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International Law

Understanding Crimes Against Humanity: Genocide, Memory And The Future



In the aftermath of US President Donald Trump’s recent carte blanche to Turkey to destroy with impunity fragile Kurdish populations in Syria, the “civilized” world stands at the beginning of yet another unforgivable genocide. How is this possible in the allegedly law-based system of contemporary international relations? Quite literally, there can be no more important question. Accordingly, the timely essay which follows attempts a tentative and partial answer, but one presented, as plainly necessary, at an optimally conceptual level. In such extraordinarily complex matters, theory is a “net.” Only those who cast, can catch.[1]

In the third book of his philosophical romance, The New Gods, the French writer E.M. Cioran, exclaims: “With the exception of some aberrant cases, man does not incline to the good; what god would impel him to do so?” Whether or not the good is a great, unreal force, one that exists only as a ghost of the possible, one thing is certain. From the beginning, from that primal moment when the swerve toward evil first occurred, humankind has been the author of unspeakable crimes.

Most glaringly, these myriad crimes include genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This is not even a contestable allegation. Consider, in  recent years, Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and the Congo. Recall, in the 1970s, Cambodia, and somewhat later, Rwanda, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. Glance, today, at Turkey’s annihilationist war against the Kurds in Syria, a genocidal war given the de facto blessings of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the open encouragement of US President Donald Trump.

There is more. War and genocide are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, as history makes perfectly clear, war is simply the “best” means by which a particular genocide or closely-related crimes against humanity can be carried out.

Now, deeper philosophical questions need also be raised. How, we must finally inquire, has an entire species, miscarried from the start, managed to so egregiously scandalize its own creation? Are we all (or “merely” almost all) potential murderers of those who would normally live safely beside us? What about slavery, which continues, among other places, in Mali and Mauritania? Reference, too, the diamond mines of Sierra Leone and Liberia, and human child trafficking, especially in Nigeria and Benin but also in both North and South America. All these crimes are still far-reaching and “robust.”

All are still actively flourishing in our “advanced” 21st century

In such grim matters, death is pretty much the universal solvent. For as long as we can meaningfully recollect world history (a recollection currently out of favor in the US White House and at Goebbels-style Trump “rallies”), the corpse has been in conspicuous fashion. Today, in too many places, whole nations of corpses are being created.

As for the too long-inchoate “international community,” it stands by just as it always has, indifferently, for the most part coupled with a gratuitously self-righteous indignation; sheepish, yet arrogant, calculating and still lamenting its own alleged impotence.

All at once.

Why? The distressing answer must have several different levels, and also display several intersecting layers of pertinent meaning. At one level, and certainly the one most familiar to political scientists and legal scholars, the most basic problem lies in the changing embrace of Realpolitik or power politics. Following genuinely prophetic insights of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (the “state is the coldest of all cold monsters,” he warns in Zarathustra), the effective deification of the State has reduced millions of individuals to very tiny specks of residual insignificance. In such an upside-down world, one wherein the “self -determination” of peoplesis championed but where individual human beings are expressly minimized, executions are too often welcomed, heralded as welcome expressions of something sacred.

To prevent genocide and genocide-like crimes, States must be shorn of their presumed sacredness. Before this can happen, however, individuals must first discover alternative and attractive sources of belonging. In the final analysis, the core cause of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity is not the glorification of any particular State, or even the corresponding cowardliness of other powerful States, but the continuing incapacity of individual human beings to draw any true and satisfying meaningsfrom within themselves.

In essence, the most genuinely underlying problem here is the universal and sinister power of theNietzschean “herd” in human affairs; a power now applied by those who would create or control a state, but at any time applicable also by other herds.

At its heart, the problem of all such grievous international criminality is one of distraught and unfulfilled individuals. Ever fearful of drawing meaning from their own inwardness, human beings will draw closer and closer to the nurturing herd, like a moth to flame. Sometimes it is the Class. Sometimes the Tribe. Sometimes the Church. Sometimes the Race. Most commonly, it is the State.

Whatever the particular claims of the moment, the herd may spawn hatreds and excesses that make focused mass murder more or less welcome. Fostering a soundless but persistent refrain of “us” versus “them,” it can systematically prevent each affected person from becoming fully human – that is, governed by considerations of compassion and empathy – and can encourage each impacted person to cheerfully celebrate the wanton death of “outsiders.

 Small matter, always, that the victim population, wherever it may exist, is constructed of flesh and blood itself. Since the murderous herd-based perpetrator has wittingly chosen to renounce self, he has already become impervious to reason, responding only to the irresistibly strong emotional advantages of “belonging,” and also,  as sometime corollary, to the ecstatic promise of power over death.

Always, in human affairs, there is no greater power in world politics than the power of immortality.

Always, there can be no more compelling promise.

Indeed, against this incomparable power, even nuclear weapons are inherently impotent.

Each of us contains at least the possibility of becoming more fully human, a positive prospect that could reduce destructive loyalties to the herd and thus prevent genocide and related crimes.  But it is only by actively nurturing this essential possibility that we can ever realistically hope even to endure.

The central task to creating freedom from genocide is to discover the true way back to ourselves; otherwise, we can only continue to fly with the exterminatory ideals of a delirious collectivism, with a herd-life of conformance and fear that must ultimately make defilements normal. Understood in terms of the contemporary prevention of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, this key task calls forth an immediate obligation to look beyond ordinary collective politics to the sanctity of individual persons. Philosophically, the vital center of any such desperately needed obligation can be found especially in philosophers Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Hesse, Jaspers, and Jung. In the more specifically American genre, we should think admiringly of Emerson, Thoreau and the American Transcendentalists.

But let us be candid. In the virulently anti-intellectual Trump Era, no one thinks seriously about classical American thought –  not even in the best universities, which remain collectively silent in the face of current US-president assisted crimes against humanity.

Living can be a process of continuous rebirth, but once under the captivity of predatory states or certain smaller groups, most humans will readily choose to die before they are fully born. Although we can evolve into compassionate persons only by first mustering carefully considered acts of defiance against the herd, this mass (a term preferred over “herd” by seminal Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung) retards personhood by its consuming demands for obedience. Because these generally inflexible demands carry an arsenal of punishments and rewards that may seem impossible to defy, affected individuals are often ground into cogs, literally and metaphorically.

While few will even acknowledge such a disturbing fragmentation of life, a too-willing servitude to the herd may make mass killing or genocide acceptable.

Actually, it’s an old story.

Left unchallenged by those selectively few individuals who have already become empathic persons, many national leaders will remain what they have always been – that is, hyenas making verses among the tombs. Ever ready to prey upon the weak in the interests of some purportedly aggrieved populace, these ubiquitous predators can continue to carry out their nefarious crusades only because they are sustained by an inert and willing mass.

To prevent genocide and genocide-like crimes against humanity, the ultimate task must be to migrate from the violence-based Kingdom of the Herd to the individual-based Kingdom of the Self. In this utterly critical movement, however, the individual must also want to live in the second kingdom. This critical desire is the single most difficult part of the needed migration because the Kingdom of the Herd boasts its own utterly immense attractions.

The terminal risks of continuing to live within this murderous kingdom may become sufficiently apparent only when it is already too-late; that is, when the residual possibilities of a meaningful migration no longer exist.

[1] This convenient metaphor is drawn from the German poet, Novalis. Earlier, it had been embraced by philosopher of science Karl R. Popper, as epigraph to his The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959).

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) 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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International Law

Covid third world debt will outlast the virus – it should be relieved



WFP/Hugh Rutherford

In a year – or two or three – we will have mostly forgotten the pandemic. But the unprecedented third world debt the virus has created could last decades or longer and cripple the global south’s chances at development. Rich nations should seize this opportunity to nurture, not subjugate, the developing world, and re-establish their moral leadership through debt relief.

This will lessen the impact of the global recession by acting as a worldwide fiscal stimulus. It will also avert a humanitarian crisis in the developing world, and help industrialised economies’ growth by boosting export demand. 

Global debt currently sits at $277 trillion dollars, or 356% of global GDP. As with any financial crisis, this is hitting developing countries the hardest. 

Particularly increased borrowing in the global south will mean that those developing countries that have often had the lowest death rates will be faced with the longest enduring legacy of the coronavirus: crippling debt. 

Rich nations, by contrast, will recover faster. They attract a lower risk-rating from international creditors, making it easier for them to borrow money. Countries like the US and UK are able to increase their taxes and raise the necessary revenue to service the debts – that tax infrastructure is often lacking in developing nations.

For them, debt carries a much heavier burden. Loans are seen as riskier, meaning the debts are secured against foreign currency. Developing nations are then more susceptible to weakening local currencies and global economic slumps, making it even harder for them to pay back the debt in the long run. It’s a vicious cycle that ultimately harms those nations’ as well as the industrialised world’s interests.

Developed nations need to grow their export markets by fuelling the emerging middle class around the world. That can’t happen when these developing countries are forced to prioritise repaying debt over investing in their own economies.

As COVID spread through the world in the spring, the G20 created an agreement that would allow 73 of the world’s poorest countries to postpone their bilateral debt repayments for three years. So far, 43 of the countries have applied for the initiative. 

But it is not enough. One of the most vocal critics of the international response to developing-nation debt has been Ghana, whose Finance Minister openly said “The ability of central banks in the West to respond [to the pandemic] to an unimaginable extent and the limits of our ability to respond are quite jarring.” 

The West can and should step up, to nudge regions like sub-Saharan Africa away from increasing China influence.

They can also lead the way in the fiscal innovation that often follows debt crises. For example, the global debt crisis in the 1980’s was solved when illiquid bank loans were turned into tradable “Brady” bonds, named after Nicholas Brady, the American Treasury Secretary at the time. Now is the time for another innovative American fiscal policy. 

Most people assume that relieving debt would constitute a wealth transfer from the creditor to the debtor. However in the current economic climate, this is not the case. 

By simply extending repayments, countries have a chance to implement the necessary economic reforms to start servicing that debt. This has worked in the past, as demonstrated in South Korea between 1997 and 1998. Donor countries like the US and UK will still get their money back – in fact, they may get it back sooner in the long-term, if they can delay or reduce repayments in the short-term.

Debtor countries want to do anything to avoid defaults and being seen as pariahs in the eyes of the international community, with Argentina, Ecuador and Lebanon being the most recent examples. Sometimes to help them achieve that, some debt relief is essential.

This argument was first made by Marriner Eccles, Roosevelt’s chairman of the Federal Reserve, in 1934. Eccles argued that if a country is in perpetual debt, there is never enough confidence amongst local business, industry and agriculture to make the necessary investment to kickstart the economy. This is known as financial distress; when the fear of the debt itself prevents economic recovery.

In most cases in history, it is only when the financial distress is eased through debt write-off that indebted country’s economies will start to grow again. However, it often takes creditors and policy-makers a long-time to reach this decision, leading to longer economic stagnation, and ultimately a longer period of time for the money to be repaid, if it is repaid at all. 

If a country is unable to pay its debts, it must make up for this by exporting more than it imports, which harms the export capacity of creditor countries like the US and UK and destroys their manufacturing and farming jobs. If emerging markets cannot buy their produce, agriculture and industry suffers as a result. 

The next generation of Western leaders are inheriting countries of low growth, high-unemployment and low demand. 

Debt relief will allow them to trade debt repayment for international export demand, which will create jobs and show their increasingly disenfranchised post-industrial communities that they care.

It will also strengthen their image abroad and improve the standard of living for millions of the world’s poorest.

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International Law

Human Rights and Democracy have been causalities of the COVID 19 Pandemic



“Today, we face our own 1945 moment,” the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, said as he opened the UN’s 75th General Assembly in September last year.

The General Assembly was taking place as the COVID 19pandemic, which began as a global health crisis had developed into an economic and social crisis. Now it is also fuelling a crisis for democracy and human rights.   The scenes in Washington D.C in early January providing the perfect background tapestry to exemplify the shaky ground democracy now sits on.

The Secretary General’s speech in particular highlighted one important fact. A major crisis of any kind reveals existing fault lines and often acerbates them. This is true of the COVID 19 pandemic.  The current pandemic is exposing inequalities in societies (we are all in the same storm but not in the same boat); discrimination and xenophobia; and regressions in democracy and human rights.

Currently there is considerable discourse on how the pandemic is negatively impacting on democracy and human rights. Based on the experience of previous crisis these concerns are wholly valid.

The most frequent form of global crises are financial ones (see analysis). Politics usually takes a right turn following financial crises. For example the gains of extreme right-wing parties were particularly pronounced  in a number of countries after the global crises of the 1920s/1930s and after 2008.  Governing too tends to become more difficult after financial crises. Government majorities shrink and parliaments fragment. People take to the streets too. The average number of anti-government demonstrations almost triples, violent riots double and general strikes increase by at least one third.

These crises present clear political opportunity. Vladimir Putin came to power in the 1990s as reformer following the financial crisis in Russia in the 1990s. Recep Erdogan followed a similar trajectory to power in Turkey.

In many cases, these trends tend to taper out as some kind of stability emerges. But not always and a crisis be it health, financial or political have always presented opportunity for malign intentions. Hitler came to power (democratically) by appealing to the middle ground. In 1933 the poorest people in Germany voted for his opponents, the Communist Party and the moderate left-wing Social Democrats. Most of the rest – lower-middle classes, the bourgeoisie, the unorganized workers, the rural masses, and the older traditionalists switched their votes from the mainstream centrist and right-wing parties- backed him.

Hard economic times usually mean hard times for democracy, particularly when it is new and fragile. According to an analysis by Adam Przeworski who charted Democracies between 1950 to 1990, when democracies face a decline in income, they are three times more likely to disappear than when they experience economic growth. While the chance that a democracy will wither is 1 in 135 when incomes grow during any three or more consecutive years. The message is clear. Recessions are bad for democracy.  The economic disorder of the late 1920s and 1930s saw the end for a number of democracies in Europe and Latin America.

We are in that moment now with current threats against the four main pillars of democracy – holding free and fair elections, upholding the rule of law, recognizing the idea of legitimate opposition and protecting the integrity of rights.

global survey (Freedom House) of experts and activists on democracy and human rights, found by more than a fourfold margin they agreed that “overall, the coronavirus outbreak has been a setback for democracy and human rights in my main country of focus.” Some 64 per cent agreed that this negative impact would persist over the next three to five years, suggesting the setback for democracy may well outlast the health crisis.

There is much evidence to support this.

The pandemic is leading to a rapid expansion of executive power around the world. Countries from Hungary, the Philippines to Cambodia have all enacted legislation to deepen emergency powers. Hungary’s “Draft Law on Protecting Against Coronavirus” gives vast powers and although the act had a 90-day sunset clause, the government has already used the powers to make it illegal for transgender individuals to alter their birth records, hardly a public health priority.

Freedom of expression similarly has been restricted in many countries ostensibly to limit disinformation but often with nefarious intent. The Chinese government has censored information about its response and detained journalists who reported on the outbreak. In Thailand, citizens and journalists who criticize the government’s handling of the crisis face imprisonment. In Jordan, the Prime Minister now has the authority to suspend freedom of expression. Health concerns rightly have limited the number of public gatherings but suspicions abound of governments using legislation to limit or squash the right to demonstrate.

The crisis is also accelerating governments’ use of new surveillance technologies. China’s effective response to Covid-19 has increased global demand for its digital public health tools. These tools have been very effective as a public health mechanism but they provide governments with extraordinary abilities to track and monitor citizens. This technology poses a particular risk to fragile democracies and countries in the developing world, where independent institutions are weak.

One thing that fuels anti-democratic forces is the narrative that ‘autocracies’’ do better than democracies. This does not stand up to any rigorous examination. According to “10 rules  of successful Nations” by Ruchir Sharma democracies dominate the list of countries with the steadiest growth. Together, Sweden, France, Belgium and Norway have posted only one year of growth faster that 7% since 1950. However, over that time all four have seen average incomes increase five to six fold.  This is the stabilizing effect of democracy. Every large economy that has seen average income approaching $10,000 is a democracy. China with an average income approaching that number is trying to become a large rich autocracy. It would be the first.

Democracies generally remain the world’s wealthiest societies and the most open to new ideas and opportunities. When people around the world are asked about their preferred political conditions, the principles that underpin democratic societies emerge strongly.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan speaking in Greece in 2017 noted that Liberal democracy almost died in the 1930s, but liberal democracies eventually defeated Nazism, Fascism and Democracy. It is,he argued, arguably the most successful political system the world has ever seen.

However, a critical appendage to democracy is economic development coupled with social justice. What has consistently plagued the failed and failing democracies over the past decades has been bad governance. One thing that can help are independent institutions such as independent trade unions, organizations representing of business, civil-society organizations, institutions to support a free press, mechanisms to support human and political rights. These are critical countervailing forces, who can speak truth to power.

“Social partnership” the structured dialogue between trade unions and business and employers organizations has shown in 2020 just how invaluable a tool it is. It is doubtful that many of the momentous decisions would have been made without it, certainly not as swiftly or without rancour.  The ability of representative organizations to mobilize the views of the real economy and put together proposals and solutions in hours and days should not be underestimated. It has been a critical tool in this crisis.   The efforts of social partners have provided social ballast to societies, rocked by the voracity and suddenness of the virus.  In all of the chaos, it was reassuring see key parts of society pulling as one.

Independent institutions from civil society, trade unions along with business groups can be critical gatekeepers in protecting democracy. There are many examples, such as the Tunisian ‘quartet’, which received the Nobel peace prize in 2015.

Promoting and protecting these institutions along with the appending rights that underwrite them, such as freedom of association, expression and assembly will increasingly need to be at the forefront of the work of development organizations and the wider UN system in the immediate years to come.

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International Law

Aristotle and Alexander: Two Perspectives on Globalization



Even the Mayor in Gogol’s Inspector General, not being the sharpest tool in the shed, acknowledged that Alexander the Great was a hero, although he cautioned against proving this statement by destroying government property. Indeed, Alexander the Great was the first to attempt the heroic feat of uniting the entire ecumene known to Europeans in BC 334–323. Certainly, history knew great conquerors before Alexander, people who established vast empires, but Alexander laid down, if we may say so, both the material and the ideological and political foundations of a globalization project in classical antiquity. Alexander emerged as a thoroughly cosmopolitan ruler on a global scale.

It is a well-known fact that Alexander was tutored and mentored by Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of classical antiquity, who had a very important influence on shaping the personality of the future Macedonian king and inspired him to achieve great things. According to Plutarch, Alexander said he owed his father his life, and he owed Aristotle the dignity of his life. It is a lesser-known fact that the perspectives of the two visionaries on the specific paths for uniting humanity were not identical, and in the course of time, they began to diverge more and more. The direct and indirect polemics of Alexander and Aristotle did not cease with the death of the Great King. In some manner or other, it continued later as it engaged new participants, and it remains relevant even now. Today, as we are witnessing a clearly emerging crisis of globalization, and as particularist and traditionalist sentiments are gaining traction throughout the world, it would be useful to review this polemic once again.

A Breakthrough in Greek Thought

For a long time, Greek city-states viewed the idea of the political unification of Hellas as heretical, infeasible and generally absurd. The jealously guarded independence of individual city-states and their mutual cutthroat competition were seen as inherent traits of Greek civilization, the key source of its vitality and evidence of its superiority over adjacent barbaric states. Like the Italian cities of the Renaissance, Greek city-states rivalled each other in terms of the wealth of their citizens, the wisdom of their rulers, and the achievements of their architects, sculptors, orators, philosophers, poets, and playwrights.

Forward winds carried Greek ships like the spores of some fantastic plant along the entire coast of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. These spores produced amazing sprouts: new colonies that easily adapted to any local conditions, successfully cooperated with native tribes, and enriched the common Greek culture. No one saw any point in supplementing this undisputed cultural unity with a political union.

The situation began to change following the Greco-Persian Wars of BC 500–449. On the one hand, these wars led to an unprecedented rise in pan-Greek patriotism. On the other hand, they clearly demonstrated the imperfections of the structure of the Greek world comprised of city-states. Soon after its triumphant victories over Darius the Great and Xerxes, Hellas entered a protracted period of political and military confrontation between Athens and Sparta, fuelled up by generous infusions of Persian gold. The aging and weakening Persia did not want to risk a new invasion, but it artfully pitted Greek cities against each other, supporting the weak and threatening the strong, encouraging conflict and upsetting unions. This inglorious era concluded with the destructive Peloponnesian War (BC 431–404) that forever undermined the power of Athens.

Hence the growing popularity of pan-Hellenistic ideas, that is, ideas of city-states entering political and military unions, prohibiting wars between them, coordinating their foreign and trade policies. The famous Attic rhetorician Isocrates in his famous Panegyricus proposed the most general outline of the pan-Hellenism concept, but Aristotle gave it his trademark completeness and depth.

Pan-Hellenism certainly did not proclaim the task of building a Hellenistic empire based on the Persian model. The very thought of conquering vast lands that was typical of Persian kings or Roman consuls was alien to the worldview of citizens of city-states. By choosing as their model the barbaric Persia that they had repeatedly defeated, the Greeks would have betrayed the very essence of Hellenism. Most likely, they were pondering the creation of what would effectively amount to a classical-era analogue of the European Union based on the pluralism of values and political ideas of its participants, the partial transfer of “city-state” sovereignty to collegiate governance bodies, the voluntary self-restriction of the union’s most powerful members, etc. The unity of Hellas should have been cemented by the presence of a common threat and, as we would say today, by the existential challenge of the barbarian East.

Let us also note that the unification of the Greek world, in Aristotle’s opinion, did not presuppose an alignment of governance systems in individual city-states and did not require the uniformity of values (as is the case in the European Union today). The philosopher was not so much concerned with the specific forms of governance in city-states as he was with their quality, and Aristotle saw the main problem in substituting private interests of rulers for public interests. According to Aristotle, any “true” constitution could, under certain circumstances, degenerate into a “deviant” one: a monarchy could become a tyranny, aristocracy could become oligarchy, democracy could degenerate into ochlocracy (the rule of the mob). Credit where it is due—the Greek philosopher had a much broader view of governance than most contemporary western politicians.

 “The War of Revenge” as a National Idea

The wise and calculating King Philip of Macedon made the right choice when selecting a mentor for his son and heir. Aristotle found a diligent and attentive student in the young Prince Alexander. It should be noted that at that time, as an independent state in the north-eastern periphery of Hellas, Macedon was under a powerful Greek cultural influence and actively participated in the pan-Greek political life. After Archelaus moved the capital from the secluded Aigai to the coastal Pella, the Macedonian court was frequented by eminent Greek thinkers. The great Euripides spent his final years there, and in Pella, he wrote and staged his famous The Bacchae. After the famous Battle of Chaeronea (BC 338), where Alexander’s father Philip the Great clearly demonstrated the superiority of the Macedonian phalanx over any other military formation of Greek hoplites, the king decisively established himself as the hegemon of Hellas.

No matter how open-minded he was, Alexander’s teacher remained primarily a staunch Greek nationalist. In his Politics, Aristotle wrote, “Those who live in cold countries, as the north of Europe, are full of courage, but wanting in understanding and the arts: therefore they are very tenacious of their liberty; but, not being politicians, they cannot reduce their neighbours under their power: but the Asiatics, whose understandings are quick, and who are conversant in the arts, are deficient in courage; and therefore are always conquered and the slaves of others: but the Grecians, placed as it were between these two boundaries, so partake of them both as to be at the same time both courageous and sensible; for which reason Greece continues free, and governed in the best manner possible, and capable of commanding the whole world, could they agree upon one system of policy.”

Aristotle could hardly be called a racist in the way we use this word today. He was willing to acknowledge the indisputable achievements of the creative genius of the Egyptians, Persians, and even Scythians. But the idea of the “Greek exceptionalism” was entrenched in his mind as firmly as the idea of “American exceptionalism” is entrenched in the minds of many contemporary conservative U.S. politicians. Having assessed the outstanding gifts of his student, Aristotle insistently called upon Alexander to promote the political unification of Greece so that the country could become the natural centre of the ecumene.

Aristotle believed that Hellas certainly should not abandon its mission civilisatrice, i.e., its consistent efforts to expand the habitat of the Greek culture, the Hellenic language, political paradigms, and the way of life of the Greek nucleus. He also understood that the complete “Hellenization” of barbaric tribes was impossible due to objective obstacles in the way of such Hellenization. Aristotle believed that the natural territory of the “Greek civilization” did not go beyond the coastal Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Going back to our analogy with the European Union, let us note that, unlike the EU’s strategists in the early 21st century, Aristotle clearly saw the risks and dangers of the uncontrollable expansion of the Hellenistic world into adjacent lands.

Aristotle never doubted the superiority of Greek culture and social structure over all the alternatives known to him. Consequently, he was unlikely to come up with the idea of a global synthesis of values and cultures and even more unlikely to be thoroughly captivated by it. Aristotle apparently did not have a particularly high opinion of Herodotus and was not interested in the history of the non-Greek world, which certainly negatively affected his perception of barbarians. We should also add that Aristotle was a staunch defender of individual rights and the monogamous family and an equally staunch opponent of despotism of any kind on the part of the state. Naturally, like most enlightened Greeks, he never dreamed of a “Hellenistic empire,” he only wanted to see a more harmonious alignment of the interests of independent city-states.

Apparently, at the beginning of his “glorious days,” Alexander followed roughly the same line of thinking as Aristotle. We could debate the degree to which the son of Philip, King of Macedon, and Olympias, the Princess of Epirus in the faraway periphery of Hellas, could be thought of as a “true” Greek, but his attachment to Greek culture cannot be denied. He can be said to have soaked up this culture since birth, and he sensed the great unrealized potential of the Greek world, like the Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte, sensed the unrealized potential of France or the Georgian Joseph Dzhugashvili sensed the potential of Russia. Alexander carried a copy of Homer’s Iliad corrected by Aristotle and known as “The Iliad from the chest” on all his military campaigns and kept it under his pillow.

The idea of a “war of revenge” against Persia was primarily a national idea intended to unite the Greek world and lead it forward. Alexander only partially succeeded in the latter respect: the proud Sparta refused to take part in this tremendous undertaking. Many in Athens, including the implacable Demosthenes, secretly hoped for a crushing defeat of the Macedonian upstart, and up until the death of Darius III, tens of thousands of Greek mercenaries fought for Persia. We could suppose that, initially, Alexander’s motives were quite “Greek”: exacting revenge for the protracted Persian expansion, the feeling of the “Hellenic superiority,” the genetic contempt of a free Hellene for eastern barbarians. The latter feeling was probably particularly acute with the Macedonian king, since his political opponents frequently accused him of being of barbarian origins.

However, further down the road, Greek heritage became but one building block of a global empire in Alexander’s vision of a new global world. It was the most valuable and important one, true, but it was not the only one. The King quickly outgrew his own initial plans and his teacher’s paradigms: instead of a consistent Greek nationalist, he became the first cosmopolitan universalist of classical antiquity.

A Student Who Went Beyond His Teacher

Most likely, we will never learn when exactly Alexander began to move away from Aristotle’s orthodox paradigms. When the iron hand of the Macedonian king united the crumbling Greek world, his teacher could only be happy for his student, even as he would chastise him for his excesses and his unreasonable cruelty—especially for razing the rebellious Thebes and selling all its inhabitants into slavery (although formally, the decision to destroy the splendid city was made not by the King of Macedon himself, but by his Boeotian allies). When the “war of revenge” against Darius started, the teacher would also be pleased with his student: on the whole, the great design proceeded according to Aristotle’s plan.

Most likely, the King of Macedon wanted his teacher to join him in his march east. Aristotle, however, preferred to remain in Athens and sent his nephew Callisthenes to accompany Alexander. Callisthenes became the first chronicler of Alexander’s empire. The dramatic fate of this outstanding, although apparently extremely vain and difficult person is the best characteristic of the way Alexander changed as his tremendous enterprise was coming to fruition.

Gradually, the new lord of Asia was drifting away from his teacher’s designs. Apparently, the “point of no return” was passed when, following the first victories at Granicus (BC 334) and at Issus (BC 333), Alexander rejected Darius III’s suggestion that they amicably divide the Persian Empire along the Euphrates with its western part being transferred to Alexander. If the interests of the King of Macedon had been confined to the Mediterranean, he would have done well to accept this generous offer without hesitation. While his father, Philip the Great, posited the immediate goal of taking Asia Minor away from Persians, Alexander was offered Syria, Phoenicia and Egypt to boot. What could be a better conclusion for a “war of revenge”?

Such an end to the war would have been a well-deserved triumph of the King of Macedon. Alexander could have returned to Pella and become the single ruler of the entire Eastern Mediterranean. He could have imposed his terms on the Greek League of Corinth. In this situation, Darius himself would have been Alexander’s junior, rather than senior, partner. Aristotle would have certainly approved of such a resolution. However, for the future lord of the world, confining himself to the Mediterranean would have meant abandoning his historical mission. He blankly refused Darius’s proposal, did not listen to his advisors, and marched further East—towards Persia, Bactria, Sogdia and India.

Even during his Egyptian campaign (BC 332), Alexander demonstrated a clear intention to achieve at least a harmonious co-existence of Greek and Egyptian cultures. At most, he wanted to bring about a fruitful synthesis of the two cultural traditions. In Egypt, he demonstrated not merely religious tolerance, but a willingness to adopt local gods into a new universalist pantheon of the future empire. The King of Macedon assumed the title of Egyptian Pharaoh and proclaimed himself the son of Amun. His proclivity towards syncretism was subsequently manifested in all his campaigns, including his campaign to India. Curiously, Alexander entrusted the principal positions in the government of the new province not to his faithful, yet somewhat simple-minded Macedonians, but to the experienced Egyptians and shrewd Greeks. This is a characteristic manifestation of the king’s typical meritocracy. Finally, at the shores of the western channel of the Nile delta, he founded the city of Alexandria, which would soon become perhaps the most vivid symbol of ancient globalization, a sort of a Singapore of classical antiquity.

Then came the historic Battle of Gaugamela (BC 331) that put an end to the dispute between Alexander and Darius III over the dominion of Asia. Then came the triumphant entrance of the Macedonian army into Babylon and Susa, the Persepolis fire, which was probably deliberately set on Alexander’s orders (BC 330), and the official end of the “war of revenge.” Henceforth, the new king of Asia was not the destroyer of Persia, but its liberator, not an implacable foe of the Achaemenid Empire, but its legitimate heir. Alexander finally shook off the remnants of Aristotelian pan-Hellenism and pressed forward to new, heretofore unknown frontiers.

Every year, Alexander lost something of what we would today call his Macedonian, Greek or broadly Mediterranean identity. Even for the centre of his empire (the traditional concept of “capital” is hardly applicable to Alexander’s state), he chose Babylon, and not some Hellenistic city on the Mediterranean coast. After landing on the eastern coast of the Hellespont, he would never come back to Europe—not to Greece and certainly not to Macedon.

Eastern Despotism or Enlightened Ecumenism?

The many Greek critics of Alexander reproached the king for yielding to the temptation of becoming an eastern despot, thereby discarding both the austere ways of his Macedonian ancestors and the sophistication of the Hellenic culture for the sake of the eastern luxury and the pomp of Persian customs. Were such rebukes justified? Certainly, eastern luxury exerted its corrupting influence on Alexander, although, as far as we can say, despite his generous gifts to his inner circle and his liking for great feasts, he remained generally indifferent to material wealth throughout his life. More likely, he would be vulnerable to the flowery eastern flattery, just as he would be, though, to the sophisticated praise lavished on him by his Greek coterie.

In any case, Alexander appears to be primarily motivated not by human weakness, but by his desire to make humanity happy through a synthesis of East and West, Greek and Persian (as well as Egyptian, Bactrian, Indian and other) cultures. Hence mass marriages and his own marriage to the Bactrian princess Roxana. Hence his desire to encourage migration flows between the most far-flung regions of his steadily growing empire. Hence his willingness to create a truly universal pantheon. Hence his “meritocratic” staffing policies. At some point, the king ceased to be both a Macedonian and a Hellene and became a man of the world, or, rather, an “overman of the world.” While Aristotle could understand and even welcome Alexander’s forsaking of his Macedonian identity, his forsaking of his Hellenic identity automatically transformed Alexander into an implacable opponent of the philosopher.

This is what Plutarch, who was favourably disposed towards Alexander, said: he “did not, as Aristotle advised him, rule the Grecians like a moderate prince and insult over the barbarians like an absolute tyrant; nor did he take particular care of the first as his friends and domestics, and scorn the latter as mere brutes and vegetables; which would have filled his empire with fugitive incendiaries and perfidious tumults. But believing himself sent from Heaven as the common moderator and arbiter of all nations, and subduing those by force whom he could not associate to himself by fair offers, he labored thus, that he might bring all regions, far and near, under the same dominion. And then, as in a festival goblet, mixing lives, manners, customs, wedlock, all together, he ordained that everyone should take the whole habitable world for his country, of which his camp and army should be the chief metropolis and garrison; that his friends and kindred should be the good and virtuous, and that the vicious only should be accounted foreigners. Nor would he that Greeks and barbarians should be distinguished by long garments, targets, scimitars, or turbans; but that the Grecians should be known by their virtue and courage, and the barbarians by their vices and their cowardice; and that their habit, their diet, their marriage and custom of converse, should be everywhere the same, engaged and blended together by the ties of blood and pledges of offspring.”

Back in his day, King Philip offered Greek cities the kind of relations where there would be no victors or vanquished, first and last, leaders and followers. Alexander offered the same to Persians and other conquered peoples. Clearly, both the father and the son saw themselves as supreme arbiters and guarantors of such a union. However, while the father set himself the task of uniting Hellas (and here he was quite at one with Aristotle), the son dreamed of uniting humanity, and in such a union, Greek civilization could at best claim to be primus inter pares. Individual people would inevitably pay for this union by abandoning their individual freedom: certainly in the name of a great goal.

The king never spared himself, and it would have been strange to expect him to be willing to spare others. It would be fair to say that Alexander’s conquests resulted not so much in liberating the defeated as they did in enslaving the victors. Both the former and the latter were to become assistants to the king, obedient conduits of his divine will. And this applied not only to the top military and political elite of the empire, but also to the thousands and even tens of thousands of Greeks and Macedonians whom Alexander left to man the remote garrisons at the edge of the ecumene with little chance of going back home.

Aristotle, who was observing Alexander’s activities from faraway Athens, could not have liked this. Perhaps he could have forgiven his student for inevitably restricting the freedoms of his subjects, but he could never forgive him for abandoning pan-Hellenism. The consistent implementation of Alexander’s grand plan would inexorably lead to Aristotle’s beloved Hellas dissolving within an entirely new, universal global civilization. Even in purely demographic terms, the mass movement of the most ambitious, energetic and promising young people from Europe to Asia “in search of luck and rank” threatened long-term negative consequences for the development of Greece, which would be doomed to depopulation and a wretched existence on the outskirts of the empire.

Additionally, the endless territorial expansion of the Greek culture inevitably resulted in its simplification and vulgarization—from the universalization of the classical Greek language and its transformation into the imperial “koine” to the degeneration of the classical Greek architecture. Even a cursory comparison between the huge and luxuriant Hellenistic buildings in the East and the best architecture of “the High Classical period” in Greece convincingly shows that size does not always matter. Alexander, like many despotic rulers before and after him, succumbed to the temptations of gigantomastia and approved colossal and often tasteless projects. This trend in construction was continued by the Diadochi, who succeeded Alexander.

Aristotle, of course, kept a keen eye on his student’s movements. Aristotle may have been far away, but his nephew Callisthenes kept a detailed record of Alexander’s campaigns and, taking advantage of his position close to the king, never missed an opportunity to remind him of the exalted ideals of pan-Hellenism. Callisthenes’s escapades led first to mutual bitterness and then an outright disagreement. Alexander’s first chronicler initially fell into disfavour and then found himself in chains. He did not come back from the Indian campaign—he either died of some disease, or was killed on Alexander’s orders.

We could only guess at Aristotle’s reaction to the lavish collective wedding Alexander held in Susa for his Macedonian comrades-in-arms and the daughters of the Iranian nobility. This ceremony went against the philosopher’s basic convictions concerning the cultural incompatibility of the Greeks and the Persians, a person’s right to their own choice, and the monogamous family (many Macedonian veterans had wives and children back home). In this particular instance, Alexander acted not as an enlightened ruler, but as a detached stock-breeder experimenting with a new human breed for his empire.

The Greek philosopher must have been even more horrified by the events that took place in Opis, when, after a mutiny of his Macedonian veterans, Alexander said he was ready to disband his old Macedonian army. Having transferred military command to his former enemies, he ordered a new army to be assembled from the people of the East, including a phalanx, a cavalry, and even a squad of royal guards. Of course, the Macedonians were forced to beg the king for forgiveness, but his willingness to entrust his fate and the fate of his state to Asians would have made any pan-Hellenist shudder.

Aristotle had enough common sense not to quarrel with the almighty king. Historians state that he even accepted Alexander’s highly generous gift of 800 talents for his studies. However, the ideological differences between the teacher and the student were too apparent to be hidden. When Alexander died, Aristotle was among the people suspected of having poisoned the Great King. The accusations levelled against the philosopher remained unproven and did not have any serious consequences for him. But it is quite possible that when Aristotle learned of his student’s death, he breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe humanity, at least its Greek part, was ready for Aristotle’s philosophy, but humanity, and particularly its Greek part, was clearly not ready to implement Alexander’s political programme.

Particularism Strikes Back?

It’s hard to say how world history would have developed had Alexander lived a long life. He would probably have annexed Arabia without much difficulty and within a very short time. Preparations for the campaign had almost been completed. He would probably have set his sights on the Western Mediterranean, where Syracuse, Carthage, and Rome would hardly be able to stop the victorious march of the great commander and where his conquests would likely have prevented the destructive Punic Wars in the future. Sometime later, Alexander would have probably set his sights on the East again and continued the unfinished conquest of India, he would have also explored the basin of the Indian Ocean that had always beckoned him. We cannot rule out the possibility of Alexander, in his thirst for global domination, reaching the western borders of China, which was at that time riven by non-stop internecine conflicts of the Warring States period.

One thing is clear: regardless of the geographical priority of his future campaigns, Alexander would have never gone back to the ideas of pan-Hellenism and Aristotle’s philosophy. He would have continued to build and strengthen his cosmopolitan empire, mix peoples and ethnicities, found new cities, and strengthen trade routes. We can suppose that the genius of the great king would have manifested itself in his state-building just as vividly as it had been manifested in his many victorious battles. However, fate dictated that Alexander spend most of his supernatural creative energy on destroying the old instead of building the new.

The great conqueror died at the age of 33 without completing many of his undertakings and without cementing the foundations of his universalist empire. The forces of particularism gradually began to overpower the ideas of universalism. Less than 20 years after Alexander’s death, the great empire collapsed into independent states locked in a fierce confrontation with each other. It is worth noting that the great empire eroded fastest in its eastern outskirts—India, Bactria and Sogdia. The centre of the post-imperial political activity was clearly shifting westwards, from the heart of Asia to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt became the principal areas of Greek colonization and the main centres of Hellenism in Asia.

To some degree, we can say that Aristotle ultimately vanquished Alexander. Or, in other words, Philip of Macedon vanquished his great son. The boundary between East and West was not eliminated, but shifted from the Aegean Sea to the Euphrates. The Hellenistic states of the Ptolemaic dynasty (Egypt) and the Seleucid Empire (Syria) succeeded where Greece failed: they overcame the local polis particularism. European immigrants moving to Alexandria or Antioch no longer thought of themselves as Athenians, Spartans, or Macedonians: they were all Hellenes sharing a common culture and historical tradition. However, neither the Seleucid Empire nor the Ptolemaic dynasty succeeded in harmoniously melding western immigrants and eastern residents in the same “melting pot”: in all states of the Diadochi, Hellenes formed the privileged class of people engaged in governance or commerce who mixed little with the native population.

However, Aristotle’s plans for Greece itself did not materialize either. The city-states never formed any kind of a European Union of classical antiquity. Their political strife and military conflicts continued, and Greece itself became a venue for confrontations between larger Hellenic states. One hundred years after Alexander’s death, the Roman Empire started to meddle in Greek affairs with increasing impudence, and in another 50 years (BC 146), the Roman province of Achaea was established in the territory of Greece.

Naturally, the influence that Alexander’s project exerted on the ancient world was not limited to the emergence or decline of specific states. Elements of Hellenism as a way of life and a cultural phenomenon became firmly entrenched throughout the vast spaces of Europe, Asia and Africa, that is, beyond the Hellenistic states themselves. The boundaries of the ecumene were gradually pushed back, new trade routes appeared, and commercial cities flourished. The baton of globalization was taken up by Roman consuls and then by the Roman emperors, who put many of Alexander’s unrealized plans into practice.

However, even imperial Rome, with its blatant cosmopolitanism and its colossal geographic scale, remained mostly a Western empire at the peak of its powers. The Roman eagles were not destined to reach the cities of India and the deserts of Central Asia. Emperor Trajan’s annexation of Southern Mesopotamia and Assyria (115 AD) proved very short-lived: just a few years later, his successor Hadrian was forced to abandon these conquests. For years, the Euphrates served as the border separating Western and Eastern civilizations. A stable synthesis between East and West ultimately failed to materialize even within the Roman Empire: centrifugal forces had the upper hand, and eventually, historical trajectories of Rome and Constantinople diverged for good. The emergence and geographical expansion of Islam ultimately locked in the boundary between the East and the West.

Arbitrary Historical Analogies

History develops in a spiral. In some sense, the global situation today is similar to the situation in the ancient world shortly after the death of Alexander the Great. On the one hand, we see many signs that globalization is in crisis: international trade, foreign direct investment, international migrations, etc., are falling. The importance of national sovereignty and national identity is emphasized everywhere, political forces advocating traditional values and the traditional way of life are growing in influence. Globalization priorities are being replaced with regionalization priorities. Ambitious long-term imperial plans are giving way to situational and highly pragmatic plans that are geared mostly toward domestic audiences instead of the world in general. As far as we can tell, deglobalization trends have gained major traction and will not be reversed in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to say that “globalization is over.” The world is getting smaller. Technological progress makes global communication easier and reduces the costs of implementing geographically distributed projects. The burden of common problems puts increasing pressure on all countries—problems ranging from the growing shortage of resources to accelerating climate change. The fact that the first wave of globalization of the late 20th to the early 21st century broke down does not necessarily mean that humanity will not have to face a second wave or that there is no need to prepare for it.

Historically, the Diadochi were the losers because they borrowed Aristotle and Alexander’s most obvious and least productive ideas. They took Aristotle’s political particularism and pan-Hellenistic nationalism, and Alexander’s despotic and highly centralized style of governance. And even though most of Alexander’s comrades-in-arms were remarkable people, neither Seleucus, nor Ptolemy, nor Perdiccas, nor Antigonus, nor Eumenes could measure up to the King in terms of his personality and his inexhaustible energy. Therefore, the Hellenistic states of the Eastern Mediterranean were internally unstable and ultimately fell to Rome or Parthia.

Solving the task that humanity has faced for over 2000 years requires approaches that would be diametrically opposite to those chosen by the Diadochi. How can we combine the most revolutionary and complicated elements of the globalization programmes of the two great figures of classical antiquity? How can we combine Alexander’s global universalism and noble idealism with Aristotle’s rational democracy and political pluralism? Solving this historical task would usher in radically new development directions for our world.

From our partner RIAC

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