Beyond The Pandemic: American Strategic Survival In A Time Of Plague

Science, by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual, is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation….The latter is not possible without the former.”-Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, Man and Crisis (1958)

 America and the world face a relentless common enemy. Very conspicuously, the recalcitrant  Corona virus threatens to dwarf all other pertinent existential hazards. At the same time, the sheer magnitude of this biological peril does not in any way diminish other long-term security perils. Accordingly, both principal species of hazard –  disease and war – must now be dealt with scientifically, simultaneously and with a view to understanding all plausible interactions between them.

This deliberate view includes any expressly synergistic interactions. Here, by definition , the “whole” of any particular interaction would exceed the  sum of its calculably separate “parts.”[1]

Prima facie, this will not be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted or for those more well-versed as public impresarios than as disciplined thinkers.[2]

How to begin? The most glaringly long-term and seriously underlying hazard is easy to identify. This structural enemy is a continuously anarchic system of world politics, one based upon the fragile foundations of a perpetually belligerent nationalism. Ironically, it is precisely this “all against all” global system that remains dear to the ceremony-centered heart of US President Donald J Trump.

To proceed, there are certain indispensable antecedent questions. Most importantly, one must immediately inquire: How did we ever get to such a frightful and unpromising situation? This is a core historical question that should no longer be side-stepped or avoided.

In order to answer these questions capably, history deserves an evident pride of place.  Our bloodied planet’s corrosive and continuously unsuccessful pattern of global strategic interaction began in the seventeenth century, in 1648, immediately after the Thirty Years War and the war-terminating Peace of Westphalia. Consequently, this pattern is often referred to by international relations scholars as “Westphalian world politics” or as “Westphalian international relations.”[3] Either way, these two terms represent a formal academic synonym for “balance of power.”

There is more.  Since the start of the Nuclear Age in 1945, this time-dishonored world system has been described more particularly as a “balance of terror.” [4] In part, this is because in a world with proliferating nuclear weapons, strategic emphases must shift meaningfully from war management to war avoidance. Accordingly, among other considerations, scholars and planners must now look more comprehensively at the specialized mechanisms of deterrence than at more traditional elements of defense.[5] By definition, this shift in focus will be paralleled by an increase in complexity.

For analytic reasons, both deterrence and defense designate a global pattern for influencing behavior that values national military power over any plausible forms of international cooperation. Among other liabilities, such hierarchic or preferential designations are inherently ill-fated, continuously degrading and prospectively irrational.[6] Even before the creation of the modern state system in 1648 – indeed, from time immemorial –  world politics have been rooted in some more-or-less bitter species of Realpoliitk[7] or power politics.[8]

Always, sooner or later, they have exploded into catastrophic violence.

Still, though these traditionally rancorous patterns of thinking have always proven shortsighted and transient, they remain popularly accepted as “realistic.”  It follows, among many other things, that present-day major world powers would be well-advised to (1) acknowledge the unchanging limitations of a persistently fragile global threat system,[9] and (2) begin to identify more promising and substantially more durable patterns of cooperative international interaction.[10] In purely analytic terms, no such advice could even be questionable or problematic.

More specifically today, this self-evidently sound advice is especially pertinent to US President Donald J Trump and still-functioning American foreign policy makers. What might first have still seemed promising to calculating strategists in our ongoing “state of nature”[11] is apt to prove futile and counter-productive for America’s longer-term survival prospects.  On this sobering point, prima facie, there can be little credible doubt.[12]

 There is more. The United States, in the fashion of every other state, is part of a larger world system.  But this vastly more comprehensive system has steadily diminishing chances for achieving any sustainable success within a dissembling  pattern of foolishly competitive sovereignties. What then, our national decision-makers must promptly inquire, is the point of upholding such an insidious system? Is there any conceivably defensible argument on behalf of maintaining some hypothetical  “military edge” in a system that is by its nature destined to fail?[13]

To answer such a starkly fundamental question, it may  be useful to consider the insights of poets and playwrights and not just “professionals.” “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another,” asks Samuel Beckett philosophically in Endgame, “of seeking justification always on the same plane?” This is plainly a serious question, not just about life in general, but also about world political and strategic structures in particular.[14]

 Again,  history must be consulted as a primary and tangible clarifier.  Realpolitik or balance of power world politics has never succeeded for longer than certain palpably brief and dreadfully uncertain historical intervals.[15] In the future, from time to time, this intrinsically unsteady foundation could be exacerbated by multiple systemic failures, sometimes mutually reinforcing or “synergistic,” sometimes even involving weapons of mass destruction. Most portentous, in this particular regard, would be nuclear weapons.[16]

By definition, therefore, a failure of nuclear Realpolitik could be not “only” catastrophic, but also potentially sui generis, if judged in the full or cumulative scope of its decipherable declensions.

Immediately, all states that depend upon some form or other of nuclear deterrence must prepare to think more self-consciously and imaginatively about alternative systems of world politics; that is, about creating viable configurations that are more strategically war-averse and cooperation-centered. While any hint of interest in complex patterns of expanding global integration, or what Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls “planetization,” will sound unacceptably utopian or foolishly fanciful to “realists,” the opposite is actually true. Now, after so many years of “everyone for himself,” it is more realistic to acknowledge candidly that our zero-sum ethos in world politics is endlessly degrading, and also incapable of conferring any credible survival reassurances.

“The visionary,” alerts the Italian film director Federico Fellini, “is the only realist.”

Again and again – and at some point, irretrievably – “Westphalian” world systemic failures could become tangibly dire and potentially irreversible. In the final analysis, it will not help to merely tinker tentatively at the ragged edges of our historically violent world order. At that decisive turning point, simply continuing to forge ad hoc agreements between refractory states or (as “hybridized” actors) between these combative states and surrogate or sub-state organizations would be futile.

In the longer term, the only sort of realism that can make any sense for America and other leading states in world politics is a posture that points meaningfully toward a “higher” awareness of global “oneness,” and (however incrementally) toward far greater world system interdependence.[17]

In its fully optimized expression, such an indispensable awareness – a literal opposite of US President Donald Trump’s refractory “America First” – would display what the ancients had called a cosmopolitan or “world city” perspective. For the moment, the insightful prophets of any more collaborative world civilization must remain “on the fringe,” few and far between,[18] but this probable absence is not because of any intrinsic lack of need or any witting forfeiture. Rather, it reflects a progressively imperiled species’ wretchedly stubborn unwillingness to take itself seriously –  that is, to finally recognize that the only sort of loyalty that can rescue all states from oblivion must embrace a redirected commitment (both individual and national) to all humankind.

At its heart, various complex nuances notwithstanding, this is not a bewilderingly complicated idea. To wit, it is hardly a medical or biological secret that those basic factors and behaviors common to all human beings outnumber those that very unnaturally differentiate one from another. Unless the leaders of major states on Planet Earth can finally understand that the survival of any one state must inevitably be contingent upon the survival of all, true strategic security will continue to elude every nation.

This includes even (or especially) the “most powerful” states. After all, incontestably, the most persuasive forms of power on planet earth are not guns, battleships or missiles. Instead, they are conveniently believable promises of “life everlasting” or personal immortality. In essence, when one finally uncovers what is most utterly important to the vast majority of human beings, it is a presumptively credible power over death[19]. Significantly, individuals all over the world often see the dynamics of belligerent nationalism (e.g., “America First”) as a path to their own personal immortality.[20]

Why else, in essentially all international conflict, does each side seek so desperately and conspicuously to align itself with God? Always, the loudest claim of all is deliberate and incomparably reassuring: “Fear not,” the citizens are counseled, “God is on our side.”

The bottom line? The most immediate security tasks in the global state of nature will sometimes still need to remain narrowly or even collaboratively self-centered. Quickly, however, leaders of  all pertinent countries must also learn to understand that our planet represents a recognizably organic whole, a fragile but variously intersecting “unity,” a species of “oneness” that exhibits certain  already diminishing options for viable war avoidance.[21]

To seize rapidly disappearing residual opportunities for long-term survival, our leaders must finally learn to build upon the critical foundational insights of Francis Bacon, Galileo and Isaac Newton,[22] and also on the more contemporary observation of Lewis Mumford: “Civilization is the never ending process of creating one world and one humanity.”[23]

Whenever we speak of civilization we must also speak of law. Jurisprudentially, no particular national leadership has any special or primary obligations in this regard, nor could it reasonably afford to build its own immediate security policies upon any vaguely distant hopes. Nonetheless, the United States remains a key part of the community of nations, and must continually do whatever it can to detach an already wavering state of nations from the unsteady state of nature.

Any such willful detachment should be expressed as part of a much wider vision for a durable and justice-centered world politics. Over the longer term, Washington will have to do its own significant part to preserve the global system as a whole. “America Together,” not “America First,” must become our rational national mantra. However impractical  this may sound at first, nothing could possibly be more fanciful than continuing indefinitely on a repeatedly discredited course.

US President Donald Trump’s hastily assembled “insights” to the contrary, endlessly corrosive kinds of global anarchy can never be in America’s best interests.


For the moment, at least, there is no need for detailing further analytic or intellectual particulars – there are, of course, bound to be a great many –  but only for outlining a more recognizable and dedicated awareness of this genuinely basic civilizational obligation.[24]

In The Plague, Albert Camus instructs: “At the beginning of the pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric….It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words – to silence.” As long as the states in world politics continue to operate as determinedly grim archeologists of ruins still-in-the-making, that is, as permanent prisoners of massively corrupted scientific and analytic thought, they will be unable to stop the next series of catastrophic wars, and the next series of deadly disease outbreaks.

Until now, the traditional expectations of Realpolitik have seemed fundamentally sensible and correct. Accordingly, there have appeared no seemingly plausible reasons for expressing pent up regrets about “everyone for himself.”.  Nevertheless, from the essential standpoint of longer-term options and security prospects, world leaders must soon open up their security imaginations to more openly visionary ways of understanding – ways clearly not yet  their own.

Merely continuing with the defiling extremities of Hobbesian anarchy in world politics is a prescription not for realism, but for recurrent war, disease epidemics and utterly wholesale despair.[25]

There is one last and still critically important point. Though the Covid-19 plague represents a singularly catastrophic event for us all, there could be at least one identifiable “silver lining.” This is the still-conceivable prospect of transforming grievous catastrophe into an eleventh-hour opportunity for expanded global cooperation. In  essence, because this disease threat is so prominently indifferent to religion, race, ethnicity and national boundaries, it could actually provide a unique incentive for major world powers to cooperate purposefully against “Westphalian” world politics.

Though the precise likelihood of any such dynamically reciprocal cooperation will be impossible to determine, it is by no means inconceivable.[26] Recalling seminal Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, the necessary scientific expectations will have to include not just variously astute hypotheses and “observations,” but also certain extraordinary leaps of “imagination.” This can be done, but only by capable thinkers and analysts, not by the public purveyors of utterly barren “insights,” tiresome clichés or palpably empty witticisms.

[1] See, by this author, Louis René Beres, at Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School: In this article, however, the subject is Israeli national security, not US national security.

[2] To accomplish this indispensable task, one would first need to think in terms of a dynamic and continuous feedback loop; to wit, one wherein the investigator systematically considers the various ways in which the anarchic structures of world politics can impact control of the pandemic and, reciprocally, how the affected pandemic could then impact these “Westphalian” or “everyone for himself”/”state of nature” global structures. In principle, at least, there should be no necessarily final or conclusive end to this dynamic cycle. Rather, each successive impact would be more-or-less transient and temporary, setting the stage for the very next round of reciprocal  changes, and so on.

[3] In essence, the Peace of Westphalia (1648) concluded the Thirty Years War and created the still-existing state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two treaties comprise the “Peace of Westphalia.”

[4] The idea of a balance of power – an idea of which the nuclear-age balance of terror is merely a variant – has never been more than a facile metaphor. It has never had anything to do with ascertaining equilibrium. As such, balance is always more-or-less a matter of individual subjective perceptions\. Adversarial states can never be sufficiently confident that identifiable strategic circumstances are actually “balanced” in their favor. In consequence, each side must perpetually fear that it will be left behind, creating ever wider and cascading patterns of both insecurity and disequilibrium.

[5] See, for example, by this author and General (USA/ret.) Barry McCaffrey:

[6] The American planner or strategist could benefit here from Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s instructive remark about German philosopher Hegel: “Hegel made famous his aphorism that all the rational is real, and all the real is rational; but there are many of us who, unconvinced by Hegel, continue to believe that the real, the really real, is irrational – that reason builds upon irrationalities.”

[7] An earlier book by this author deals with these issues from an expressly American point of view. See: Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington Books, 1984).

[8] For the political philosophy origins of such core assumptions, see especially classic comment of Thrasymachus in Bk. 1, Sec. 338 of Plato, The Republic: “Right is the interest of the stronger.”

[9] In his seventeenth-century classic of political philosophy, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes points out interestingly that while the anarchic “state of nature” has likely never existed between individual human beings, it nonetheless defines the usual structures of world politics, patterns within which nations coexist in “the state and posture of gladiators….” This “posture,” expands Hobbes, is a condition of “war.”

[10] In this connection, noted Sigmund Freud: “Wars will only be prevented with certainty if mankind unites in setting up a central authority to which the right of giving judgment upon all shall be handed over. There are clearly two separate requirements involved in this: the creation of a supreme agency and its endowment with the necessary power. One without the other would be useless.” (See: Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers, cited in Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis, University of Denver, Monograph Series in World Affairs, Vol. 10 (1973-73), p, 27.)

[11] Thomas Hobbes described this fearful condition of “nature” at Chapter 13 of Leviathan: “But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of warre one against another; yet, in all times, Kings and Persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in continuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts, Garrisons, and Guns upon the Frontiers of their Kingdomes….”  Also, as the same chapter: “So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary….”

[12] An additional question now comes to mind, one posed originally by Honore de Balzac about the “human comedy” in general, not politics in particular: “Who is to decide which is the grimmer sight: withered hearts or empty skulls?”

[13] “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign,” reminds Thomas Hobbes in Chapter XXI of LEVIATHAN,  “is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.”

[14] These legal structures include the classic American commitment to a “Higher Law.”  Under international law, this idea, drawn originally from the ancient Greeks and ancient Hebrews – is contained, inter alia, within the principle of jus cogens or peremptory norms. In the language of pertinent Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969: “A peremptory norm of general international law….is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of States as a whole, as a norm from which no derogation is permitted, and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.”

[15] Back at Princeton in the late 1960s, I spent two full years in the University library, reading everything available about such historical patterns. The result was published in my early book The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973) and somewhat later, in Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975).

[16] For informed assessments of the probable consequences of nuclear war fighting, by this author, see, for example:  Louis René Beres, SURVIVING AMID CHAOS: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016/2018); 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 MA:  Lexington Books, 1983);  Louis René Beres, REASON AND REALPOLITIK: U S FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (Lexington MA;  Lexington Books, 1984);  and Louis René Beres, ed.,  SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[17] Long ago, we may learn from ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “”You are a citizen of the universe.” A broader idea of “oneness” followed the death of Alexander in 322 BCE, and with it came a coinciding doctrine of “universality.” By the Middle Ages, this political and social doctrine had fused with the notion of a respublica Christiana, a worldwide Christian commonwealth, and Thomas, John of Salisbury and Dante were looking at Europe as a single and unified Christian community. Below the level of God and his heavenly host, all the realm of humanity was to be considered as one. This is because all the world had been created for the same single and incontestable purpose; that is, to provide  background for the necessary drama of human salvation. Only in its relationship to the universe itself was the world correctly considered as a part rather than a whole. Said Dante in De Monarchia: “The whole human race is a whole with reference to certain parts, and, with reference to another whole, it is a part. For it is a whole with reference to particular kingdoms and nations, as we have shown; and it is a part with reference to the whole universe, which is evident without argument.” Today, of course, the idea of human oneness can be fully justified and explained in more purely secular terms of understanding.

[18] The best studies of such modern world order “prophets” are still W. Warren Wagar, The City of Man (1963) and W. Warren Wagar, Building the City of Man (1971).

[19] “I  believe,” says Oswald Spengler in his still magisterial The Decline of the West (1918), “is the one great word against metaphysical fear.”

[20] In the nineteenth century, in his posthumously published lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred and sacrilizing end in itself, drew its originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy –  that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of legal regulation in their interactions with each other.

[21] Because war and genocide are not mutually exclusive, either strategically or jurisprudentially, taking proper systemic steps toward war avoidance would plausibly also reduce the likelihood of egregious “crimes against humanity.”

[22] Regarding science in such matters, Niccolo Machiavelli had joined Aristotle’s plan for a  more scientific study of politics generally with various core assumptions about geopolitics or Realpolitik. His best known conclusion, in this particular suggestion, focuses on the eternally stark dilemma of practicing goodness in a world that is generally evil. “A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything, must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.”  See: The Prince, Chapter XV. Although this argument is largely unassailable, there is also a corresponding need to disavow “naive realism,” and to recognize that, in the longer term, the only outcome of “eye for an eye” conceptions in world politics will be universal blindness.

[23] We may think also of the corresponding Talmudic observation: “The earth from which the first man was made was gathered in all the four corners of the world.”

[24] Interestingly, international law, which is an integral part of the legal system of all states in world politics, already assumes a reciprocally common general obligation to supply benefits to one another, and to avoid war at all costs. This core assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a “peremptory” or jus cogens expectation, that is, one that is not even subject to question. It can be found already in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis, Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625) and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law (1758).

[25] This brings to mind the closing query of Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Aeschylus: “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatreds, the destruction”?

[26] “In a dark time,” says The American poet Theodore Roethke hopefully, “the eye begins to see.”

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
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.