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Struggling With the Virus on Multiple Fronts: Unseen Impacts on the Risks of Nuclear War with North Korea

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“This virus is going to disappear.”-US President Donald J Trump, February 27th, 2020

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”-T S Eliot, The Waste Land

Currently, our greatest challenge is a worldwide struggle against virulent pathogens. At the same time, there is no corollary reason to believe that this overriding menace could remove or preclude other significant hazards, some of them potentially existential. Though such existential threat simultaneity might seem too daunting for calmly rational consideration in these difficult days – and ought therefore to be brought up only in subtle whispers or sotto voce – there can be no reasonable argument for excluding it as a prospective national security hazard.

Now is a time for complete candor. To wit, humankind is never offered any choice in prioritizing existential threats according to any one’s subjective apprehensions or preferences. Moreover, Americans will have to deal with these variously grievous perils together; that is, as they arise, intersect and advance in bewildering tandem with one another. As to identifying significant interactions between such threats systematically, some could emerge as boldly synergistic.

In these cases, the injurious whole would be more-or-less greater than the simple sum of its relevant parts.

This fearful expectation is true by definition.

More to the point, any overlap or congruence between Covid-19 pandemic effects and those of a credible nuclear conflict with North Korea would be more consequential than any simple “adding-up” of numbers or statistics.

Far more consequential.

It follows, inter alia, that nothing could possibly be gained by approaching such galvanizing subject matter without first embracing absolute candor and a science-based precision.

How then shall we best proceed?[1]

 To begin, a core obligation for the United States should avoid basing American nuclear strategy on any flagrantly erroneous assumptions. In this regard, at least one thing is already certain: Kim  Jung Un does not see the world through the same perceptual lenses as Donald Trump. Kim is notprimarily motivated by assorted promises of expanded personal wealth or national economic improvement.
What he seeks for himself, above all and continuously, is extraordinary and stable political power.

Unsurprisingly, this rather obvious objective is tied closely to North Korea’s secure and recognizable possession of nuclear weapons and related infrastructures.

Inextricably tied.

There is more. For analysts and policy planners, the vital issues here are not dense or ambiguous. For Kim Jung Un, prima facie, “denuclearization” represents an unacceptable option in any form. As a national objective, it is anathema. Period.                

Accordingly, while US President Trump now either ignores the North Korean threat altogether or continues to rely on presumed benefits of “attitude” over “preparation,” Kim Jung Un goes ahead with substantial ballistic missile development and testing programs. While Trump continues with strategically meaningless bluster and bravado, Kim readies his nation for an always-possible “final battle.” For the United States, this all-too evident asymmetry could sometime prove to be lethal or even fatal.

We did not elect an American president to serve only on behalf of his own private interests. To properly serve US national security interests rather than his own personal and vanity-centered preferences, Trump must immediately refine and reiterate his still-amorphous North Korea strategy. Among other things, this means developing an American security posture that is more expressly analytic and history-based than are Trump’s current and disjointed orientations.

Still more precisely, it signals that the American president should begin to think systematically and realistically about creating long-term nuclear deterrence relationships with North Korea. For the United States, such creation has worked before, even if in substantially different circumstances. It will now need to work again vis-à-vis North Korea.

In the best of all possible worlds, American  (possibly also North Korean) interests would be best served by Pyongyang’s complete denuclearization. But this is not the best of all possible worlds. For  now, especially, establishing stable nuclear deterrence relationships between these two adversarial states would represent a markedly worthy and gainful American achievement.

There is more. During any still-upcoming negotiations, Trump should take scrupulous care not to exaggerate or overstate America’s military risk-taking calculus. Such imperative diplomatic caution would derive in good measure from the historical absence of any comparable nuclear crises. Because there has never been a nuclear war,[2] there could be no reliable way for this president (or anyone else, for that matter) to ascertain the true mathematical probability of any US-North Korea nuclear conflict.

None at all.

For Donald Trump, who is accustomed to making wholly unwarranted strategic extrapolations from commercial real estate bargaining or casino gaming examples, this observation could first seem exaggerated. Still, plainly and incontestably, it is a true observation,  and truth, in science, if not in US domestic politics, is always “exculpatory.”

Always.

In any logical assessment of conflict, meaningful probabilities must be drawn from one quantifiable calculus only.  This calculus references the determinable frequency of pertinent past events. When there are no such events, there can be no such extrapolation.

Period.

This does not mean that Trump’s senior strategists and counselors should steer away from offering clear-eyed assessments regarding prospective nuclear costs and risks, but only that such assessments be drawn knowingly from various constantly shifting and hard-to-decipher geopolitical trends. At this time, such trends must include complex considerations of worldwide disease pandemic. But this sort of inclusion won’t be easy.

Among other concerns, some attendant problems would emerge as more complicated and steeply problematic than others. For one, world security processes must always be approached in toto, or as a totality; that is, as a more-or-less coherent system. What is happening now, in such far-flung places as India-Kashmir, China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, could have significant “spillover effects” in the northeast Asian theatre and beyond. This is true even while Covid-19 rages in some measure across these countries.

Rather than ignore such complex and seemingly distant effects altogether – in part, because they could appear too intellectually demanding – this American president will first have to accord them a more appropriate position of policy-making priority.

Today, military threats from an already-nuclear North Korea remain genuine, substantive and determinedly “robust.” The fact that Trump’s nuclear “button” is “bigger” than Kim’s, however, is less than determinative. In strategic deterrence relationships, a condition of relative nuclear weakness by one of the contending adversarial states need not imply any corresponding absence of power or influence.

Even the presumptively weaker party in such asymmetrical dyads could deliver “unacceptable damage” to the stronger.

 There is more. President Trump will need to bear in mind that many or all of northeast Asia’s continuously transforming developments will be impacted by “Cold War II,”[3] an oppositional stance with Russia and (somewhat comparably or derivatively) China. Similarly important will be this US leader’s willingness to acknowledge and factor-in certain consequential limits of “expert” military advice. These generally unseen limits are not based upon any presumed intellectual inadequacies of America’s generals, but only on the unassailable knowledge that no person has ever fought in a nuclear war.

Again, this all-too relevant bit of knowledge is indisputable.

By definition – and going forward with all inherently time-urgent considerations of US – North Korea policy formation – American strategic calculations will be fraught with various and utterly daunting uncertainties. Still, it will be necessary that Donald Trump and his designated counselors remain able to offer the best available war-related estimations. Among prospectively causal factors – some of them overlapping, interdependent or (again) even “synergistic”[4] – the plausible risks of a nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang will depend upon whether such a catastrophic conflict would be intentional, unintentional or accidental.

 In principle, at least, this tripartite distinction could prove vitally important to any hoped for success in US nuclear war prediction and prevention processes.

 In facing any future North Korean negotiations, it will be necessary that competent US policy analysts systematically examine and measure all foreseeableconfigurations of relevant nuclear war risk. Expressed in the game-theoretic parlance of formal military planning, shifting configurations could present themselves singly or one-at-a-time (the expectedly best case for Washington), but they could also arise suddenly, unexpectedly, with apparent “diffusiveness,” or in multiple and overlapping “cascades” of strategic complexity.

What is to be done? To properly understand such bewildering cascades will require carefully-honed, well-developed and formidable analytic skills. This will not likely be a suitable task for a presidential political appointee or for the otherwise intellectually faint-hearted. It will require sharply refined combinations of historical acquaintance, traditional erudition and a demonstrated capacity for advanced dialectical thinking. Such disciplined thinking goes back to the dialogues of Plato, and the ancient but timeless awareness that reliable analysis calls for continuous asking and answering of key questions.

There is more. This challenging task could require American strategic thinkers who are as comfortable with classical prescriptions of Plato and Descartes as with the more narrowly technical elements of modern military theory and hardware. For the moment, these are obviously not the sorts of thinkers one finds around US President Donald Trump.

There is more. It is conceivable that neither Washington nor Pyongyang is currently paying sufficient attention to the residually specific risks of an unintentional nuclear war. To this point, each president would seem to assume the other’s complete decisional rationality. If, after all, there were no such mutual calculation, it would then make no ascertainable sense for either side to negotiate further security accommodations with the other.

None at all.

Viable nuclear deterrence (not denuclearization) must become the overriding US strategic goal with North Korea. But this complex objective is contingent upon certain basic assumptions concerning enemy rationality. Are such assumptions realistically valid in the particular case of a potential war between two already-nuclear powers? If President Donald Trump, despite once “falling in love” with Kim Jung-Un, should sometime begin to fear enemy irrationalityin Pyongyang, issuing new threats of US retaliation might then make starkly diminishing diplomatic sense.

At that literally unprecedented stage, American national security could come to depend upon some residually optimal combinations of ballistic missile defense and defensive first strikes. Again, by definition, determining such complex combinations would necessarily lack any decisional input or counsel from relevant concrete and quantifiable historical data.

In an imaginably worst case scenario, the offensive military element could entail a situational or comprehensive preemption – a defensive first strike by the United States – but at that manifestly late stage, all previous hopes for bilateral reconciliation would already have become moot. There would then obtain no “ordinary” circumstances wherein a preemptive strike against a North Korean nuclear adversary could still be considered “rational.”

None of these difficult strategic decisions should be reached casually or easily. With the steadily expanding development of “hypersonic” nuclear weapons, figuring out optimal US policy combinations from one North Korean crisis to another could quickly become overwhelming. Though counterintuitive amid such prominently intersecting complications, the fact that one “player” (the US) was recognizably “more powerful” than the other (North Korea) could quickly prove irrelevant.

 In all foreseeable circumstances, there would obtain certain overlapping issues of law and strategy. Under international law, which remains an integral part of US law,[5] the option of a selective or comprehensive defensive first-strike might be correctly characterized as “anticipatory self-defense.” But this would be the case only if the American side could also argue coherently and persuasively that the “danger posed” by North Korea was recognizably “imminent in point of time.” Such discernible “imminence” is required by the authoritative standards of international law; that is, by the formal criteria established after an 1837 naval incident famously called “The Caroline.”[6]

Now, in the expanding nuclear age, offering aptly precise characterizations of “imminence” could prove sorely abstract and densely problematic. For example, in  justifying his earlier assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, Trump used the term “imminence” incorrectly (sometimes even confusing “imminence” with “eminence”) and without any convincing factual evidence.

For the moment, especially in the  midst of a worldwide  biological crisis, it seems reasonable that Kim Jung Un would value his own personal life and that of his nation above every other imaginable preference or combination of preferences. In any corresponding scenario, Kim is visibly and technically rational, and must remain subject to US nuclear deterrence.[7]But it could still become important for a negotiating American president to sometime distinguish between authentic instances of enemy irrationality and contrived or pretended irrationality.[8]

Is US President Donald Trump – a self-declared “very stable genius” – up to meeting such a challenging task?

This is no longer a silly question.

In the past, Trump has praised pretended irrationality as a potentially useful US national security strategy. Apropos of this problematic praise, his earlier “fire and fury” warnings (issued before he “fell in love” with Kim Jung Un)[9] might have reflected a prospective “rationality of pretended irrationality” posture for the United States. Ultimately, such a posture could be adopted by either one or both sides.

What happens next?

This particular prospect adds yet another layer of complexity to the subject at hand, one that could sometime include certain force-multiplying biological synergies. These would be interactive outcomes where the “whole” was effectively greater than the mere sum of its apparent “parts.”

Although neither side would likely seek a shooting war, either or both heads of state could still commit assorted errors in the course of their respective strategic calculations. Such errors could represent an unintended consequence of jointly competitive searches for “escalation dominance.” Arguably, these errors are more apt to occur in those circumstances where one or both presidents had first chosen to reignite hyperbolic verbal rhetoric.

Even when the two leaders were reportedly once “in love.”

Portentously, even in reassuringly calm periods of polite and congenial diplomatic discourse, major miscalculations, accidents or “cyber-confusions” could accumulate. Again, such ill-fated accumulation could sometime be hastened by the unpredictable effects of disease pandemics.

What then?

In certain expectedly worst case scenarios, negotiations gone wrong could result in a nuclear war.[10] This ought never to be overlooked, In the words of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “The worst does sometimes happen.”

 There is more. An inadvertent nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang could take place not only as the result of various misunderstandings or miscalculations between fully rational national leaders, but also as the unintended consequence (singly or synergistically) of mechanical, electrical, computer malfunctions or of “hacking”-type interventions. Going forward, these interventions could even include the clandestine intrusions of “cyber-mercenaries.”

In any still-impending crisis between Washington and Pyongyang, each side will inevitably strive to maximize two critical goals simultaneously. These are (1) to dominate the dynamic and largely unpredictable process of nuclear crisis escalation; and (2) to achieve desired “escalation dominance” without sacrificing vital national security obligations. In the final analysis, this second objective means preventing one’s own state and society from suffering catastrophic or even existential harms.

This recalls a prior point concerning obligatory assessments of relative military power. When President Trump, in an earlier verbal competition with Kim Jung Un, stated that the North Korean president may have his own nuclear “button,” but that his was “bigger,” the US leader revealed a major military misunderstanding. It is that today, in the still advancing nuclear age, atomic superiority is potentially per se insignificant, and could lead the presumptively stronger nuclear adversary toward certain potentially lethal expressions of overconfidence.

In such paradoxical circumstances, having had the “bigger button” would have become the dominant source not of strength, but of weakness. Here, size would actually matter, but only in a starkly unexpected or counter-intuitive way.

 As Donald Trump should better understand, even an enemy with a smaller “nuclear button” could inflict grave harms upon the “stronger” United States and/or its close allies in Japan, South Korea or elsewhere. It follows that to take any discernible comfort from the observation that North Korea has been testing “only” shorter-range ballistic missiles is to miss the main analytic point entirely. To clarify, several of North Korea’s nuclear test firings expressed a yield at least 16X larger than the Hiroshima bomb. That 14KT WW II bomb produced almost 100,000 immediate fatalities.

Such vital understandings about nuclear “button size” must obtain as long as Kim Jung Un’s “inferior” nuclear arms are seemingly invulnerable to any American preemptions and seemingly capable of penetrating ballistic missile defenses deployed in the United States, Japan or South Korea. Because of the extraordinary harms generated by even low-yield nuclear weapons, a small percentage or tiny fraction of Kim’s “inferior” nuclear arsenal could and should still appear unacceptably destructive in Washington, Tokyo or Seoul. Worth noting, too, is that in all of these critical dimensions of strategic judgment, the only reality that would figure in ongoing adversarial calculations would be perceived reality.

The bottom line of all such informed assessments concerning a possible US – North Korea nuclear war is that the underlying issues of contention and calculation are enormously complicated and well-nigh indecipherable. Faced with challenging measures of complexity, both operational and legal, each side must proceed warily, in a fashion that is both suitably purposeful and appropriately risk-averse. Although such prudent counsel may at first seem to run counter to assorted inter-linking obligations of “escalation dominance,” any still-upcoming Trump-Kim negotiations would necessarily involve very deep and variously uncharted “waters.”

All this is especially worrisome in the midst of Corona virus pandemic.

Looking ahead, any aggressive over-confidence (or what the ancient Greeks called “hubris” in theatrical drama) by President Trump or President Kim will have to be scrupulously avoided. Although everything at some upcoming negotiation might at first appear simple and calculable, history calls to mind Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s sobering observations about “friction.” This element represents “the difference between war on paper, and war as it actually is.”

In certain plausible cases, this difference could mean total war.

To avoid any such intolerable outcome between the United States and North Korea, a prudent and informed nuclear posture must be fashioned, not with barren clichés and empty witticisms, but with refined intellect and cultivated erudition. Much earlier, the ancient Greeks and Macedonians had already understood that war planning must be treated as a continuously disciplined matter of “mind over mind,” rather than just one of “mind over matter.”[11] Today, in more specific regard to US-North Korea nuclear negotiations and rivalry, a similar understanding should promptly obtain in Washington.

It would be far better for the United States to plan carefully for all strategic eventualities than to somehow stumble into a nuclear war with North Korea. The plain fact that such a “stumble” could take place without any ill will or bad intention should provide little tangible consolation for the millions of prospective victims. Assuredly, for these victims, any ounce of diplomatic prevention would have been well worth avoiding an unstoppable nightmare.

Nightmare. According to the etymologists, the root is niht mare, or niht maere, the demon of the night. Dr. Johnson’s famous Dictionary claims this corresponds to Nordic mythology, which identifies all nightmare as some unholy product of demons. This would make it a play on the Greek ephialtes or the Latin incubus. In any event, in all of these fearful interpretations of nightmare, the idea of demonic origin is absolutely integral and indispensable.

But our current worries are of a very different and more secular sort. Recalling the earlier-cited warning of 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau concerning diligent scholarship, there are certain inherent complexities in problem solving that must always be accepted, understood and overcome. At a time when our planet is imperiled by the simultaneous and potentially intersecting threats of disease pandemic and nuclear war, there can be no suitable alternative to herculean intellectual efforts.

None at all.


[1] As part of any answer to this question, it will be vital to understand that these are not easy problems to solve, and that meaningful remedies will need to be studied with extraordinary care. In this connection, I am reminded of philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s timeless observation in The Social Contract, a 1762 work familiar to America’s Founding Fathers: “I warn the reader that this essay requires to be read very seriously, and that I am unacquainted with any art which can make the subject clear to those who will not bestow on it their serious attention.”

[2] The atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945 do not properly constitute a nuclear war, but “only” the use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional conflict. Significantly, too, following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were no other atomic bombs still available anywhere on earth.

[3] In essence, hypothesizing the emergence of “Cold War II” means expecting that the world system is becoming increasingly bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of any such expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[4] See, by this writer, at Harvard Law School:  Louis René Beres,  https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/  See also, by this writer, at West Point:  Louis René  Beres https://mwi.usma.edu/threat-convergence-adversarial-whole-greater-sum-parts/

[5] See especially art. 6 of the US Constitution (“The Supremacy Clause”) and the Pacquete Habana (1900). In the words used by the U.S. Supreme Court in The Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination.  For this purpose, where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations.”  See The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900).  See also:  The Lola,  175 U.S. 677 (1900);  Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774,  781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984)(per curiam)(Edwards, J. concurring)(dismissing the action, but making several references to domestic jurisdiction over extraterritorial offenses), cert. denied,  470 U.S. 1003 (1985)(“concept of extraordinary judicial jurisdiction over acts in violation of significant international standards…embodied in the principle of `universal violations of international law.'”).

[6] See Beth Polebau,National Self-Defense in International Law:  An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age, 59 N.Y.U. L. REV. 187, 190-191 (noting that the Caroline case transformed the right to self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a customary legal doctrine).

[7] Even before the nuclear age, ancient Chinese military theorist, Sun-Tzu, counseled, inThe Art of War:“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” (See: Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”).

[8] Expressions of decisional irrationality in US dealings with North Korea could take different and overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[9] Upon returning to Washington DC  after the Singapore Summit, President Trump made the following statement: “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

[10] There is now a substantial literature that deals with the expected consequences of a nuclear war.  For earlier works by this author, see, for example:  APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980); MIMICKING SISYPHUS:  AMERICA’S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington Books, 1983); REASON AND REALPOLITIK: U.S. FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (Lexington, MA:  Lexington Books, 1984); and SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON:  ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington, MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[11] See: F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), p. 63.

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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Americans “Learning in Their Own Flesh”: Trained, But Not Educated

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The mass-man has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.”-Jose Ortega y’ Gassett, The Revolt of the Masses (1930)

The Growing Challenges of Anti-Reason

Nothing could be more obvious. In present-day American life, anti-reason is not merely in vogue.  It also functions as a de facto national belief system. In uniquely retrograde instances, as we may witness in our daily politics, it can override entire centuries of intellectual progress.

               All too quickly, it can become de rigeur.

               There are pertinent facts and prominently grinding humiliations. Though many years have passed since the core scientific triumphs of Bacon, Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Einstein, conspiracy theories often still preempt established premises of logic, mathematics and science. For the most part, these theories are conspicuously imbecilic.

               So what is going on?

               It is, to begin, an absurd state of affairs. Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.” What we are experiencing today is nothing less shameless than an institutionalized triumph of absurdity. This “victory” is not merely difficult to explain. It is manifestly pervasive, insufficiently challenged and unambiguously lethal.

               There is more. There are assorted relevant chronologies. In America, the absurd triumph of “mass man” did not originate with the rabidly incoherent Trump presidency. Nonetheless, that presidential celebration of thoughtlessness functioned as a corrosive accelerant of irremediable national decline. And (plainly) a disjointed Trump presidency could happen once again.

               The evidence is compelling. We Americans have already made witting peace with governance by unwisdom, conspiracy and cliché. Altogether unhidden, there reigns in sectors of all American states a once-unimaginable sovereignty of the unqualified. The only plausible outcome of such still-accumulating national defilements can be expanded belligerent nationalism, enlarged human sufferings and an authentically existential despair.

               The core questions keep coming. How did we even manage to get to such a low point?[1] Where are we now likely heading?

               There are plausible answers to these questions. Going forward, all questions should be considered as interrelated matters of chronology. That is, they should be considered “in time.”

The Revolt of the Masses and its Bitter Legacy

               It has been almost one hundred years since Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset published The Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas, 1930). A prescient indictment of anti-Reason, and an immediate forerunner of modern classical works by the German scholars Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers,[2] Ortega was especially concerned about Europe’s growing fragmentation of learning. Witnessing a world that was abandoning the traditional goal of broadly-educated or “whole” human beings, he worried about a worldwide future in which there would be more capable scientists than ever before, but where these scientists were otherwise unexceptional, without any wider embrace of erudition.

                Though generally ignored, these observations were seminal. Among other things, the prophetic philosopher foresaw “educated” societies in which even the proud holders of impressive university degrees were “conscientiously ignorant” of everything outside their own vocational bailiwicks. Unwittingly, of course, Ortega had anticipated the present-day United States. Here, even in our oft-vaunted “advanced society,” the most exquisitely trained physicians, lawyers, accountants and engineers typically reason at the same limiting levels of analysis as technicians, carpenters, business owners or office workers.

               It’s time for candor. “Professional” education in the United States has managed to supersede everything that does not ostentatiously focus on making money. The adverb here is vital in this description, because the overriding lure of wealth in America remains the presumed admiration it can elicit from others. As we ought already to have learned from Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759): “The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world….At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell and dilate itself within him, and he is fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the other advantages it procures him.”[3]

The Pubic Mind and its Shapers

               Almost by definition, any American concerns for intellectual or historical issues per se have become extraneous. This does not mean, however, that our strenuous national efforts at improving professional education have been successful or productive. On the contrary, as we witness the multiple daily technical failures of American democracy, our beleaguered polity is failing on multiple fronts.

               For many reasons, many of them overlapping or even synergistic, this has been a lamentable retrogression. Above all, it has impaired this country’s capacity to sustain an enviable or even minimally credible democracy. Though Thomas Jefferson had already understood that proper human governance requires a purposeful acquaintance with historical and sociological learning, Americans now inhabit a country where the president could say unashamedly, “I love the poorly educated.” Significantly, this perverse preference of Donald J. Trump did not emerge ex nihilo, out of nothing. Moreover, it did nothing to inhibit the prospect of another run for the White House.

               It is a portentous but credible echo of Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels: “Intellect rots the brain.”[4]

               Ortega y’Gasset had a specific name for this generally defiling intellectual deformation. More exactly, he called it “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation.”[5] Earlier, and in somewhat similar fashion, Friedrich  Nietzsche wrote about the “educated philistine.”[6] Both Ortega and Nietzsche recognized the irony that a society could become progressively better educated in various sub-fields of human knowledge and simultaneously become less and less cultured, less and less truly civilized.[7] In this regard, the German philosopher placed appropriate conceptual blame on what he preferred to call the “herd.”[8] For his part, the kindred Spanish thinker cast his particular indictment on the “mass.”

               Whatever the terminological differences, both sets of ideas were centered on the same basic critique; that is, that individuals had been casting aside the necessary obligation to think for themselves, and had, thereby, surrendered indispensable analytic judgments to “crowds.”[9]

Barbarism in the Trump White House

               Today, both ideas can shed some useful light on American democracy, a system of governance under increasing assault by former US President Donald J. Trump.          To the extent that American education has become rampantly vocational – that is, oriented toward more and more “pragmatic” kinds of specialization – the wisdom of Ortega y’Gasset and others is worth probing with ever-increasing care. The “barbarous” impact of specialization foreseen earlier by philosophers is now magnified by the injurious effects of worldwide disease pandemic. 

               This unwelcome magnification will need to be countered if American democracy is merely able to survive.[10]

               But analysis should begin at the beginning. Inter alia, it is a discomfiting beginning. Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly fragmented and rancorous that even their most sincere melancholy is contrived. Wallowing in the mutually-reinforcing twilights of submission and conformance, We the people have strayed dangerously far from any meaningful standards of serious learning. In consequence, though still a nation with extraordinary scientific, medical and commercial successes, the American public is plainly ill-equipped to judge candidates for  high political office.[11]

               As we have seen in the case of Donald J. Trump, utterly ill-equipped.

               Surveying still-mounting damages of the recent Trump presidency,[12] some of which are synergistic or “force multiplying,” could anything be more apparent?

                The grievously baneful selection of Donald J. Trump in 2016 was anything but a cultural aberration.  It was, rather, the plausible outcome of an electorate relentlessly driven and even defined by “mass.” Without any real or compelling reasons, voting Americans freely abandoned the once-residual elements of Jeffersonian good citizenship.

               Together with the unceasing connivance of assorted criminals, charlatans and fools, many of them occupants of the previous US Government’s most senior positions, a lonely American mass now bears core responsibility for allowing the demise of a once- enviable democratic ethos. To expect any sudden improvements to emerge from among this homogenized mass (e.g., by continuously making the citizens more particularly aware of this former president’s manifold derelictions) would be to overestimate its inclinations.  Though truth is always exculpatory, there are times when it yields to various tangible forms of self-delusion.

               “What the mass once learned to believe without reasons,” queries Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “who could ever overthrow with reasons?”

High Living or High Thinking?

               There will be a heavy price to pay for America’s still-expanding ascendancy of mass. Any society so willing to abjure its rudimentary obligations toward dignified learning – toward what American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had once called “high thinking” – is one that should never reasonably expect to survive.[13]

                There is more. Treating formal education as a narrowly instrumental obligation (“one should get better educated in order to get a better paying job”), Americans now more easily accept flagrantly empty witticisms as profundities (“We will build a beautiful wall;” “Barbed wire can be beautiful;” “The moon is part of Mars;” “Testing for corona virus only increases disease;” “Just one percent of Covid19 victims have symptoms,” etc., etc), and consult genuinely challenging ideas only rarely.

               Always, the dire result of anti-Reason is more-or-less predictable; that is, a finely trained work force that manages to get a particular “job” done, but displays (simultaneously) nary a hint of worthwhile learning, commendable human understanding or simple compassion. Concerning this last absence, lack of empathy is not directly related to the “barbarisms of specialization,” but it does generally exhibit some tangible nurturance from literature, art and/or “culture.” Incontestably, the Trump White House was not “only” indifferent to basic human rights and public welfare,[14] it quite literally elevated personal animus to highest possible significations.

               This is especially marked where such animus is most thoroughly pedestrian.

               Intentionally mispronouncing the Democrat vice-presidential candidate’s first name was a small but glaring example of Donald Trump’s selected level of competitive political discourse. By its very nature, this demeaning level is better suited to a first-grade elementary school classroom. It is anything but appropriate to presidential discourse.

               There are even much wider ramifications of gratuitous rancor. When transposed to the vital arena of international relations, the former president’s elevation of belligerent nationalism has a long and persistently unsuccessful history as Realpolitik or power politics.[15] Thinking himself clever, Donald Trump champions “America First” (the phrase resonates with those, like the president himself, who have no knowledge of history),but fails to realize that this peculiarly shameful resurrection of “Deutschland uber alles” can lead only to massive defeat and unparalleled despair.

               “I loathe, therefore I am,” could well become Donald J. Trump’s “revised” version  of  René Descartes “Cogito.”[16] Following Descartes, Sigmund Freud had understood that all human beings could somehow be motivated toward creating a “spontaneous sympathy of souls,” but America’s Donald Trump had quite expansively reversed this objective. Reinforced by the rampant vocationalism of this country’s education system, Trump consistently urged citizens to turn against one another, and for no dignified, defensible or science-based reasons. In absolutely all cases, these grotesque urgings had no meritorious or higher purpose.

               None at all.

The Individual as Artifact

               In the bitterly fractionated post-Trump-era United States, an authentic American individualhas become little more than a charming artifact.  Among other things, the nation’s societal “mass,” more refractory than ever to intellect and learning, still displays no discernible intentions of ever taking itself seriously. To the contrary, an embittered American ‘mass” now marches in deferential lockstep, foolishly, without thought, toward even-greater patterns of imitation, unhappiness and starkly belligerent incivility.

               All things considered, the American future is not hard to fathom. More than likely, whatever might be decided in upcoming politics and elections, Americans will continue to be carried forth not by any commendable nobilities of principle or purpose, but by steady eruptions of personal and collective agitation, by endlessly inane presidential repetitions and by the perpetually demeaning primacy of a duly “sanctified” public ignorance.  At times, perhaps, We the people may still be able to slow down a bit and “smell the roses,” but this is doubtful.

               Plainly, our visibly compromised and degraded country now imposes upon its increasingly exhausted people the breathless rhythms of a vast and omnivorous machine.

               This machine has no objective other than to keep struggling without spawning any sudden breakdowns or prematurely inconvenient deaths.

               Much as many might wish to deny it, the plausible end of this self-destroying machinery will be to prevent Americans from remembering who they are now and (far more importantly) who they might once still have become. At another reasonable level of concern, Americans remain threatened by nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, especially now, following the incoherent Trump-era. Significantly, although there exists a vast literature on law-based strategies of nuclear war avoidance, there is little parallel jurisprudential effort directed toward the prevention of nuclear terrorism.[17]

               Arguably this is no longer a “nation of laws.” Rather, it is a nation of ad hoc, narrowly visceral response. Consider in this regard, that in August 2022, Donald Trump complained bitterly that he never had “the loyalty of Hitler’s generals.”

               There is more.  Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, we harbored a unique potential to nurture individuals, that is, to encourage Americans to become more than a smugly inert “mass,” “herd” or “crowd.” Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson (also fellow Transcendentalists Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau) described us optimistically as a people animated by industry and “self-reliance.”

               Now, however, beyond any serious contestation, we are stymied by collective capitulations to political chicanery and a Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.”

                Surely, as all must eventually acknowledge, there must be more to this chanting country than inane rallies, tsunamis of hyper-adrenalized commerce or gargantuan waves of abundantly cheap entertainments: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” rhapsodized the poet Walt Whitman, but today, the American Selfhas devolved into a delicately thin shadow of any true national potential. Distressingly, this Self has already become a twisting reflection of a prior authenticity.  Now it is under seemingly final assault by far-reaching societal tastelessness and by a literally epidemic gluttony.

               Regarding this “gastronomic” debility, it’s not that Americans have become more and more hungry, but rather that we have lost any once residual appetites for real life.[18]

Credulity and Conspiracy

               In the end, credulity is America’s worst enemy. The stubborn inclination to believe that wider social and personal redemption must lie somewhere in politics remains a potentially fatal disorder. To be fair, various social and economic issues do need to be coherently addressed by America’s political representatives, but so too must the nation’s deeper problems first be solved at the level of microcosm, as a matter for individuals.

               In the end, American politics – like politics everywhere – must remain an uninspiring second-order activity, a faint reflection of what is truly important.[19] For now, this public sphere continues to thrive upon vast personal emptiness, on an infirmity that is the always-defiling reciprocal of genuine personal fulfillment. “Conscious of his emptiness,” warns the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “man (human) tries to make a faith for himself (or herself) in the political realm. In vain.”

                Even in an authentic democracy, only a few can ever hope to redeem themselves and the wider American nation, but these self-effacing souls will generally remain silent, hidden in more-or-less “deep cover,” often even from themselves. In a democracy where education is oriented toward narrowly vocational forms of career preparation, an orientation toward “barbaric specialization,” these residual few can expect to be suffocated by the many. Unsurprisingly, such asphyxiation, in absolutely any of its conceivable particularities, would be a bad way to “die.”[20]

               Donald J. Trump did not emerge on the political scene ex nihilo, out of nothing. His incoherent and disjointed presidency is the direct result of a society that has wittingly and barbarously abandoned all serious thought. When such a society no longer asks the “big philosophical questions” – for example, “What is the “good” in government and politics”? or “How do I lead a good life as person and citizen”? or “How can I best nurture the well-being of other human beings”? – the lamentable outcome is inevitable. It is a result that we are still living through in the United States, and one (if Donald Trump becomes president for a second time) that might have to be “died through.”

Looking Behind the News

               Going forward, what we ought to fear most of all is precisely this continuously self-defiling outcome, not any particular electoral result. Until recently, nothing could have proved more important for the United States than to rid itself of the intersecting pathologies of Covid19 and a recalcitrant Donald Trump, diseases that were mutually reinforcing and potentially synergistic.  But even such indispensable victories could still prove only transient. More precisely, recalling philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset’s timeless warning about the “barbarism of specialisation,” this country must soon resurrect an earlier ethos of education in which learning benefits the whole human being, not just a work-related “corner of the universe.”

               Also vital is the obligation to acknowledge the fundamental interrelatedness of all peoples and the binding universality of international law.[21]

               To survive as a nation and as individuals, Americans need to become educated not merely as well-trained cogs in the vast industrial machine, but as empathetic and caring citizens. “Everyone is the other, and no one is just himself,” cautions Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (1932), but this elementary lesson once discoverable in myriad sacred texts is not easily operationalized.  Indeed, it is in this single monumental failure of “operationalization” that human civilization has most plainly failed. To wit, in Trump-era American democracy, the former president’s core message is never about the co-responsibility of every human being for his or her fellows, but about “winners,” “losers,” and a presumptively rational citizen obligation to “Make America Great.”

               In this context, “greatness” assumed a crudely Darwinian or zero-sum condition, not one in which each individual could favor harmonious cooperation over bitter inter-group hatreds.[22]

Making the Souls of the Citizens Better

               How shall we finally change all this, or, recalling Plato’s wisdom in The Republic, how shall we  “learn to make the souls of the citizens better?”[23] This is not a question that we can answer with any pertinent detail before the next presidential election. But it is still a question that we ought to put before the imperiled American polity sometime before it is too late.[24]

               American democracy faces multiple hazards, including Ortega y’Gasset’s “barbarism of specialisation.” To be rescued in time, each hazard will have to be tackled carefully, by itself and in coordinated tandem with all other identifiable perils. Overall, the task will be daunting and overwhelming, but the alternatives are simply no longer tolerable.

               Donald Trump’s removal from political life remains a sine qua non for all applicable remedies, but even such a needed first step could target only a catastrophic symptom of America’s national “pathology.” By itself, saving the United States from a crudely sinister president remains necessary, but it would leave unchanged the country’s most deeply underlying “disease.” In  the end,[25] because Americans will need to bring a less “specialized” form of learning to their citizenship responsibilities, this nation will have to figure out practical yet commendable ways of restoring educational “wholeness.”

               Though we certainly need a well-trained society, we also need one that has been suitably and seriously educated. Before this expectation can be fully understood and acted upon, however, there will need to take place a widened respect for learning and erudition. While Americans will certainly continue to value “practical learning,” they should also begin to value intellectual achievement for its own sake. We need gifted workers in every industry, but we also need reasoning persons and caring citizens.

               It could never be practical for Americans to favor human learning based on “attitude” rather than on “preparation.”[26]

               Always, “learning in their own flesh” would preclude any genuine citizen education.


[1]A generic explanation of such declensions is supplied by Thomas Mann. The German novelist and philosopher recalls the downfall of ancient civilizations, and faults gradual absorption of the educated classes by the masses, the “simplification” of all functions of political, social, economic and spiritual life. In short, the author of The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice blames “barbarization.” For an informed discussion of these assessments, see Stanley Corngold, The Mind in Exile: Thomas Mann in Princeton; Princeton University Press, 2022.

[2] See especially Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (Sein und Zeit;1953) and Karl Jaspers’ Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952). “Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Jaspers, “or a beginning?” The answer will depend, in large part, on what Heidegger has to say about the Jungian or Freudian “mass.” In Being and Time (1953), the philosopher laments what he calls, in German, das Mann, or “The They.”  Drawing fruitfully upon earlier core insights of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jung and Freud, Heidegger’s “The They” represents the ever-present and interchangeable herd, crowd, horde or mass. Each such conglomerate exhibits “untruth” (the term actually favored by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) because it can encourage the “barbarism of specialisation” and suffocate broadly humanistic kinds of learning.

[3]Smith published Theory seventeen years before his vastly more famous and oft-cited Wealth of Nations (1776).

[4]See, on commonalities between Third Reich and Trump-era American democracy, by Louis René Beres at Jurist:  https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/louis-beres-america-rise-and-fall/

[5] Chapter 12 of The Revolt of the Masses (1930) is aptly titled “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation.'”

[6]Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined an aptly specific term, one he hoped could eventually become universal. This German word was Bildungsphilister. When expressed in its most lucid and coherent English translation, it means “educated Philistine.” Bildungsphilister is a term that could shed useful light upon Donald Trump’s ongoing support from among America’s presumptively well-educated and well-to-do.

[7] On this irony, Kierkegaard says it best in The Sickness unto Death (1849): “Devoid of imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial province of experience, as to how things go, what is possible, what usually occurs. Philistinism thinks it is in control of possibility….it carries possibility around like a prisoner in the cage of the probable, and shows it off.”

[8]Sigmund Freud introduced his own particular version of Nietzsche’s “herd,” which was “horde.” Interestingly, Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. He most strenuously objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to this country’s “shallow optimism” and also its corollary commitment to the crudest forms of materialism. America, thought Freud, was grievously “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.

[9] In essence, the “crowd” was Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s equivalent of Nietzsche’s “herd” and Ortega’s “mass.”[9] Earlier, in the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked prophetically in Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought….It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further from Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge.

[10] The most ominous synergies of “barbarism” would concern the growing risks of a nuclear war. On irrational nuclear decision-making by an American president, see Louis René Beres, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: https://thebulletin.org/2016/08/what-if-you-dont-trust-the-judgment-of-the-president-whose-finger-is-over-the-nuclear-button/ See also, by Professor Beres, https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/nuclear-decision-making/ (Pentagon). For authoritative early accounts by Professor Beres of nuclear war expected effects, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018). https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy

[11]In this regard, selected elements of the US public ought to be reminded of the explicit warning in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Do not ever seek the higher man at the market place.” Moreover, it would not be unfair to Nietzsche’s core meaning here to expand “higher man” to mean “higher person.”

[12] Most egregious, in any assessment of these damages, is this president’s wilful subordination of national interest to his own presumed private interests. In this regard, one may suitably recall Sophocles’ cautionary speech of Creon in Antigone: “I hold despicable, and always have…anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[13] Still the best treatments of America’s long-term disinterest in anything intellectual are Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964); and Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1959).

[14] See, by Louis René Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/04/the-trump-presidency-a-breathtaking-assault-on-law-justice-and-security/

[15] The classic statement of Realpolitik or power politics in western philosophy is the comment of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic: “Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” (See Plato, The Republic, 29, Benjamin Jowett, tr., World Publishing Company, 1946.) See also: Cicero’s oft-quoted query: “For what can be done against force without force?” Marcus Tullus Cicero, Cicero’s Letters to his Friends, 78 (D.R. Shackleton Baily tr., Scholars Press, 1988).

[16] “I think, therefore I am,” says René Descartes, in his Discourse on Method (1637). Reciprocally, in his modern classic essay on “Existentialism,” Jean-Paul Sartre observes that “…outside the Cartesian cogito, all views are only probable.”

[17] See, by Professor Louis René Beres: https://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1410&context=gjicl

[18] An apt literary reference for this condition of “lost appetite” is Franz Kafka’s story, The Hunger Artist.

[19]See by this author, Louis René Beres, at Horasis (Zurich): https://horasis.org/looking-beyond-shadows-death-time-and-immortality/

[20] In more expressly concrete terms, average American life-expectancy, already unenviable for several decades, has now fallen behind most of the advanced industrialized world.

[21] Apropos of this universality, international law is generally part of the law of the United States. These legal systems are always interpenetrating. Declared Mr. Justice Gray, in delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)). The specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[22] Here it could be helpful to recall the words of French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature.”

[23] Long after Plato, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the very essence of a human being. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provides a precise definition of the term, but clearly it was not intended by either in any ordinary religious sense. For both, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of both mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present context, is that Freud explained his already-predicted decline of America by various express references to “soul.” Freud was plainly disgusted by any civilization so apparently unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., awareness of intellect and literature), and even thought that the crude American commitment to perpetually shallow optimism and to material accomplishment at any cost would occasion sweeping psychological misery.

[24] “Sometimes,” says Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “the worst does happen.”

[25] “In the end,” says Goethe, “we are always creatures of our own making.”

[26] See, about Donald J. Trump: https://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-kim-jong-un-965367

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Should the West Assume Collective Responsibility for the Failure of Biden’s Visit to Saudi Arabia?

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In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden, with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

In July of this year, Joe Biden visited Israel and Saudi Arabia for the first time as US president. It is well known that the primary goal of the trip was to persuade Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to alleviate the pressure caused by soaring global energy prices. Yet, it is worth remembering that when Biden punished Saudi Arabia for the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2019, he described it as a “pariah” country, adding that he had no short-term plans to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. It is therefore unsurprising that Biden received fierce criticism, not only for failing to encourage Saudi Arabia to increase oil production, but also for fist bumping MBS. Nevertheless, some argue that the criticism is unwarranted. After all, it was the West as a whole that put Biden in such an awkward position.

Biden’s Recalibration of Saudi Policy Criticized by both Realists and Moralists

Simply put, political leaders often face the dilemma of either preserving their nation’s interests or upholding morality when handling international affairs. Realists tend to emphasize that political leaders inevitably need to negotiate with dictators in order to protect the interests of their citizens; human rights activists/moralists stress that political leaders must draw a clear line with dictators who have poor human rights records and should not betray the victims of said dictators for the sake of economic or geopolitical gains.

On one hand, the Biden administration disclosed a confidential CIA report which concluded that the Saudi crown prince was behind the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. On the other hand, the US did not sanction MBS himself, only others involved in the killing. This response triggered criticism from both realists and moralists. Realists argued that infuriating MBS would be detrimental to the US in the foreseeable future, while moralists condemned the failure to impose direct punitive measures on MBS as hypocritical.

In terms of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, some realists feel that Biden was shooting himself in the foot, while other realists believe that Biden’s move may help US–Saudi relations in the long run, despite it being humiliating in the short term. From the perspective of prioritizing human rights, Biden’s meeting with MBS is seen as him going back on his word and surrendering to a dictator.

It is worth mentioning that Turkey played a significant part in putting Khashoggi’s murder under the spotlight; however, it is difficult to say if their motive for doing so was entirely altruistic. At the time, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was being heavily criticized by the US for his country’s human rights abuses, with Turkey itself being the subject of US sanctions. The disclosure of Khashoggi’s murder could have been a calculated attempt to embarrass the US: if the US decided to punish Saudi Arabia, it would suffer geopolitical losses, but if it tolerated Saudi Arabia’s actions, it would show the world that the US had a double standard in terms of its response to human rights.

Turkey had also hoped to use the case to undermine Saudi leadership in the Muslim Sunni bloc. However, given Turkey’s rapid economic deterioration in recent months, it urgently needs to ease relations with neighboring countries. This is partly why Turkey suspended Khashoggi’s murder trial, handed over the case to Saudi Arabia in April, and welcomed MBS to Ankara in June. These are just a few examples of Turkey’s abandonment of justice for its own politico-economic gain. As such, Biden’s visit was a little less dishonorable than Erdogan’s behavior because the US has not lifted its sanctions. That said, since the US proclaims itself to be the leader in defending global human rights, Biden’s compromising has led to severe criticism.

The Energy and Climate Crisis is Not Only Biden’s Fault

Of course, it is unfair to solely blame the Biden administration for creating the major crises which are currently faced by the West. For example, Russia was suppressing dissident journalists and human rights activists long before its invasion of Ukraine; however, neither Europe or the US imposed comprehensive sanctions on them or accelerated its efforts towards energy independence to reduce reliance on Russia. Furthermore, after Khashoggi was murdered, no European state vowed to boycott Saudi Arabian energy as did the US. Hence, it can be said that Western leaders did not show much determination to reduce their dependence on the energy of authoritarian regimes in recent years.

By this standard, Biden is not necessarily more hypocritical than any other political leader in the Western bloc. The recent energy crisis caused by the West’s imposition of sanctions on Russia is, in fact, a result of their lengthy practice of “dealing with devils.” The moral responsibility, therefore, should be shared by their leaders collectively.

It should be added that the West’s foreign policy is often not purely driven by either human rights or interests. Indeed, the US and the EU are signatories of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the so-called “Iran Nuclear Deal”), despite Iran’s notorious record of executing dissidents over the past 35 years. The original intention of the agreement was to use trade normalization as bait to lure Iran into gradually abandoning its development of nuclear weapons and improving its domestic human rights. However, the West did not make the deal on the premise that Iran’s human rights would improve significantly or overnight, it made compromises.

Shortly after Donald Trump became President, he unilaterally withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal because he claimed that it was full of loopholes that allowed Iran to continue developing nuclear weapons in secret. Subsequently, Iran has been actively refining the enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons, while its domestic hardline conservatives have fully regained political power in recent years.

The question of whether the threat from Iran was caused by Obama’s relaxation of sanctions or Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal has been a hotly debated topic. It is also worth mentioning that Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his plan of “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People,” which allows Israel to occupy most of the West Bank, are based on contempt for Palestine.

The Legacy of Trump’s Middle East Policy Constrains Biden’s Options

Biden showed his intention to revise Trump’s Middle East policy on both the US presidential campaign trail and at the start of his presidency. However, evidence suggests that Trump’s policy has gradually taken root. In addition, the geopolitical situation has changed drastically. Therefore, it is difficult for Biden to simply act as he wants, and even if he did, the results would not seem effective either.

Of course, some left-wing critics argue that the climate crisis is precisely the result of over-consumption of non-renewable energy. Hence, instead of begging dictators to increase energy production amidst the current energy crisis, the Biden administration should use this opportunity to promote clean energy and reduce global greenhouse gases emissions, despite the pain it will cause people in the short term. That said, the US mid-term elections are approaching, and forcing voters to reduce their energy usage at such a time will only make things more difficult for the Biden-affiliated Democratic Party. Therefore, whether such an approach is prudent is up for debate.

Last but not least, the claim that “The US would not face such a passive geopolitical situation if Trump was re-elected as the US President” is an assertion that cannot be proved. Trump is well-known for his unpredictability and capriciousness in handling US foreign affairs, despite his consistent tough stance against Iran and his partiality to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Based on his previous actions, Trump might backtrack on Ukraine’s accession to NATO, claiming to support Ukraine’s right to join NATO, but then echoing others’ position against NATO expansion. He might also recklessly respond to Russia’s military threats, which would make the global situation even more precarious. Ultimately, both Trump’s loyal supporters and his adversaries can find examples that support their respective arguments, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to inconvenient truths.

An earlier Chinese version of this article appeared in print on July 25, 2022 in Section B, Page 11 of Ming Pao Daily News. 

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How Bolivia’s 2019 coup exemplified millennia of global history

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Throughout thousands of years of human history, dictatorships have been the norm, not the exception, and all of them have been by the aristocracy, against the public. (Sometimes, the aristocrats are led by one person, a “monarch” or “Fuehrer” or etc.; but he or she then REPRESENTS the aristocracy, NOT the public.)

Aristocrats are the nation’s few super-rich; the public are everyone else.

Usually, the aristocracy ‘justifies’ its ‘superiority’ as being god-ordained, and they hire (donate to) some clergy to allege this in order to keep the public fighting for them and maybe dying for them, in their wars of conquest, against the aristocracies who control foreign lands. Another way to fool their publics is to declare that these conquests will ‘free’ those foreign publics by replacing their local aristocracy with the invading country’s aristocracy (a ‘better’ one; those others are instead being called “oligarchs”), and so creating an empire, which represents ‘us’ against the foreigners’ ‘them’, while also making those foreigners ‘free’ from their “oligarchs.” This is called ‘spreading democracy’.

Throughout thousands of years, aristocracies have operated this way, deceiving masses of people so as to create empires, which expand the local aristocracy’s thefts, from being merely thefts against their local public, to becoming thefts against an entire empire’s public (using those local “oligarchs” as their vassals).

Here is how this worked out recently in Bolivia:

On 11 November 2011, The U.S. White House issued this “Statement from President Donald J. Trump Regarding the Resignation of Bolivian President Evo Morales”:

The resignation yesterday of Bolivian President Evo Morales is a significant moment for democracy in the Western Hemisphere.  After nearly 14 years and his recent attempt to override the Bolivian constitution and the will of the people, Morales’s departure preserves democracy and paves the way for the Bolivian people to have their voices heard.  The United States applauds the Bolivian people for demanding freedom and the Bolivian military for abiding by its oath to protect not just a single person, but Bolivia’s constitution.  These events send a strong signal to the illegitimate regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua that democracy and the will of the people will always prevail.  We are now one step closer to a completely democratic, prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere.

On 13 November 2019, the billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s Fox ‘News’ headlined “Bolivia interim president declares ‘Bible has returned to the palace’ amid growing uncertainty”, and reported

A day after brandishing a giant leather-bound Bible and declaring herself Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Añez set to the task of trying to steady a nation divided by bloody political disputes and create the stability necessary to organize national elections.

The 52-year-old second-vice president of the Senate claimed the presidency on Tuesday following the ousting of socialist leader Evo Morales due to alleged election fraud and resignations from several high-ranking successors that left a power void in the country.

“The Bible has returned to the government palace,” Añez declared as part of an effort to separate herself from Morales, who had banned the Bible from the site after he reformed the constitution and recognized an Andean earth deity instead of the Roman Catholic Church.

Then, two days later, on November 15th, Anti-War dot com bannered “Finally Got Him: The Bolivian Coup”, and reported:

The U.S. says it wasn’t a coup.

Trump’s official statement “applauds” the Bolivian regime change for preserving democracy. Trump identifies the event as “a significant moment in democracy” because it stymied Bolivian President Evo Morales’ attempt “to override the Bolivian constitution and the will of the people. …”

But all three White House claims are false: Morales didn’t go against the constitution, he didn’t override the will of the people and it was a coup.

If it wasn’t a coup, why was Morales forced from office by the military? Why was he driven out of office in Bolivia and into asylum in Mexico for the sake of his safety, while a coup leader announced that the police and military were hunting Morales down and putting Bolivia into lockdown? Why as he fled and sought asylum was his house ransacked, his sister’s house set on fire, and the families of his cabinet ministers kidnapped and held hostage until the ministers resigned? Though reported in the mainstream media as abandoning Morales, Victor Borda resigned as president of the Bolivian congress and resigned his position as MP because his brother was kidnapped to force him to do so.

If it wasn’t a coup, why did the opposition assume power before the legislature voted on approving Morales’ resignation as the constitution demands? Why did Jeanine Añez declare herself interim president in the absence of the quorum that is legally required to make that decision after meeting with the military high command for over an hour? And why did the opposition force Morales out and assume power before Morales’ term in office would end in January?

If it wasn’t a coup, why did Morales’ opponent, Carlos Mesa, begin his claims of fraud before the voting began, before he could know there had been any fraud? Why did Mesa insist, according to Mark Weisbrot, that he would not accept the election results if Morales wins long before the votes were even counted?

And why, perhaps most damningly, did a cabal of coup plotters discuss between October 8th and 10th – days ahead of the October 20th election – a plan for social disturbance that would prevent Morales from staying in power, as revealed by leaked audio of their conversations

Then, on 24 July 2020, the Twitter site of an American centi-billionaire, Elon Musk, received a tweet from an “Armani” saying, “You know what wasnt in the best interest of people? the U.S. government organizing a coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia so you could obtain the lithium there.” Later that day, Musk replied:

“We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”

Why, then, was the Bible being presented, on 13 November 2019, as the coup’s justification?

Not enough suckers would have been fooled to support this fascist coup as having been a fascist coup — a coup by an aristocracy. It was actually even a racist-fascist coup, a “nazi” coup (a coup by a racist aristocracy), which aimed to steal from the native-Indian masses in Bolivia, for the benefit of the supremacist-White aristocracy there, who were subordinates, or vassals, of America’s own overwhelmingly White aristocracy, its billionaires, such as the racist-fascist Elon Musk. Fox ‘News’ had broadcast that biblical display to its own overwhelmingly White Christian audience so as to portray that theft against Bolivians as having been in service to their god and consequently ‘justifiable’. It’s simply the way that aristocracies have functioned, for thousands of years.

Then, on 14 July 2022, the “Declassified UK” investigative-news site headlined “EVO MORALES: ‘WE LAMENT THE ENGLISH WERE CELEBRATING THE SIGHT OF DEAD PEOPLE’”, and delivered from Matt Kennard a terrific, linked-to-sources, extensive interview with the U.S.-UK-Bolivian aristocracy-overthrown former Bolivian President, who explained, as Kennard’s summary at its front stated:

               • THE COUP: ‘The UK participated in it – all for lithium’

               • THE BRITISH: ‘Superiority is so important to them, the ability to dominate’

               • THE US: ‘Any relationship with them is always subject to conditions’

               • NEW MODEL: ‘We no longer submit to transnational corporations’

               • JULIAN ASSANGE: ‘The detention of our friend is an intimidation’

               • NATO: ‘We need a global campaign to eliminate it’

               • BOLIVIA: ‘We are putting anti-imperialism into practice’

Morales, while he had held power in Bolivia, had produced, for the Bolivian people, results that publics elsewhere could only dream of.

Of course, the U.S./UK regime will be trying to reconquer Bolivia.

History teaches lots of lessons, to whomever in the public is open-minded to it and who is lucky enough to become exposed to its truths (despite the aristocracy’s overwhelming censorship against those truths — which are historical truths).

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