problems are not “merely” spiritual. Above all, they are profoundly intellectual. Back in the nineteenth century, the American Transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had counseled “plain living and high thinking.”

For this American president, there is a timeless message here. Currently, however, it is anything but closely heeded. To impresario extraordinaire Donald Trump, the best path, going forward, is to “circle the wagons,” to huddle together as an endlessly fighting nation and then do whatever it must againstall others.

Always, “against” is the operative word in the White House. Curiously, for US President Trump, world politics is always reassuringly reducible to bitter struggle against one despised “enemy” or another, or perhaps even a sinister coalition of “enemies.”

There is more. Any such primordial or “zero sum” advice is not merely harsh or needlessly adversarial. It is also deeply immoral, manifestly contra to elementary codes of civilized human interaction.

Unsupported by any defensible reason or scintilla of logic, it is starkly incorrect.

To be sure, there are much better paths to human salvation, secular as well as spiritual. It follows that to help rescue America from a myriad configuration of mortal dangers, Trump will first need to assist the imperiled earth in general. Inevitably, the American president should avoid having to deal piecemeal with the next foreseeable eruptions of genocide, war and terror.

Everything, he will very quickly need to appreciate, is interrelated.

By embracing “high-thinking” instead of demeaning rally slogans and vacant banalities, US President Trump could finally have to recognize that American well-being and security are inextricably linked with the much wider “human condition.” Assuredly, this reluctant recognition will take him some time. He will also need to embrace another even more subtle kind of understanding.

 It is that pertinent human social and governmental linkages may not always present themselves in readily decipherable historical, social or economic terms.

 Now is the only suitable moment for Mr. Trump to recall the essentially “Buddhist” wisdom of Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’,'” explains his The Phenomenon of Man, “is false and against nature. No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”

The high-thinking Teilhard was right on the mark. At their very deepest level, genocide, war, and terror are not just the hideous product of an ordinary world politics and diplomacy gone awry. Rather, they stem from the unbearable apprehensions and persistent loneliness of individual human beings.

 Normally unable to find either meaning or safety outside of certain available group memberships, billions of individuals across the globe will still often stop at nothing in order to acquire some comfortingly recognizable acceptance within a presumptively protective “crowd.”[1]

All such crowds, whether at Trump rallies, prizefights or earlier gladiatorial competitions, love to chant in chorus. Absolutely. What is injurious and even potentially grotesque about such orchestrated mutterings is not the content being chanted (which is usually incoherent, and sometimes also insidious), but rather the corollary disappearance of personal empathy and residual individual responsibility.

Whether it is as a nation, a social organization, a terrorist band, or a new political movement, the crowd tempts “all-too-many” (a favored Nietzschean term in Zarathustra)  with the false succor of  group communion. Always, this temptation lies at the heart of its ritually compelling and possibly incomparable attractions. Typically, though rarely identified or understood, it is the generally frantic human search to belong that most assiduously shapes national and international affairs.

Both national and international affairs. 

Unsurprisingly, as the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes concluded in Leviathan, about “state of nature” crowds, they portend a lamentable life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

 Once again, for the sake of both America and the wider world, it is time to situate “high thinking” in the White House. The irrepressible search to belong, to draw a pertinent term from Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung’s The Undiscovered Self, represents “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.” Jurisprudentially and diplomatically, the most tangible expressions of our incessant human search for rescue in groups can be found in the utterly core legal principles of sovereignty and self-determination.

 Alarmingly, the celebrated “self” in all such traditional jurisprudence and diplomacy refers to entire peoples, never to singular individuals.

Too often, as US President Trump ought finally to understand, the ironic result of such hegemonic thinking is a measureless orgy of mass killing and ever-expanding human exterminations.

This conclusion is self-evident and incontestable.

Divided into thousands of hostile tribes, almost two hundred of which are called “nation-states,” many human beings still find it easy and pleasing to slay “others.” As for any remediating considerations of empathy, these are typically reserved for those who happen to live within one’s own expressly delineated “tribe.” It follows, and crucially, that any expansion of empathy to include  “outsiders” must represent a basic condition of authentic peace and modern diplomacy.

Without such an indispensable expansion, our entire species would remain stubbornly (and suicidally) dedicated to its own incremental debasement and eventual disappearance.

Understanding this particular wisdom should already have become an indispensable corrective to the presidential nonsense of “America First.” This grievously resurrected political mantra is eerily reminiscent of American “Know Nothing” history, and also the incomparably destructive slogans of the Third Reich. Let us be candid.

In brief, and however well-intentioned, America First now represents Trump’s specifically Americanized version of “Deutschland uber alles.”

Nothing less; nothing more.

But what must Americans and others actually do to encourage a wider empathy, and thereby to foster aptly caring feelings between as well as within “tribes”? Correspondingly, how can a US president meaningfully improve the state of our dissembling world so as to best ensure a dignified future for the American Republic? These are not easy questions.

Nonetheless, they are the ones that need to be faced by Americans and (ultimately) by all others.

Already, soberly and ironically, we must concede that the essential expansion of empathy for the many could become “dreadful,”  improving human community, but only at the intolerable cost of private sanity. This imperative concession stems from the way we humans are “designed” or “hard wired,” that is, with very particular and largely impermeable boundaries of feeling. Were it otherwise, an extended range of compassion toward others could quickly bring about each cooperating individual’s own emotional collapse.

A paradox arises. Planning seriously for national and international survival, Americans in particular must first learn to accept an unorthodox understanding. It is that an ever-widening circle of human compassion is indispensable to civilizational survival, but is also a potential source of insufferable private anguish.

How, then, shall human union and American politics now deal with a requirement for global civilization that is simultaneously essential and unbearable? Newly informed that empathy for the many is a precondition of a decent world union, what can actually create such obligatory caring without producing intolerable emotional pain? In essence, high-thinkers must duly inquire: How can such a stunningly anti-intellectual US president correctly deal with ongoing and still-multiplying expressions of war, terrorism, and genocide?

By building walls, or instead, by solidifying wide-ranging and always-pertinent human bonds of interrelatedness and connectedness?

The answer is obvious. It can never be found in ordinary speeches and programs, especially in the cravenly shallow rhetoric and embarrassingly empty witticisms of American presidential politics. It is only discoverable in a consciously resolute detachment of individuals from lethally competitive “tribes,” and from certain other collective “selves.” 

In the final analysis, a more perfect union, both national and international, must lie in a fully determined replacement of “civilization” with what Teilhard de Chardin calls “planetization.”

The whole world, Mr. Trump should promptly acknowledge without fear of contradiction, is a system.[2] He must finally understand that the state of America’s national union can never be any better than the state of the wider world. He will also need to realize that the condition of this entire world must itself sometimes depend upon what happens inside the United States.

Ideally, in fully acknowledging such a plainly misunderstood mutuality, this vital human reciprocity, the overarching US presidential objective should become the sacred dignity of each and every individual human being.  It is precisely this high-minded goal that should now give specific policy direction to President Donald Trump, not his continuously specious and universally destructive commitment to “America First.”

It will be easy to dismiss any such seemingly lofty recommendation for  human dignity as silly, ethereal or fanciful.   Still, in reality, there could never be any greater American presidential naiveté than championing the patently false extremity of “everyone for himself” in world politics and diplomacy.

More than anything else, “America First”  is a grievously misconceived presidential mantra. Devoid of  all empathy, intellect and human understanding, it can only lead America as a nation toward distressingly new depths of strife, disharmony, and collective despair. Individually, “America First,” left unrevised, would point everyone to an  insufferable and potentially irreversible vita minima, that is, toward a corrupted personal life emptied of itself.

By definition, such a life would be meaningless, shattered, unfeeling and radically unstable.

Only by placing “Humanity First” can US President Donald Trump make America First. The latter is simply not possible without the former. Not at all.


[1] “The crowd,” says the great Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.”

[2] “The existence of system in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” says Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, ” no matter whom….Each element of the cosmos is positively woven from all the others….”

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Americas

The hegemony of knowledge and the new world order: U.S. and the rest of the world

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In today’s world, knowledge and technological advantages determine – to a large extent – differences in the management of international policy. The increase in a country’s intellectual power directly defines an increase in its economic power, thus changing its position in the international competition for dominance.

The power policy, first in the agricultural age and later in the industrial age, was characterised by military and then economic hegemony, while the power policy in the information age gradually reveals the characteristics of knowledge hegemony at both the scientific and intelligence levels.

The hegemony of knowledge in contemporary international relations manifests itself specifically as unequal exchange in international trade, exploitation of high-value information and various conditions related to technological production. Hence, we see the transfer of polluting industries from privileged to poor countries: energy-consuming and high-intensity activities.

Western culture and values are disseminated vigorously, through the so-called soft power in information and mass media, and take on obsessive and oppressively hypnopedic forms.

Developed countries have patents in the use of outer space, as well as in the development of deep sea resources and in the production of environmental resources that pollute, while developing countries can only sigh as they look at other’s oceans and satellites, which fly around, do reconnaissance activities and monitor them.

The resources of the great and deep seas – which should be shared by mankind as they belong to everybody like the air, the moon and the sun – are instead exploited by the developed countries. On the contrary, they freely and ‘democratically’ share with the wretched ones only the evil consequences of environmental pollution.

With specific reference to sanctions and armed interference in international relations, the technique of violent and conscious bullying is adopted: whoever is militarily stronger imposes the validity of their interests, also at legal level.

The root cause for generating knowledge hegemony lies in the polarisation of the intellectual status of the nation-State. Western developed countries have already crossed the threshold of an information society, while developing countries are still struggling to climb towards industrial civilisation from the most primitive and closed state of existence. Although developing countries hold most of the world’s natural and human resources (just think of Africa), they are far behind in science and technology. Just look at the continental histogram of the 207 Nobel Prizes in Physics from 1901 to 2017 (winners are counted by country of birth except for the Algerian Nobel Prize winner Claude Cohen-Tannoudji [1997], who was born when Algeria was a French territory):

Source: Nadua Antonelli <<Africana>> XXIII (2017) page 12

If they have no means to study, even the greatest and most brilliant brains cannot make discoveries or file patents, looking only at the sky and the earth.

About 80 per cent of science and technology staff and their achievements are concentrated in developed countries. The knowledge advantage gives developed countries the right to set the rules of the game and of communication for all global knowledge production and dissemination. In particular, the developed countries’ knowledge advantages in the military and high-tech media enable them to expand their influence on the civil and military fronts and achieve their strategic objectives.

Developing countries wander between traditional society, modern industrial civilisation and post-industrial civilisation, and are often challenged and oppressed by the third party’s hegemony of knowledge.

The new economy created by the information revolution is still a ‘rich-country phenomenon’, the core of what is called ‘advantage creation’, under the cover of ‘competitive advantage’, or rather: competitive towards those who cannot compete.

The country leading the information revolution is the United States, which is the biggest beneficiary of these achievements. The digital divide highlights the status of the US information superpower. In the global information sector, in 2000 the central processing unit production in the United States accounted for 92%, and software production for 86%.

IT (Information & Technology) investment in the United States was 41.5% of global investment, Microsoft’s Windows system accounted for 95% of global platform applications, while the US Internet users accounted for more than half of global Internet users, and 58% of all e-mail goes through US servers.

E-commerce is worth 75% of the global total and US commercial websites account for 90% of the planet.

Currently, there are almost three thousand large-scale databases in the world, 70% of which are in the United States. There are 13 top-level domain name servers in the world and 10 of them are located in the United States.

The above figures far exceed the share of US GDP, which is 28% of the world total. The United States is far ahead of all countries in the world, including the other developed countries. The leading position in information technology allows the United States to control the basics in the field of information with its strong economic and talent advantages, as well as to master the actual rights, and to set standards and formulate rules and regulations.

The status as cradle of the information revolution has brought enormous wealth and development benefits to the United States. Since the 1990s, the development of information technology and the rise of the related industry have become an accelerator of further economic advancement in the United States.

In the growth of US GDP – from 1994 (the beginning of the Internet) to 2000 – the share of the information industry in the value of the country’s total output has caused the economy to rise from 6.3% to 8.3%, and the contribution provided by the information industry development to the actual US economic growth is estimated at 30%.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the United States – with its strong national-global power and the relative hegemony of knowledge/information – was already ready to build a new world order.

Knowledge is also the soul of military hegemony. Since the 1990s the United States (after the USSR’s demise) has taken advantage of its absolute leadership in information technology to vigorously promote a new military revolution and equip its armed forces with a large number of modern sophisticated weapons, especially cyber weapons: an overwhelming advantage in the conventional field, clearly overtaking the Third World, as well as its Western allies.

The US superiority in equipment ranges from one to two generations (i.e. from 15 to 30 years) over developing countries and from 0.5 to one generation over allies. All this has established the hegemonic status of the United States as the world’s number one military power.

Gulf Wars II (1991) and III (2003) (the first was the Iran-Iraq War in 1980-88), the Kosovo War (1999), the Afghanistan War (2001- still ongoing), and the Iraq War (2003-2011) were four localised wars that the United States fought to establish a new world order after the Cold War. During those events, the US hegemony was strengthened on an unprecedented scale and its attempt to establish a new order made substantial progress.

Moreover, backed by strong military advantages (scattering the planet with its own bases and outposts), as well as economic and technological advantages, those events ensured that the United States had and still has a leading position in the world, thus making the White House a planner and defender of the new world order. (1. continued)

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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