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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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Americas

Biden’s worrisome construct of security and self-defense in the first year of his term

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Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe

US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy is failing so far. He can’t get the Iran nuclear diplomacy on track. The Afghanistan withdrawal was a disaster seen by all, placing an unusually high number of weapons and armaments in the hands of the Taliban and leaving everyone behind, to the point that one wonders if it was intentional. The US military has been able to accomplish far more impressive and bigger logistics tasks in the past, so when they want to they can do it.

More worrisome, however – and because it is also oriented towards future impacts – is Biden’s construct of vital concepts such as security, international peace and self-defense which has already displayed a consistent pattern during the first year of his term. The signs are already there, so let me bring them out to the surface for you.

Treating a counter-attack in self-defense as an original, first-move strike

This is a pattern that can be noticed already in Biden’s reading of what constitutes defense. It first struck me in a place where you might not think of looking. It originated from the criticism of the previous Trump administration’s support for the destructive Saudi Arabia campaign on Yemen, leaving Yemen as the biggest famine and disaster on the planet. To avoid the same criticism, the Biden administration decided to do what it always does – play technocratic and legalistic, and hope that people won’t notice. On the face of it, it looked like Biden ended US participation by ending the “offensive” support for Saudi Arabia. Then in the months after the February decision, reports started surfacing that the US actually continues doing the same, and now most recently, some troops from Afghanistan were redirected towards Yemen. Biden didn’t end Yemen; he set up a task force to examine and limit US military action only to defensive capabilities, which sounds good to a general observer. It reminds me of that famous Einstein saying that all the big decisions were to be taken by him and all the small decisions were to be taken by his wife, but there hasn’t been one big decision so far. So see, it just turns out that everything falls under defense, ask the lawyers. Usually no one would object to the well-established right to defend yourself. The problem with that is that the US is actually in Yemen. Treating any counter-strike and any response to your presence as an original, first-move attack is not only problematic but it also simply doesn’t work in legal terms. It goes along the lines of “well, I am already here anyways, so your counter-response in self-defense is actually an attack and I get to defend myself”. If the issue was only with terrorist or rebel organizations (because let’s face it, who cares about the Houthies in Yemen?) I don’t think we would be discussing this. But as you guessed it, this approach can already be traced as a pattern in Biden’s thinking and the way he forges alliances, draws red lines and allows things to happen, and it stretches to areas that most people definitely care about such as a possible military conflict between the US and China.

Let’s take the newest development from today. The US just announced that it has entered into a trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which is encirclement of China par excellence. Where it gets interesting is that the trilateral partnership is purported to be only for “advanced defense capabilities”. The equivalent of this is someone from another city squatting at the door step in your apartment, inviting two others to join, and then when in the morning you push them and step on them to go to work, the squatters claiming that you attacked them and calling the police on you in your own apartment. This is Biden’s concept of self-defense: since I am already here in your space, you are attacking me.

The US is trying to start something with China but it doesn’t know how to, and China seems completely unconcerned with the US.  Chinese leader Jinping doesn’t even want to meet Biden, as became clear this week. China doesn’t care about the US and just wants to be left alone. They already said that in clear terms by reading it out loud to Wendy Sherman last month. Biden didn’t have to ask for a meeting in that phone call this week because he already knew the answer. Wendy Sherman got a clear signal on her China visit that the US president won’t be getting that coveted red carpet roll-out any time soon.

So the story says that the US is going all the way to the other side of the world and staging military presence there but only to defend itself. The US has no choice but to move in to defend all the US citizens at risk in the Indian Ocean — that’s the stand-up comedy line of the week. It is staging military presence right at China’s doorstep — if not in Chinese waters, and the idea is “yes, that’s your turf but now that I’m here, if you push me to leave, you are attacking me”. This is the strategy of narcissists and those that are looking to point the finger to their opponent when they just don’t have anything, so they stage something. China is in the long-term game, playing against itself. The US is that number 2 that’s trying to create provocation. In the Indo-Pacific, the US is biting more than it can chew. China is not a big mouth or one to throw around military threats. That’s the US style: “be very careful, we might bomb you if you don’t do what we say”. A dog that barks doesn’t bite. On the other hand, China is more like a Ferrari — it will go from 0 to 200 in seconds and then it will go back to its business. The US and Biden will be left whimpering but no one will jump to save the US from its own folly because self-defense in the US packaging is not even bought by the US government itself. Even they don’t buy their own packaging. So why should anyone else?

Treating embarrassing discoveries and things that don’t go my way as a threat to international peace

This one is a big one. With this one, Biden is playing with the queen, namely action under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter in the name of international peace and security. A threat to international peace and security is grounds for action under Chapter 7 which includes military action, and it’s never to be spoken lightly. Words have consequences. The UN Security Council rarely specifies grounds for action under chapter 7 for threats to international peace and security but it’s enough to take a look at the practice: resolutions were passed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, in response to 9/11, against Kaddafi who was marching toward Benghazi to wipe out the people in 2011, in relation to genocide, etc. Grounds for a threat to international peace can’t be “because I don’t like the way things are turning out for me”.

Peace and security are not like beauty – in the eye of the beholder. There has to be an actual or imminent attack and actual military action or violence. Loose interpretations of threats to peace and security are a sign of weak leadership.

Leaders who construct dissent and criticism as terrorism in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, as I have argued about the FBI previously in the left media, are weak leaders. In smearing Martin Luther King, the FBI argued national security. As director Oliver Stone said in Cannes this summer, when he was investigating the JFK assassination, every time he was getting close, he heard “national security”. 

You can see a lot about the character of a nation by the way it constructs security, and notice traits such as narcissism, weakness, cheating. The Biden Administration has to know that a threat to international peace and security can’t be “things that make my government look bad”. In 2001, the world followed the US in Afghanistan because there was an actual military attack. The world won’t follow the Biden administration on a bogus threat to international peace that can best be summed up as a major embarrassment for the US government. Suggesting a link is a threat to the fabric of international society. Not only is it a sign of national narcissism but also a sign of arbitrariness and authoritarianism. Treating criticism and the exposure of US government crimes as if it were a military attack is what horror movies are made of. What’s next? Droning journalists?

Treating issues which are a subject to treaties, rules and negotiations as a threat to international peace  

The Biden security construct stretches to various regions, including my own. This first struck me with Biden’s executive order regarding the Western Balkans when he tied blocking these countries from EU accession to a threat to international peace, which carries significant consequences. If a country, let’s say Bulgaria, is exercising its lawful right to veto EU processes, hypothetically, based on Biden’s understanding, the US could table a resolution for Chapter 7 action to punish an EU member-state for blocking the accession of an EU candidate because that’s a threat to international peace. That could hypothetically lead to military action against an EU country making use of its veto. Biden doesn’t have a veto in the EU. Do you know who does? Bulgaria. So until Biden becomes an EU country he doesn’t have a say.

Biden was visibly irritated that the process of EU accession has been stalling for quite some time, especially with N. Macedonia and Albania at the EU’s doorstep, so he decided to give it a go. Let’s not forget that the Balkans are a favorite Biden region and this goes back to the 1990s. I have written about it before: Biden is stuck in the 2000s when if you mentioned the Western Balkans the words international peace were a guaranteed association. Not anymore. Negotiations, rules and voting are the peaceful and reasonable way to resolve issues, agree or even not agree in some situations, and are the opposite of war and aggression. Treating these ways as a threat to peace is just the rhetoric of those who can’t get their way. But it’s also indicative of a worrisome trend with Biden that anything that the US government doesn’t like can be dressed as a threat to international peace, which carries the most significant of all consequences in the international arena.

Treating lawful counter-measures as a threat to national security

Perhaps the best and most fascinating example of lawful counter-measures I ever heard was brought by Andrew Clapham at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Here is the story. The UK issued unlawful sanctions on a country. In response, lawful counter-measures by that country targeted jam exports because a jam factory in Scotland was the key to turning the elections. The targeted counter-measures worked, hit jam exports, discontent people in the region voted the other way and the government that put in place the sanctions to begin with was ousted. This was a brilliant example that you hit where it hurts and you do it lawfully. Counter-measures don’t have to be identical. The US likes to put tariffs on Louis Vuitton bags in retaliation when it deals with France, for example. In the Trump trade wars, Europe would hit bourbon and jeans exports as a counter-measure. You hit their signature product. Not all counter-measures are illegal and count as an attack. International law is full of examples.

Similarly, lawsuits against a government are a lawful counter-measure. This area reveals another part of Biden’s worrisome construct of national security. A threat to sue the US government cannot in and of itself be a threat to national security. Tortured reading of what is national security is a sign of weak leaders, narcissists, those on the losing end, or straight up losers – or all of the above. 

Treating lawful counter-measures as a cause for self-defense is not only a sign of a wrong understanding of self-defense, but is the ultimate sign of narcissism. Usually those who attack know better and brace for impact in anticipation of the counter-measures. Narcissists, on the other hand, cry that they are being attacked when they receive a counter-strike in response. Strategists know better.

Mistreatment of whistleblowers, critics and opponents as spies and as a threat to national security

This one is an easy one. Only losers treat whistleblowers and critics as spies and as an automatic threat to national security. Take the treatment that Gary Stahl has received at the hands of the Biden Administration and the FBI, for example. Again, the US government doesn’t get to construe a huge embarrassment (in what will soon be revealed to shows the true criminal nature of the US government) as a threat to international peace. This is a problem for America. Not only doesn’t China plan to attack militarily the US any time soon over what’s to come, but China is largely unconcerned with the US and would like to be left alone. Any talk about a risk of military conflict could only mean that it is the US that plans to attack because they are embarrassed they got caught red-handed and the world will see the US government’s true nature. Talk of threat to international peace has a very high threshold. No one cares about how America would feel – that’s your problem, not an issue of international peace. 

The Biden concept of security is that of an ugly, pretentious, old woman who is told she can’t enter because her ticket is not valid. She then throws a feat screaming she was attacked, beaten and insulted, expecting everyone to be on her side. But the world simply doesn’t care about the problems of this pain-in-the-ass anymore. The US government will have to try much harder if they want to present the issue as anything close to security and self-defense, let alone a threat to international peace. That tune is old and there are no buyers. 

The US surely thinks very highly of itself if they think that a scandal like that is worthy of a military conflict but literally no one else sees the US as this important anymore. This scandal will matter only to America in what it reveals about all the layers of the US government across rank, institutions and administrations. That’s it. It ends there. Any talk of Chapter 7 threshold is war mongering and no one will care. 

People talk about the Biden doctrine on Afghanistan but the Biden doctrine that will be sealed in history will be something along the lines of “Anytime I get caught, it’s a threat to international peace and security.” This is how Biden will be remembered in history: for creative writing endeavors in the security field and no substantial foreign policy achievements. 

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Biden’s credibility restoration plan

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Although damages of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan cannot be easily undone, by taking a series of wise steps, Biden can send a strong signal that America is coming back.

Joe Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan has shattered his reputation as a safe haven for allies. This is while, he pledged to restore U.S. leadership after Trump by confronting China’s and Russia’s growing totalitarian ambitions, restoring historic alliances with European allies, and ending the never-ending conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

But he is not the only President whose decision has eventually damaged the United States’ global reputation. Donald Trump’s capitulation deal with the Taliban, Barack Obama’s indolence in Syria, and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq have all tarnished the United States’ credibility around the world. The question now; however, is no longer whether Biden and his predecessors should have acted differently. It’s how the United States can minimize the damage.

Biden should begin by speaking the truth. So far, the President has failed to admit the failure of his withdrawal plan. Biden ought to be straightforward with himself, the American people, and the whole world.

Biden’s policy should, of course, vary depending on the area and global conditions. To promote its interests in the Indo-Pacific area, the United States should station a few ambassadors, including a Navy or Coast Guard attaché, in the Pacific Island countries of Tonga, Tuvalu, and Kiribati. In addition, a considerable number of troops currently stationed in Afghanistan should be redeployed to the Pacific. Finally, Biden’s administration should engage with U.S. defense contractors to speed up the transfer of military equipment to Taiwan. Getting Taiwan its armaments swiftly would be a powerful show of support as a steadfast ally, as well as provide modern platforms to prevent a Chinese amphibious invasion.

The Biden administration should also do all in its power to rebuild relations with European partners. For the very first time, NATO invoked Article 5, which identifies an assault on one member as an assault on all. Since then, soldiers from a variety of countries have fought and died alongside US troops. Nonetheless, Biden decided to leave Afghanistan without consulting the governments of these countries, leaving them to plan emergency rescue efforts for their populations. Close allies of the United States are understandably enraged. America’s behavior is being chastised in Paris, Berlin, and the British House of Commons on both sides of the aisle.

Last month, at a meeting of regional leaders in Baghdad, Macron made it clear that, unlike the Americans, he was dedicated to remaining in the Middle East. “Whatever the American choice is,” he stated in public remarks in Baghdad, “we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight terrorism as long as terrorist groups function and the Iraqi government requests our assistance.” It was a clear example of Macron’s idea of “strategic autonomy,” which implies European independence from U.S. security policy, and an attempt to use the United States’ humiliation to underline that Europe and Washington were not always on the same page. At an emergency G7 summit, Mr. Biden is said to have turned down allied requests to extend the August 31 deadline for exit.

The Biden administration’s recent decision not to penalize Nord Stream 2 pipeline participants has enraged Europeans as well. Poland and Ukraine underlined their worries in a joint statement about the ramifications of choices taken on the pipeline without the participation of nations directly impacted, claiming that Nord Stream 2 poses both geological and ecological risks to Europe.

As a result, whether it’s diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime, humanitarian aid for the Afghan people, or any other major issue, the US should not take any more action without engaging partners. Mr. Biden should also dispatch senior members of his national security team to Europe and other regions of the world to reinforce America’s commitment to their security.

As to the Middle East, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, in a Foreign Affairs article described “America’s opportunity in the Middle East,” suggesting that diplomacy may work where previous military interventions have failed. The United States’ involvement in the area is frequently portrayed in military or counter-terrorism terms, and as a binary option between going all-in or going all-out. Instead, Sullivan advocated for a strategy that relied more on “aggressive diplomacy to generate more long-term benefits.”

Accordingly, the President and his team in Vienna should get the new Iranian administration back to the negotiating tables and rejoin the JCPOA and ease the tensions in the Middle East. Also, the United States should do all possible in Afghanistan to secure the safe transit of Afghans who qualify for U.S. visas to the Kabul airport – and to keep flights flying until they are able to leave. This should apply to both Afghans who dealt closely with the United States’ military, and to those who engage with U.S. media and humanitarian organizations and must get visas from a third country. In addition to ensuring that the United Nations and humanitarian groups have the resources they need, the United States should cooperate with its Security Council allies to guarantee that the Taliban does not hinder the free flow of help.

Moreover, to follow any influx of jihadists to Afghanistan, intelligence agencies will have to rededicate resources and increase surveillance. They must be pushed to coordinate their efforts on the Taliban in order to keep the most threatening groups under control. The United States could set an example by agreeing to accept a fair share of any displaced Afghans. Neighboring countries like Iran and Pakistan, which already have millions of Afghan refugees, are closing their borders.

Biden may not be able to prevent all of the disastrous repercussions of the Afghan catastrophe, but he must act now before the harm to U.S. interests and moral stature becomes irreversible. By taking these steps, he can send a strong statement to the world that he has learned his lessons and that America is coming back.

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Of Friends And Countries

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“The bird, a nest; the spider, a web; man, friendship,” William Blake reminded us in 1790.  Much earlier, Confucius warned in the 5th century BC, “Have no friends not equal to yourself.”  Seneca was ahead of his time and certainly not thinking of the business lunch when he noted that cultivated friendships for personal gain were of limited duration.

When it comes to countries, we have been informed repeatedly, there are no friends … just interests.  So it is with Afghanistan, from which the US decided to withdraw unilaterally and quickly.  Allies such as Britain who still have a presence there were caught off-guard.  Not altogether happy, slang words like ‘doolally’ have been used to describe President Biden who was also reluctant to respond promptly to British prime minister Boris Johnson’s urgent calls, and kept him waiting several days.  So much for the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries.

It wasn’t always a cosy relationship.  Quite frosty for the first hundred years or so after American independence, it included an attack on Washington and the city’s temporary capture.  During the Civil War they helped the Confederacy surreptitiously but as American power and industrial might continued to grow, the British realized an accommodation would be to their advantage and proceeded to emphasize ties of kinship, language and even democracy.  In the event, they even persuaded the US government to help in two world wars and even join them eventually.

Next, consider the case of England and France.  After the Normann conquest in 1066, French became the court language and continued so for a good three hundred years.  But the relationship also started a rivalry often with claims and counterclaims of being the rightful ruler, which sometimes led to war.  Following the French revolution came the Napolionic wars and their devastation, culminating in the 1815 Battle of Waterloo and French defeat. 

The 19th century also saw the German states being united by Bismarck, and, through industrialization, turned into a single powerful country.  Viewed as a threat by both Britain and France it brought about an entente cordiale … a rapprochement between centuries old implacable enemies.

Their efforts to choke off German growth could have only one result in the end — war.  And the 20th century suffered two with devastating loss of life.  The plan to help Germany (at least the western half) recover after the Second World War had flattened it, brought it within the US ambit.  Lest anyone think the aid was entirely altruistic, far from it, for a new threat had arisen … that of the mighty Soviet Union, and a quivering Western Europe was trying to shore up its side.  Yes indeed, countries do not have friends … only interests.

And so the Afghans who helped the US (the translators and such like) tried to get away during the withdrawal; with the rapid Taliban takeover, they could feel the threat to life and limb in their bones, and some knew they were on lists.  Many did leave on the American planes but out of the crowds packing Kabul airport, most were left behind.

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