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Recycling Power Politics: For America, A Lethal “Resurrection”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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“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. No element could move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man

“Everyone for himself” has never really been a realistically goal-serving orientation of world politics. The explanation for this conclusion is clear and unambiguous. Whenever a nation’s foreign policy is detached from promisingly gainful intellectual foundations,[1] it is destined for failure.

               In the specific matter of President Donald J. Trump’s emphasis on “America First” – this nation’s latest resurrection of Realpolitik or zero-sum power politics – the United States is reducing its quickly vanishing opportunities for security and even survival.[2]  

               Left unrevised, the prognosis here is plain and multifaceted. Considered together with the ever-growing microbial aggressions of Covid19, Americans can expect little reasonable hope for a tangibly secure future.[3]  What next? Turning away from a perpetually failed system of national and world politics, where should rational US policymakers now “place their bets?”

               To begin, even after such continuing intellectual failure, latent and residual foreign policy hopes must still be grasped and acknowledged. Among other things, scholars and practitioners  will need to take seriously that American and global survival interests are inextricably bound up with each other. What we require is (1) an incremental but prompt escape from the contentious spirit of competitive tribes (a lethal spirit that is irremediable); and (2) a correspondingly sincere  acceptance of “human oneness.”[4]  For the moment, the odds of actually meeting such a manifestly difficult requirement will seem precariously low, but the evident risks are still well worth taking.

               That is understatement.

               It’s not complicated. What cannot benefit the world system as a whole can never benefit the individual nation-state.[5]

                Conceptually, we are all still very much at the beginning. Until now, we humans, not just Americans, have consistently managed to miss what is most urgently important on the global stage. It is this: There exists  a latent but determinative “oneness” to all world politics.

               For apt guidance, a further query surfaces. Where should we look? For a start, this critical dimension of  human identity can be encountered in certain vital (but generally-ignored) world literatures; especially among such literary-philosophic giants as Sören Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud,[6] Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung,  Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, Miguel de Unamuno and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. This dimension’s persistent rejection in “real life,” even by the world’s allegedly great universities, reflects more than a lamentable unworthiness. It reflects an utterly elemental threat to every single nation-state on this vastly beleaguered planet.

               There are pertinent details. Left unrevised, the stubborn human commitment to an endlessly belligerent nationalism signifies a future of plague, war and genocide.[7] In essence, no nation’s foreign policy that is inherently at cross-purposes with systemic well-being can ever be described as “realistic.” Inevitably, the rancorous logic of possessive individualism in Realpolitik-driven world politics will undermine the existential security of national and international life.

               To better illustrate the arguments against Realpolitik and its crudely derivative Trump- posture of  “America First,” we ought to consider the following analogy: The nations in  world politics coexist in the fashion of herdsmen who must share a common  pasture and who feel it advantageous to continuously increase the size of their herds. Although these herdsmen have calculated that it is in their own best interests to regularly augment their respective herds, they have calculated incorrectly, This is because they failed to consider the cumulative  impact of their separate actions, an outcome which is an overgrazed commons and subsequent economic ruin.

               Certain antecedent questions should now arise. Why have we humans (and we Americans in particular) insistently made ourselves existentially vulnerable? The only lucid answer here should reflect upon a thoroughly pervasive worldwide willingness to seek personal identity as members of some particular group. Such an explanation is not bewildering. To wit, we humans generally fear solitude or “aloneness” more than anything else on earth, sometimes even more than death.[8]

               Amid a growing “balance-of-power” chaos that is presently stampeding across several continents,[9] we humans  willingly abide a distinctly primal loyalty to compelling claims of a “tribe.” Always, everywhere, individuals desperate “to belong” will subordinate themselves to the most substantially far-reaching expectations of nation, class or faith. What then?

               More often than we might first care to admit, such subordination carries with it a more-or-less overriding acceptance of “martyrdom.” Recalling the marooned English schoolboys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, we are reminded that the veneer of human civilization is verifiably razor thin.[10] Vastly impressive scientific and medical discoveries aside, whole swaths of humankind still remain fiercely dedicated to ancient and atavistic practices of both sacrifice and war.[11]

               To the point, what first appears to us as “just fiction” in Lord of the Flies is also darkly and enduringly real.

               In order to change direction, which is indispensable, we must begin at the beginning; that is, with the microcosm, with the individual human being. In this connection, death remains the unassailable prototype of all injustice. More than anything else, the palpably. primal fear of  “not being” is determinative.  When it is considered together with the understanding that human death fear can create various irresistible inclinations toward collective violence, this difficult insight may reveal a long overlooked US foreign policy opportunity.

               Evidence abounds. Above all, we still fail to understand something absolutely primary: The always universal apprehension of death, taken as a common human anguish, could sometimes help to prevent war and terror. More specifically, if creatively “exploited,” this ubiquitous apprehension could invite a steadily expanding ambit of human empathy and worldwide compassion.[12]

               By definition, inter alia, any such positive and welcome expansion would represent the opposite of President Donald Trump’s “American First.”

                “America First” remains a deformed foreign policy,  one based not upon any thoughtful and measured analytic foundations, but on a visceral and incrementally caustic celebration of human self-centeredness. Remembering philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, this “egocentric ideal” is “false and against nature.”

               There is more. Left in place, “America First” is apt to prove wholly injurious to US national interests. Reciprocally, only a serious eleventh hour attempt to understand an imperative global “oneness” can save the United States from the irremediable hazards of a seat-of-the-pants foreign policy built upon sand. One continuing expression of such worrisome hazards is nuclear war.[13]

               In these matters, policy posture reflects provenance. The United States can never be assisted or saved by narrowly political solutions fashioned ad hoc, as evident antitheses of authentic thought. Foreign policy is not, as Mr. Trump still steadfastly maintains, “about attitude, not preparation.”[14] On the contrary, it must be the well-reasoned product of historical and scientific understanding. American national security is never correctly about “branding,” about fashioning the “best deal” or about tenaciously insisting that others “pay their fair share.”

               On these concerns, President Trump should finally acknowledge that US national security is not fundamentally about raw commerce or the marketplace.[15] Failing to make such an acknowledgment could put the United States in a steadily worsening trajectory of misplaced priorities.

               To succeed in meaningful ways, US national security policy must steer clear of presidential calls to endless belligerence, and reflect instead on an indispensable commitment to global cooperation and human species singularity.[16] Only then, together with all others, America could become recognizably  “first.” Already, back in 1758,  Emmerich de Vattel had noted, in The Law of Nations (Or the Principles of Natural Law): “Nations, being no less subject to the laws of nature than individuals, what one man owes to other men, one Nation, in its turn, owes to other Nations.”[17]

               Later, the justly celebrated eighteenth-century jurist continued: “The first general law, which is to be found in the very end of the society of Nations, is that each Nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations.” In other words, we may learn from the Swiss legal scholar, narrowly nationalistic or nativist foreign policies represent the diametric opposite of what is genuinely required.

                But what is required? In global politics, appropriately durable remediations will demand a more penetrating depth of analytic thought. At the outset of his sorely needed conceptual turnaround, this president will have to accept a fully imaginative and broadly global set of security policy understandings. This challenging set would express the subtle but unavoidable awareness that the outer worlds of politics and statecraft are a predictably mirrored reflection of our innermost private selves.

               In aptly scientific or philosophical terms, these “outer worlds” are epiphenomenal.

               More precisely, as Mr. Trump will soon need to fathom, it is only within the deeply opaque mysteries of individual human mortality –  mysteries focused on the effectively timeless and universal preoccupation with securing earthly power over death – that we must seek to discover the core truths of human interdependence and American national security.[18] It follows that whenever we look toward more the secure management of terrorism, war, and genocide, any stubbornly continuous posture of “America First” would inevitably undermine our most sacred national objectives.

               There is much more for this White House to learn. At a minimum, President Trump ought not draw any credible hopes for creating an improved and lawful US national security policy by clinging to well-worn and hackneyed examples of American “exceptionalism.”  Though gleefully unacknowledged even in our best schools and universities, there remains a noteworthy and palpable gap between humankind’s still-advancing technical understanding and its persistently uncontrollable passions.[19]

               Today, regarding virtually all human communities, including these United States, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Freud and Jung could suggest more promising security policy ideas to a starkly unlearned American president than could Bacon, Newton, Descartes, Galileo or even Einstein.

                The relevant questions and issues go back a very long way. Ancient Greek tragedies had wisely recorded a necessarily primal query: “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatred, the destruction?”[20]

                Where then shall we go from here? Exeunt omnes? Our American president seems to have demonstrably few original ideas, and, correspondingly, a never-ending panoply of backward and law-violating policy postulates.[21] Among the latter are manifestly unhelpful distortions of global trade policies, and a blatantly counter-productive interference with law-based immigrations.

               Back to the microcosm. Leaving aside certain incontestable intellectual advantages, we are assuredly not the same as every other species. Thereis rampant killing among the “lower” animals, of course, but it is only residually willful or gratuitous. Mostly, it is survival driven. Such killing may simply be “natural.” Biologically, at least, it can generally “make sense.”

                What sort of human species, we will then need to inquire, can tolerate or even venerate more purely hideous and maladaptive sources of gratification? To what extent, if any, is this markedly venal quality related to our steadily-diminishing prospects for building modern civilizations upon promising premises of human oneness? And once more, we must inquire, to what extent, if any, does human murderousness derive from an utterly primary and more-or-less ubiquitous human death fear?  This last question is more important than it is obvious. This is true, even for the rational formulation of American foreign policy and for implementing certain corollary obligations of global consciousness and world order.[22]

                “Our unconscious,” wrote Freud, “does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal.” What we ordinarily describe as heroism may in some cases be nothing more than denial. Still, however widely disregarded, an expanded acceptance of  personal mortality may effectively represent the very last best chance we have to endure as a once-enviable American nation.

               Already back during the Trojan War, as we may learn from Homer, Achilles led his Greek warriors to battle against Troy with the literally incomparable rallying cry:  “Onward, for immortality.”

               Can President Trump and his advisors learn something here that might benefit both the nation and the wider global community, something that could move us gainfully beyond Schadenfreude (taking pleasure from the sufferings of others), and toward certain viable forms of wider human cooperation? To be sure, the latter represents the only plausible path to the former. Once again, these core orientations are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually reinforcing.

               Death does “happen” to us all,  but our potentially useful awareness of this expectation is blunted by multiple and overlapping deceptions. Basically, to somehow accept forthrightly that we are all authentically flesh and blood creatures of biology is more than most beleaguered humans can bear. “Normally,” there is even a peculiar embarrassment felt by the living in the presence of the dead and dying. It is almost as if death and dying had  been reserved exclusively for “others.”

               There is more. It is as if death were an “affliction” that can never expectedly darken our own personal and presumptively “eternal” lives. Judged by a now near-universal obsession with social media, and with being continuously and recognizably “connected,” this view may be rooted, at least in part, in the potent idea of personal death as the last and most insufferable extremity of being left “alone.”

               That we, as individuals, should still cleave so desperately to various allegedly sacred promises of redemption and immortality is not, by itself, a global-survival or national-survival issue. It becomes a truly existential problem, and one that we may thus convincingly associate with war, terrorism, orgenocide,only when these various promises are forcibly reserved to certain selected national segments of humanity, and are then openly denied to other “less-worthy” states. States are “the coldest of all cold monsters,” says Nietzsche in Zarathustra,[23] but – from fellow German philosopher Hegel, “The State is the march of God through the world.”[24]

               In the end, as President Trump must still learn to understand, all national and global politics are merely reflection, epiphenomenal, a thinly symptomatic expression of more deeply underlying private needs. Undoubtedly, the most pressing of all these accumulated needs is the avoidance of personal death. It is finally time to look more closely behind the news. In all global politics, as it now warrants further repeating, there is no presumptively greater form of power than power over death.  

               But “America First” or similar postures of “everyone for himself” will not bestow such a power.

               For the most part, it is not for us to choose when we should die.  Instead, our words, our faces, and even our irrepressible human countenance will sometime lie immeasurably beyond any discernible considerations of conscious decision or individual choice. Still, we can usefully choose to recognize our shared common human fate and, concurrently, our derivative and unbreakable interdependence. This uniquely powerful intellectual recognition could carry along with it an equally significant global promise, one that remains distressingly distant and wholly unacknowledged in the “everyone for himself” Trump White House.

               Much as we might prefer to comfort ourselves with various qualitative presumptions of societal hierarchy and national differentiation, we humans are really pretty much the same. This incontestable sameness is plainly manifest to all capable scientists and physicians. Still, our single most important similarity, and the one least subject to any reasonable hint of compelling counter-argument, is that we all die.

               Ironically, perhaps, whatever our more-or-less divergent views on what  might actually happen to us after personal death, the basic mortality that we share could still represent the last best chance we have for enhanced global coexistence and more viable world community. This is the case, however, only if we can first accomplish the astoundingly difficult leap from acknowledging a shared common fate to “operationalizing” our more expressly generalized feelings of empathy and caring. As is so often the case, any such “leap” is first and foremost an intellectual task.

                Across an entire planet, wecan care for one another as humans, but only after we have first accepted that the irrefutable judgment of aresolutely common fate will not be waived by any harms that are inflicted upon “others,” that is, upon the presumptively “unworthy.” While markedly inconspicuous, modern crimes of war,[25] terror and genocide are often “just” conveniently sanitized or disguised expressions of sacrifice. In the most starkly egregious instances, corresponding violence could represent a consummate human hope of overcoming private mortality through the targeted mass killing or exclusion of specific “outsiders.”[26]

               It’s not a new thought. Consider psychologist Ernest Becker’s paraphrase of Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti in Escape From Evil (1975):  “….each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”

                Americans and  other residents of a conspicuously interconnected planet now have a right to expect that any president of the United States should attempt to understand these vital and nuanced linkages. Here, always, our national foreign policies must build upon more genuinely intellectual sorts of understanding. Without exception, our just wars, counter-terrorism conflicts and anti-genocide programs must be fought or conducted as fully intricate contests of mind over mind, and not just as narrowly tactical struggles of mind over matter.

                Only a dual awareness of our common human destination, which is death, and the associated futility of sacrificial violence, can ever offer an accessible “medicine” against North Korea, Russia, China, Iran, and several other more-or-less foreseeable adversaries (state and terror group) in the global “state of nature.”  This “natural” or structural condition of anarchy was already well known to the American Founding Fathers,  most of whom had read Locke, Rousseau, Grotius and Hobbes as well as Vattel. Only this difficult awareness can ultimately relieve an otherwise incessant and still-ascending Hobbesian “everyone for himself” war of “all against all.”[27]

               More than ever before, history, which Ortega y’Gasset calls “an illustrious war against death,” deserves a conspicuous pride of place. America, as US President Donald Trump should sometime recall, was expressly founded upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. But this means something quite different in 2020 than it did back in 1787.

               What should this particular history now signify for White House foreign policy preparation ? This is not an insignificant query, but it does presuppose an American democracy founded upon authentic learning, and not on flippantly corrosive clichés or abundantly empty witticisms.

               Human death fear has much to do with a better understanding of America’s current and foreseeable enemies, national and sub-national.  Reciprocally, only a people who can feel deeply within itself the unalterable fate and suffering of a much broader global population will ever be able to decently embrace compassion and “rationally” reject collective violence. To be sure, this errant president should finally prepare to understand all that this implies, both with pointedly specific reference to the United States and to America’s various (and increasing) state and sub-state adversaries.

               Always, the existence of system in the world remains obvious and immutable.[28] “America First” or any other American resurrection of Realpolitik  means catastrophic failure. America can never  be truly “first” so long as its president insists upon achieving any such perilously misconceived status at the zero-sum expense of other states. To at least sustain this country’s basic security in world politics, the American president will finally have to move away from eternally futile forms of competition in military arms,[29]  and toward variously indispensable forms of competition concerning intellectual power.  Or in the very appropriate words of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.”[30]

               In the beginning, in that primal promiscuity wherein the swerve toward power politics first arose, the forerunners of modern states established a system of competitive struggle that can never succeed. Still captivated by this misconceived system, US President Donald J. Trump allows the stunningly corrosive spirit of Realpolitik to metastasize further and further  across the earth, imperiling not only the present historical moment, but also any residual hopes for a survivable world order. It follows, as long we are able to prefer reason over anti-reason in our processes of national decision-making, that the “everyone for himself” ethos in world affairs now being resurrected by Trump’s “America First” must soon be intellectually discredited and suitably reversed.

               Nothing could possibly be more important.

               In the absence of such an imperative US policy challenge and reversal, future civilizations, such as might still arise, will examine the skeletal remains of our last Realpolitik epoch with a well-deserved sneer. Thrashing about in the paleontology of international relations, they will conclude that this once-avoidable epoch was already fetid upon its advent, that its accumulated national hopes were wholly contrived from the start, and that its doctrinal or rhetorical foundations (spawned at the Trump White House) had been constructed upon “sand.”


[1] The seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarks 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. Familiar to Spinoza, much of this effort was founded upon certain  then-familiar  Jewish sources.

[2] One must also recall that Donald Trump’s core philosophy of belligerent nationalism – codified as “America First” – undermines the most basic principles of international law. Such law is an integral part of the coordinating legal system of separately sovereign states in world politics, and assumes a reciprocally common obligation of all states to supply benefits to one another. This assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a “peremptory” or jus cogens expectation, that is, one that is never subject to question or reversal. It can be discovered early 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).

[3] The reader may be usefully reminded here of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s observation in Endgame: “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification  always on the same plane?”

[4] See earlier books, by this author, offering more detailed visions of such an imperative escape. See especially: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (1984) and Louis René Beres, America Outside the World: The Collapse of US Foreign Policy (1987).

[5] Recall here the pertinent parable from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: “What does not benefit the entire hive is no benefit to the bee.” Unless we take meaningful steps to implement an organic and cooperative planetary civilization – one based on the irremediably central truth of human “oneness” –  there will be no civilization at all. To be sure, states have generally acted on very different assumptions, expecting, inter alia, that in this war of all against all (bellum omnium contra omnes), one state’s advantage is necessarily another’s disadvantage. What they have consistently failed to understand is that any such apparent gains and losses have always been short-term or transient.

[6] Sigmund Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. In essence, he most objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to this country’s “shallow optimism” and its seemingly corollary commitment to crude forms of materialism. America, thought Freud, was very evidently “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.

[7] War and genocide need not be considered as mutually exclusive.  War might well become the means whereby genocide is undertaken.  According to Articles II and III of the Genocide Convention, which entered into force on January 12, 1951, genocide includes any of several listed acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such….”  See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Done at New York, Dec. 9,  1948.  Entered into force, Jan. 12, 1951.  78 U.N.T.S.  277.

[8] Interestingly, says Jose Ortega y’ Gasset in Man and Crisis ( 1958): “History is an illustrious war against death.” 

[9] The idea of a balance of power – an idea of which the nuclear-age balance of terror is a current variant – has never really been more than a facile and perilous metaphor. In fact, it has never had anything to do with ascertaining true equilibrium. As such a balance is always a matter of individual and more-or-less subjective perceptions, adversary states can never be sufficiently confident that identifiable strategic circumstances are genuinely “balanced” in their favor. In consequence, each side perpetually fears that it will be left behind, and the corresponding search for balance produces ever wider patterns of both insecurity and disequilibrium.

[10] Dostoyevsky inquires: “What is it in us that is mellowed by civilization? All it does, I’d say, is to develop in man a capacity to feel a greater variety of sensations. And nothing, absolutely nothing else. And through this development, man will yet learn how to enjoy bloodshed. Why, it has already happened….Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty.” See: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground 108 (Andrew R. MacAndrew, trans., New American Library, 1961)(1862).

[11] “There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

[12] In his magisterial Tragic Sense of Life, Basque philosopher Miguel De Unamuno identifies an indissoluble “association” between those who would unite together against a common foe –  most importantly, human mortality. Similar in part to Sigmund Freud’s “spontaneous sympathy” of souls, Unamuno’s argument is that an immutably universal fear of death can produce “pity” or genuine compassion between peoples, and that this common apprehension can thus be harnessed to fashion a more harmonious world order. This is not a lesson that can easily be used to change a nation’s pragmatic foreign policy directions; nonetheless, it does point convincingly toward more serious thinking about world affairs.

[13] For generic assessments of the probable consequences of nuclear war fighting by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd. ed., 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: US 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).

[14] This intellectually barren sentiment was first made explicit by Mr. Trump immediately prior to his June 12, 2018 Singapore Summit with Kim Jung Un.

[15] We may learn from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “One can never seek the Higher Man in the marketplace.”

[16] A properly antecedent question was raised by Jose Ortega y’Gasset in 1925: “Where,” the Spanish philosopher queried, “shall we find the material to reconstruct the world?” See Ortega’s The Dehumanization of Art (1925)(1968) by Princeton University Press, p. 129.

[17] Interestingly, this classical work was well-known to the Founding Fathers of the United States, and figured closely in the creation of both the US Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

[18] Those readers who might be inclined to probe such ideas at a more deeply philosophical level, may wish to consider Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (1955): “Since the inner face of the world is manifest deep within our human consciousness, and there reflects upon itself, it would seem that we have only got to look at ourselves in order to understand the dynamic relationships existing between the within and the without of things….”

[19] Says Goethe famously, in Faust, Part One: “Speak not to me about the motley rabble, Whose sight no inspiration can abide. Preserve me from the tumult and the babble, That sweeps us helpless in its vulgar tide.”

[20] 1 The Complete Aeschylus: The Oresteia 146 (Peter Burian & Alan Shapiro, eds., 2nd ed., 2011; presenting the ending of Agamemnon.

[21] It ought never to be overlooked that international law has always been a part of US domestic law, both by virtue of the Constitution’s “Supremacy Clause” (Article VI) and of several major US Supreme Court decisions. The words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900), are instructive: “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]    The concept of “world order” – as an organizing dimension of scholarship and as a normative goal of international affairs – has its contemporary intellectual origins in the work of Harold Lasswell and Myres McDougal at the Yale Law School, Grenville Clark and Louis Sohn’s WORLD PEACE THROUGH WORLD LAW (1966) and the large body of writings by Richard A. Falk and Saul H. Mendlovitz. For selected early works by this author, who was an original participant in the World Law Fund’s World Order Models Project (WOMP) at Princeton in the late 1960s, see: Louis René Beres and Harry R. Targ, CONSTRUCTING ALTERNATIVE WORLD FUTURES: REORDERING THE PLANET (1977); Louis René Beres and Harry R. Targ., eds., PLANNING ALTERNATIVE WORLD FUTURES: VALUES, METHODS AND MODELS (1975); Louis René Beres, PEOPLE, STATES AND WORLD ORDER (1981); Louis René Beres, REASON AND REALPOLITIK: US FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (1984); and Louis René Beres, AMERICA OUTSIDE THE WORLD: THE COLLAPSE OF US FOREIGN POLICY (1987).

[23] In this spirit, see also Nietzsche’s complementary comment in Zarathustra, “…it is for the superfluous that the state was invented,” and Jose Ortega y’Gasset’s observation in The Revolt of the Masses (1932):  “The state is the greatest danger….,”  mustering its immense resources “to crush beneath it any creative minority which disturbs it – disturbs it in any order of things: in politics, in ideas, in industry.”

[24] See Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, as quoted by Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 4th ed., 2 vols, Princeton New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1963, vol.2, p. 31.. In a similar vein, as part of his posthumously published Lectures on Politics (1896), Heinrich von Treitschke, citing to Johan Gottlieb Fichte, opines: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.”

[25] In law, states must judge every use of force twice: once with regard to the underlying right to wage war (jus ad bellum) and once with regard to the means used in actually conducting war (jus in bello). Following the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the United Nations Charter, there can be absolutely no right to aggressive war. However, the long-standing customary right of post-attack self-defense remains codified at Article 51 of the UN Charter. Similarly, subject to conformance, inter alia, with jus in bello criteria, certain instances of humanitarian intervention and collective security operations may also be consistent with jus ad bellum. The law of war, the rules of jus in bello, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules. Codified primarily at the Hague and Geneva Conventions, these rules attempt to bring discrimination, proportionality and military necessity into all belligerent calculations.

[26] See, on such complex conceptual argument, Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred (1972).

[27] Under international law, the question of whether or not a condition of war actually exists between states is often left unclear.  Traditionally, a “formal” war was said to exist only when a state issued a formal declaration of war.  The Hague Convention III codified this position in 1907.  This Convention provided that hostilities must not commence without “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum.  See Hague Convention III on the Opening of Hostilities,  Oct. 18, 1907, art. 1,  36 Stat. 2277,  205 Consol. T.S. 263.  Presently, a declaration of war may be tantamount to a declaration of criminality because international law prohibits aggression.  See Treaty Providing for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy,  Aug. 27, 1948, art. 1,  46 Stat.  2343,  94 L.N.T.S.  57 (also called Pact of Paris or Kellogg-Briand Pact);  Nuremberg Judgment, 1 I.M.T.  Trial of the Major War Criminals 171 (1947),  portions reprinted in  Burns H. Weston, et. al.,  INTERNATIONAL LAW AND WORLD ORDER  148,  159 (1980);  U.N. Charter, art. 2(4).  A state may compromise its own legal position by announcing formal declarations of war.  It follows that a state of belligerency may exist without formal declarations, but only if there exists an armed conflict between two or more states and/or at least one of these states considers itself “at war.”

[28] In the precise words of philosopher and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his The Phenomenon of Man (1955): “The existence of system in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature….”

[29] The Devil in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903) observes: “Man’s heart is in his weapons….in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself….”

[30] See, by the distinguished French poet, The New Spirit and the Poets (1917).

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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Roads and Rails for the U.S.

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For those who expect the newly announced $2 trillion Biden infrastructure program to be a goodbye to potholes and hello to smooth-as-glass expressways, a disappointment is in store.  The largest expenditure by far ($400 billion) is on home/community care, impacting the elderly or disabled.  The $115 billion apportioned to roads and bridges is #4 on the list. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps tabs on our infrastructure and their latest report (2020) gave it an overall grade of C-.  Although bridges worsened, this is a modest improvement on the previous report (2017) when the overall grade was D+.  If $115 billion in spending sounds adequate, one has to remember it costs $27 billion annually for upkeep.

Astounding it might be the backlog in spending for roads and bridges runs at $12 billion annually.  Go back 20 years and we have a quarter trillion shortfall.  Add all the other areas of infrastructure and the ASCE comes up with a $5 trillion total.  It is the gap between what we have been spending and what we need to.  Also one has to bear in mind that neglect worsens condition and increases repair costs. 

One notable example of maintenance is the Forth rail bridge in Scotland.  A crisscross of beams forming three superstructures linked together, it was a sensation when opened in 1890 and now is a UN World Heritage Site.  Spanning 1.5 miles, its upkeep requires a regular coat of paint.  And that it gets.  Rumor has it that when the unobtrusive painters reach the end of their task, it is time to start painting again the end where they began — a permanent job to be sure though new paints might have diminished such prospects.

Biden also proposes $80 billion for railways.  Anyone who has travelled or lived in Europe knows the stark contrast between railroads there and in the U.S.  European high-speed rail networks are growing from the established TGV in France to the new Spanish trains.  Run by RENFE, the national railway, Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains run at speeds up to 310 km/h (193 mph)  — a speed that amounts to a convenient overnight trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.

The hugely expensive new tracks needed can be considered a long-term investment in our children’s future.  But it will take courage to contest the well-heeled lobbies of the airplane manufacturers, the airlines and big oil.

If Spain can have high-speed rail and if China already has some 24,000 miles of such track, surely the US too can opt for a system that is convenient for its lack of airport hassle and the hour wasted each way in the journey to or from the city center.  Rail travel not only avoids both but is significantly less polluting.  

Particularly bad, airplane pollution high above (26 to 43 thousand feet) results in greater ozone formation in the troposphere.  In fact airplanes are the principal human cause of ozone formation.

Imagine a comfortable train with space to walk around, a dining car serving freshly cooked food, a lounge car and other conveniences, including a bed for overnight travel; all for a significantly less environmental cost.  When we begin to ask why we in the US do not have the public services taken for granted in other developed countries, perhaps then the politicians might take note.

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Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas

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Image source: U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan

The FBI notably has an extended international presence running 63 offices in select countries overseas. The offices are called “legats” and are situated at the US Embassy in the host country. One of the major reasons for FBI’s international presence is fighting international terrorism.

The FBI legat personnel at the US embassies are fully accredited diplomats enjoying full diplomatic immunity but that poses several questions that are worth asking, such as: how is it possible for law enforcement to be diplomats and is that a good idea, legally speaking?

Police work should not enjoy diplomatic immunity because that opens the door to abuse. Does the FBI’s immunity overseas mean that the FBI attaches can do no wrong in the host country? How do we tackle potential rights infringements and instances of abuse of power by the FBI towards locals in the host country? The DOJ Inspector General and the State Department Inspector General would not accept complaints by foreigners directed at the FBI, so what recourse then could a local citizen have vis-a-vis the FBI legat if local courts are not an option and the Inspector Generals would not look into those cases?

This presents a real legal lacuna and a glitch in US diplomatic immunity that should not exist and should be addressed by Congress and the new Biden administration.

While FBI offices overseas conduct some far from controversial activities, such as training and educational exchanges with local law enforcement, which generally no one would object to, the real question as usual is about surveillance: who calls the shots and who assumes responsibility for potentially abusive surveillance of locals that may infringe upon their rights. It’s an issue that most people in countries with FBI presence around the world are not aware of. The FBI could be running “counter-terrorism” surveillance on you in your own country instead of the local police. And that’s not nothing.

When we hear “cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism”, as recent decades show, there is a great likelihood that the US government is abusing powers and rights, without batting an eyelash. That exposes local citizens around the world to unlawful surveillance without legal recourse. Most people are not even aware that the FBI holds local offices. Why would the FBI be operating instead of the local law enforcement on another country’s territory? That’s not a good look on the whole for the US government.

The legal lacuna is by design. This brings us to the nuts and bolts of the FBI legats’ diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, under Chapter III on privileges and immunities. The US is also a state party to the Convention, along with most states around the world. While there could be some variations and disagreements on bilateral basis (including on weather for example one state could be hosted and represented through the embassy of another state in a third state), on the whole there is a universal consensus that the Vienna Convention sets the rules establishing diplomatic immunities and privileges.

Under the Vienna Convention, only top diplomats are given the highest degree of immunity from the law. This means they cannot be handcuffed, arrested, detained, or prosecuted by law enforcement officials of the country in which they’re stationed. Diplomatic immunities and privileges also include things like diplomatic “bags” (with very peculiar cases of what that could entail) and notably, protection and diplomatic immunity for the family of diplomats.

It is a universal consensus that not everyone who works at an Embassy has or should have diplomatic immunity.  Immunity is saved for diplomats whose role has to be protected from the local jurisdiction of the country for a reason. Not all embassy staff should enjoy diplomatic immunity. Granting law enforcement such as the FBI full legal immunity for their actions is bad news.

Only the top officials at an embassy are diplomats with an actual full immunity — and that’s for a reason.

It makes sense why a diplomat negotiating an agreement should not be subjected to local courts’ jurisdiction. But the same doesn’t go for a law enforcement official who acts as a law enforcement official by, for example, requesting unlawful surveillance on a local citizen, in his law enforcement capacity, while thinking of himself as a diplomat and being recognized as such by the law.

Law enforcement personnel are not diplomats. Dealing with extraterritorial jurisdiction cases or international cases is not the same thing as the need for diplomatic immunity. If that was the case, everyone at the export division at the Department if Commerce would have diplomatic immunity for protection from foreign courts, just in case. Some inherent risk in dealing with international cases does not merit diplomatic immunity – otherwise, this would lead to absurdities such as any government official of any country being granted diplomatic immunity for anything internationally related.

The bar for diplomatic immunity is very high and that’s by design based on an international consensus resting upon international law. Simply dealing with international cases does not make a policeman at a foreign embassy a diplomat. If that was the case every policeman investigating an international case would have to become a diplomat, just in case, for protection from the jurisdiction of the involved country in order to avoid legal push-back. That’s clearly unnecessary and legally illogical. Being a staff member at an embassy in a foreign country does not in and of itself necessitate diplomatic immunity, as many embassy staff do not enjoy diplomatic protection. It is neither legally justified nor necessary for the FBI abroad to enjoy diplomatic immunity; this could only open up the function to potential abuse. The FBI’s arbitrary surveillance on locals can have a very real potential for violating the rights of local people.  This is a difference in comparison to actual diplomats. Diplomats do not investigate or run surveillance on locals; they can’t threaten or abuse the rights of local citizens directly, the way that law enforcement can. Lack of legal recourse is a really bad look for the Biden administration and for the US government.

The rationale for diplomatic immunity is that it should not be permitted to arrest top diplomats, who by definition have to be good at representing their own country’s interests in relation to the host state, for being too good at their job once the host state is unhappy with a push back, for example. The Ambassador should not be exposed to or threatened by the risk of an arrest and trial for being in contradiction with the interests of the host state under some local law on treason, for example, because Ambassadors could be running against the interests of the host state, by definition. And that’s contained within the rules of diplomatic relations. It’s contained in the nature of diplomatic work that such contradictions may arise, as each side represents their own country’s interests. Diplomats should not be punished for doing their job. The same doesn’t apply to the FBI legats. Issuing surveillance on local citizens is not the same as representing the US in negotiations. The FBI legats’ functions don’t merit diplomatic immunity and their actions have to be open to challenge in the host country’s jurisdiction.

The FBI immunity legal lacunae is in some ways reminiscent of similar historic parallels, such as the George W. Bush executive order  that US military contractors in Iraq would enjoy full legal immunity from Iraqi courts’ jurisdiction, when they shouldn’t have. At the time, Iraq was a war-torn country without a functioning government, legal system or police forces. But the same principle of unreasonable legal immunity that runs counter international laws is seen even today, across European Union countries hosting legally immune FBI attaches.

Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas. It can be argued that for any local rights infringements, it is the local law enforcement cooperating with the US Embassy that should be held accountable – but that would ignore that the actual request for unlawful surveillance on locals could be coming from the FBI at the Embassy. The crime has to be tackled at the source of request. 

When I reached out to the US Embassy in Bulgaria they did not respond to a request to clarify the justification for the FBI diplomatic immunity in EU countries.

To prevent abuse, Congress and the Biden Administration should remove the diplomatic immunity of the FBI serving overseas.

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Competition and cooperation between China and the United States and the eighth priority

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In mid-March U.S. President Biden held his first press conference since taking office. Speaking about Sino-U.S. relations, Biden said: “I will prevent China from surpassing the United States of America during my term of office”. At the same time, he also stressed that he would not seek to confront China, but to keep up fierce competition between the two countries.

Focusing on competition between major powers is one of the important changes in U.S. foreign policy in recent years. As the strengths of China and the United States draw closer together, the United States increasingly feels that its own ‘hegemony’ is threatened. During Trump’s tenure, the United States has caused a trade war, a technology war, and even a complete disagreement with China in an attempt to curb China’s development momentum and erode Chinese positions.

The expansion of the competitive field and the escalation of the competitive situation have become the hallmarks of Sino-U.S. relations during this period. Although Biden’s policy line has made substantial changes to ‘Trumpism’, it still has much of its predecessor’s legacy with regard to its policy towards China.

The first foreign policy speech made by U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken listed China Challenge as the eighth priority, preceded by:

1) ending the COVID-19 pandemic;

2) overcoming the economic crisis, reviving the economy at home and abroad, as well as and building a more stable and inclusive global economy;

3) renewing democracy;

4) reforming immigration and creating a humane and effective immigration system;

5) rebuilding alliances, revitalising U.S. ties with allies and partners with the system that the military calls force multiplier;

6) tackling climate change and leading a green energy revolution;

7) securing U.S. leadership in technology; and

8) confronting China and managing the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century, i.e. relations with China, which is the only country with economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the international system and equilibria.

The eighth medium-term guideline for the national security strategy sees China as an important competitor. These guidelines clearly show that competition still sets the tone in the way President Biden’s Administration’s manages relations with China, as was the case in the previous four-year period.

At a press conference on March 26, 2021, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the above statements were not surprising. It is clear that China and the United States are competing on different interest levels.

The key factor, however, is to compete fairly and justly and to improve oneself. The appeal to the other side is moderation and restraint, not life or death, or a zero-sum game. These words are along the same lines as Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement when he spoke about Sino-U.S. relations at a session of the National Congress of People’s Representatives of the People’s Republic of China (the Chinese Parliament). It is not only a response to the U.S. strategy of competition with China, but it also provides a model for the future way in which superpowers should proceed together.

The reality of Sino-U.S. competition is unavoidable, but competition can be divided into benign and vicious. The former is a winning model for “improving oneself and understanding the needs of the other side”.

Since Deng Xiaping’s reforms and opening up to international trade, China has begun its own reconstruction. It has continuously widened the scope for benign competition and has changed its mindset by actively embracing the world’s different political parties and participating in international competition. It has also inspired enthusiasm for innovation and creativity and made progress in various fields.

At the same time, development has also provided ample opportunities for countries around the world and injected growth momentum into the global economy: this is a typical example of China’s good interaction and common development with all countries around the globe.

Conversely, fierce competition means breaking rules and systems and even breaking the demarcation line to prevent or contain the opponent, and this is usually followed by fierce conflicts.

The two World Wars of the last century were extreme examples of violent competition between great powers: the first as a clash between capitalist imperialisms in search of new markets; the second as a result of mistakes made in the peace treaties that ended the Great War, plundering the losers and causing misery, resentment and chauvinistic desires.

In today’s world, competition without respect for the other side has not disappeared from the scene of history. Trump Administration’s frantic anti-China activity over the last four years has not only failed to make the United States ‘great again’, but has caused a linear decline in its national competitiveness, at least according to the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2020 published by the Lausanne-based International Institute for Management Development, which sees the United States dropping from third to tenth place. Besides the fact that its international image has seriously plummeted and Sino-U.S. relations have hit the lowest ebb since the establishment of diplomatic relations. It can clearly be seen that fierce competition will only restrain its promoters and ultimately harm the others, themselves and the international community.

In December 2020 General Mark Alexander Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a body that brings together the Chiefs of Staff of each branch of the U.S. military and the Head of the National Guard Bureau), said in an interview that ‘great powers must compete. This is the essence of the world’.

There is no problem with this statement: it is not wrong, but it is important to maintain a state of competition and contact between major powers, precisely to ensure that it does not turn into conflicts or wars that are fatal to mankind and the planet as a whole.

The gist of the speech shows that some U.S. elites also believe that China and the United States should adhere to the principle of ‘fighting without breaking each other’. The importance and the overall and strategic nature of Sino-U.S. relations determine that no one can afford the zero-sum game, which is a lose-lose as opposed to a win-win game – hence we need to ensure that competition between the two countries stays on the right track.

Competition between China and the United States can only be fair and based on rules and laws. This is the basic rule of international relations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations as its point of reference.

Regardless of the common interests of China, the United States or peoples in the world, both countries should make this system promote healthy and fair competition, thus turning it into the greatest value of sharing and cooperation.

China’s goal has never been to surpass the United States, but to advance steadily and become better and no longer a prey to imperialism and colonialism as it has been the case since the 19th century, when Great Britain waged the two Opium Wars (1839-1842 – 1856-1860) to have not only the opportunity, but also the right to export drugs to the Middle Empire – hence Great Britain was the first pusher empowered and authorized by the force of its weapons.

Although – by its own good fortune -the United States has never been England, it should not always be thinking of surpassing the others or fearing being overtaken by the others, but should particularly focus on Secretary of State Blinken’s first seven priorities and raise its expectations.

China should show its traditional political wisdom and manage Sino-U.S. relations in accordance with the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, so that Sino-U.S. relations can develop in a healthy and stable way for the good of the whole planet.

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