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Exiting Donald Trump’s “Heart Of Darkness”: What Have We Learned?

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

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“It ain’t over till it’s over,” we learn from New York Yankee great Yogi Berra.[1] Now that Donald J. Trump has been defeated at the polls and is on his way out, this defiling president is almost “over.” Nonetheless, his rancorous and dissembling tenure deserves a more critical summation than perfunctorily polite nods of “good riddance.” To protect against similar electoral misfortunes in the future, Trump’s twisted political provenance now warrants a retrospective examination.

               In essence, these origins deserve a science-based “autopsy.”

               With or without metaphor, they demand refined efforts of “mind.” This means, in turn, variously careful applications of analytic scrutiny and disciplined “thought.”[2] Anything less substantial could leave us unprepared for a paralyzing “second wave,” for an unwelcome presidential “encore.”

               Let us not be unwary. Without aptly systemic remediation, the United States could sometime make itself vulnerable again. Next time it could even extend to nuclear existential harms.[3]

               What do we do now? First, we need to learn more systematically from so many Trump-created declensions; that is, to discover from where this near-fatal leadership plague originated. This will not be a query of geography, but one of mindset or ideology. In this indispensable inquiry, history, science and law must be restored to an appropriate pride of place. After all, it must be understood, such a manifestly unfit American president did not emerge ex nihilo, in a vacuum, from nothing.

               Donald Trump was the more-or-less predictable outgrowth of an American polity and society nurtured by  “bread and circus,”[4] of an amusement-based commonwealth that all too often loathes serious thought.[5] Tens of millions of Americans were comfortable voting for a president who openly and habitually undermined “due processes of law,” and who never reads anything; ever.[6]

               The ironies are conspicuous. Any true democracy requires, inter alia, and at a minimum, a decent respect for literacy. But no such basic regard obtains in these unhappy United States, not even today. Instead, nurtured by a consistently callous indifference to wisdom, Americans generally resist the strenuousness of honest intellectual effort or authentic analytic thought. 

               The basic problem is not just that tens of millions of citizens know so very little of truth. It is rather that they want to know so very little.

               When they voted for Donald J. Trump, these American s wittingly endorsed a candidate for whom truth was not “merely” anathema. In this president’s inverted world, authentic truth is quite literally “against the faith.” Over the past four years, it has effectively been transformed for millions into a distinct form of “impiety.”

               Questions must be answered. How did we ever arrive at such a dark space of contrivance and anti-Reason? Who is our real “enemy?”

               To reply, the discernible core adversary of any dignified American polity is never any one particular ideology or another –  neither “left wing radicals” nor “right wing extremists.” It is, instead, a sustained collective citizen antipathy to Reason and Virtue. Naturally, Americans can’t usually be expected to recognize the philosophic (Platonic) origins of these coinciding objectives, but they can at least make an effort to learn about certain underlying ideas.

               In its basic contours, this craven American antipathy to Reason and Virtue is plausibly universal. It is rooted less in any specific time or place than in a ubiquitously human horror of disciplined thought. At the same time, this species of universality in no way diminishes anti-Reason’s durable harms to the United States.[7] For Americans just newly emerging from the bruising darkness of Donald J. Trump’s crude authoritarianism, the first order of business – the very first societal “repairs” – must be undertaken here, at home.

                “The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth,” clarified 20th century German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952). It is this identical demeaning spirit that continues to dominate the present-day United States.[8] Although we can take some palpable comfort from the electoral defeat of Donald J. Trump, it is still worth noting that pundit and academic post-mortems of this disgraced American presidency focus on narrowly technical electoral explanations and on identifiable defects or derelictions of the losing candidate.

               Nowhere, it is safe to predict, will capable analysts or thinkers seek to find coherent explanations in appropriately broader considerations of context.

                It is finally time to ask: Wherein lie the pertinent roots of America’s antipathy to intellect and serious learning? A generic but pertinent answer is supplied not by political and social scientists, but by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In his classic Notes from Underground (1864), the great Russian  writer compares the attractions of “reason” and “desire,” concluding that the latter –  “the manifestation of life itself” – has the upper hand.

               Always.

               There are significant variations from country to country, and from time to time, but history reveals that anti-Reason political leaders are always aspiring somewhere “in the wings.”[9] Here, often  diligently, they prepare to pounce against whatever might support the less immediately gratifying claims of intellect or “mind.” Or against whomever.

               This insight ought not appear new to us. We should have learned all this from the historic end of Weimar Germany and Nazi Germany. We should also have learn this lesson from the incrementally calamitous Trump years here in the United States. Though America’s four-year subjection to falsehood and doctrinal anti-Reason has not been genocidal (the jurisprudential crime of genocide expressly includes criminal intent, or mens rea), the animating sentiments of the Trump White House have been furiously opposed to universal human rights and fundamental human freedoms.[10]

               Perversely, it was Donald J. Trump’s unabashed disregard for justness and fairness that became its singular and signature mantra.[11] But why receive such wide and enthusiastic support from so many millions of Americans? In this regard, even the final election vote count is hardly comforting or reassuring. Even now, tens of millions of citizens remain deeply sympathetic to a president who could never decipher the most elementary social problems, figure out basic elements of climate science and disease, or deliver even the most minimally coherent logical argument.

               This has been a president, lest we forget, who opined that individual injections of bleach could be an effective way of defeating the Corona virus.

               There is much more. In the United States, prima facie, presidential elections represent an immutable  fixture of democracy. Nonetheless, though necessary, they are also insufficient in dealing with this suffering country’s most seriously underlying challenges. To deal satisfactorily with the Corona Virus pandemic (our current worldwide “plague”) and with the corresponding global chaos, America will first have to “fix the microcosm.”

               Always, every advancement in society and law must begin with the individual human being.[12] “Ultimately,” summarizes 20th century Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957),”everything depends on the quality of the individual.”

               “Intellect rots the mind,” warned Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at the Nuremberg rallies of 1935. “I love the poorly educated” said candidate Donald J. Trump in 2016. This comparison or commonality need not suggest that the Trump administration was in any way intentionally murderous, but only that both regimes had received their “primal” nurturance from the darkly-poisonous font of anti-Reason.[13]

               Among other things, Trump rallies, in the fashion of their more seemingly sinister Nazi antecedents, represented incoherent gatherings of the faithful, replete with ritualistic phrases of banalities, of gibberish, chanted in loud and atavistic chorus.

               During the glaringly rancorous “Trump Era,” there has obtained in the United States not even a pretense  of  intellectual integrity or “Mind.” Both thinking and dignity have been strikingly out of political fashion. In the most cantankerous public realms defined by the White House, truth has never been regarded as necessarily worthwhile or advantageous.

                For this now outgoing president who learned a great deal from unwitting mentor Joseph Goebbels, truth was just a grievous liability.

               Quo Vadis? Where do we go from here? Though not generally understood, looking behind the news is everyone’s first obligation of good citizenship. Only here, in the background, in areas not immediately obvious and not being dissected on television or online, can we still discover the meaningfully permanent truths of American political life.

               Additional core questions must now be answered. Americans should more sincerely inquire: “How can a US president have so willfully ignored and accepted his Russian counterpart as “puppet master?” Even in the wholesale absence of  Emersonian “high thinking” within the Trump White House,[14] it should be perfectly obvious that one superpower president became the all-too-witting marionette of the other. Functioning within a balance of power or Westphalian[15] international system, this eccentric sort of  US geopolitical subordination has put the entire American nation in existential jeopardy.[16]

               There remain still more serious questions. As a nation, when shall we finally agree to bear truthful and informed witness on Constitutional governance?[17] Can there remain any doubt that there is much more to these founding principles than robotic recitals of  alleged Second Amendment rights?  Surely this country must be about much more than just the right to bear arms, especially when this right is defined in ways that would have been starkly incomprehensible to the Founding Fathers.

               To wit, can anyone reasonably argue that the original intended rights of gun ownership should now extend to automatic weapons?

               Cultural context remains vital, even determinative, to explaining Donald J. Trump’s ascent to the presidency. Trump did not arise ex nihilo. What went so terribly wrong with American  “high thinking?” How, more precisely, did we allow a once-promising and still-rising nation to slide uncontrollably toward collective national misfortune?  

               We have seen that in the unsteady nuclear age, such misfortune could sometime have included catastrophic human wars.[18]  With such dreaded inclusion, we the people might sometime have needed to witness an unprecedented fusion. This fearful coming-together could have been an explosive alloy of banality and apocalypse.[19]

               It would not have been a tolerable fusion.

               In the profane melodrama and farce directed by US President Donald J. Trump, we Americans were not authentically tragic figures. At no time have we been just the passive victims of a disjointed and contrived presidency. As long as we refused to speak out at less delicate levels of truth-telling – and this refusal meant much more than showing up to vote in 2020 – we  fully “deserved” our consequent losses.

               Amid such consequential “theatrical” matters, we Americans may have much less to learn from Plato, Aristotle or Shakespeare than from 20th century psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Even a cursory glance at these two seminal thinkers from Vienna and Zurich should remind us of ever-present human dangers posed by “horde” or “mass.”Freud and Jung were both strongly influenced by the Danish Existentialist thinker Soren Kierkegaard (who personally preferred the term “crowd” to “horde” or “mass”) and by German-Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

                Without guile, Nietzsche had spoken woefully (and prophetically) of the “herd.”

               Whatever term we might now decide to favor, one key point should remain unassailable and constant: When an entire nation and society abandon the most basic obligations of critical thinking and “reason” (again, this observation about “reason” should bring us back to the German post-War philosopher, Karl Jaspers[20]), we should expect accelerating deformity and eventual tyranny.  Nietzsche, in his masterpiece Zarathustra, was even more specific. “Do not seek the higher-man in the marketplace,” the philosopher- prophet had warned presciently.

               In the United States, we failed to listen. Donald J. Trump’s wholly mundane skill sets were acquired in the market-based worlds of real-estate bargaining, casino gambling and “branding.” They did not “carry over” to intersecting intricacies of high-politics and diplomacy. Basing his foreign policies on an explicit rejection of intellect[21]  – a rejection continuously affirmed by his various appointments of ill-equipped family members to senior posts –  we have been left with a tortured world of disappearing friends and still-multiplying foes.

               Now, however, with a promising new president elected, American national leadership can begin to offer more than clichés, empty-witticisms or “deals.”[22]  Trump’s assorted trade wars, like his wholly disjointed approach to pandemic disease (“Operation Warp Speed”) became a gargantuan net-negative for the United States. But what is most important now, after so much damage has already been inflicted, is that we avoid similar presidential failings going forward.

               In the end, every society represents the sum total of its individual souls seeking some sort or other of “redemption.” This overriding search is never properly scientific – after all, there can be no discernible or tangible referent for a human “soul” – but some important answers may still lie outside mainstream scientific investigations.[23] These  “subjective” answers ought not be disregarded. At times, at least, they should be consciously sought and meticulously studied.

               In President Donald J. Trump’s deeply fractionated American republic, We the people have cheerlessly inhabited a stultifying “hollow land” of unending submission, crass consumption, dreary profanity and shallow pleasures. Bored by the suffocating banalities of daily life and beaten down by the grinding struggle to stay hopeful amid ever-widening polarities of health and disease, of wealth and poverty, our weary US citizens – people who have had every right to vote,  but not to keep their teeth[24] – grasped anxiously for available lifelines of distraction.

               In 2016, this presumed lifeline was a hideously false prophet of American “greatness.”

               In 2016, legions of Americans unaccustomed to reading anything of consequence were easily taken in by mountains of cheap red hats and by starkly inane political slogans.

               For Donald Trump, prima facie, cynical simplifications represented the planned path to electoral victory. Correspondingly, evident anti-Reason became his primary stock in trade. This nefarious posture quickly became a widespread national “faith.”

               “Intellect rots the mind” said Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1935.

               “I love the poorly educated” said US Presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.

               There is not much light between these “faith-based” statements. In principle, at least, these  hideous commonalties became de rigueur. Misdirected by incessantly hollow claims of “American Exceptionalism” and “America First,” we somehow managed to forget that world politics is first and foremost a system.  It follows, going forward, that considerations of US security and prosperity be consciously linked to the calculable well-being of other states and other societies.

               In world politics, as in life generally, “We are all in the soup together.”

               There is more. Until now, we Americans have unceremoniously ignored the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s clear warning from The Phenomenon of Man (1955): “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.[25] No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”

               Any society that makes tax avoidance into a key virtue – even one used as a primary standard of presidential selection – is a society without adequate visions of survival, meaning or virtue.

               In “Trump World” we have been ignoring almost everything of commendable intellectual importance. Should there remain any sincere doubts about this bitter indictment, one need only look at the current state of American higher education. In many ways, this realm is now just another defiled expression of Nietzsche’s (Zarathustra’s) “marketplace.”[26]

               In Donald Trump’s America, we the people were no longer being shaped by any suitably generalized feelings of reverence or compassion, nor, as has already been demonstrated, by even the tiniest hints of “mind.” Until now, America’s oft-preferred preoccupation, encouraged by the White House and shamelessly unhidden, was a closely- orchestrated indulgence in other people’s lives and (with an even greater enthusiasm) their sufferings. In German, there is even a specially-designated word for this grim pathology of the human spirit.

               It is called schadenfreude, or taking an exquisite pleasure in the misfortunes of others.

               For the most part, this voyeuristic frenzy has been juxtaposed against the comforting myths of American superiority. In the end, however, this particular fiction, more than any other, is apt to produce further collective declension and expanded individual despair. This was the case even when American president Trump chose to wrap himself in the flag, literally, a 2018 Trump embrace of rare and defiling repugnance. Later, on June 1, 2020,  a similarly revolting Trump prop embrace was extended to the Bible, this during a peaceful protest in Washington DC.[27]

               It’s good to have Nation on your side, Donald J. Trump had figured out, but even better to have God on your side. Never were the bitterly grotesque ironies of Bob Dylan’s brilliant song (“With God on Your Side”) more clearly on display.

               “I belong, therefore I am.”  This is not what philosopher René Descartes had in mind when, in the 17th century, he urged greater thought and expanding doubt. It is also a very sad credo. Unhesitatingly, it shrieks loudly that social acceptance by the mass or herd or crowd is roughly equivalent to physical survival, and that even the most sorely pretended pleasures of inclusion are worth pursuing.

               There is more to explain. A push-button metaphysics of “apps” now reigns supreme in America. This immense attraction of smart phones and correspondingly bewildering social networks stems in large part from a barren society’s machine-like existence. Within this increasingly robotic universe, every hint of human passion must be shunted away from any still-caring human emotions, and then re-directed along certain uniform and vicariously satisfying pathways.

               Jurisprudentially, although international law obliges the United States to oppose all crimes of genocide and related crimes against humanity  and despite the fact that this binding international law is an established part of the law of the United States[28] – Donald J. Trump remained silent on war crimes. This silence obtained, moreover, whether the egregious derelictions were committed by America’s allies or by its adversaries. These terms of relationship must now be bound together because  it had become substantially unclear exactly who was friend and who was foe.

               When this American president first defended Russia’s Vladimir Putin against the advice of America’s intelligence community, we ought already to have known we were in real trouble. Significantly, during his tenure, Donald J. Trump has never backed off this unsupportable priority. Why hasn’t this humiliating sycophancy not been subjected to any serious public scrutiny?

               There is more. When Trump said of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un “We’re in love,” we ought have then suspected that an American president’s alleged plan for “denuclearization” was hopelessly without merit. From the start, the plan lacked any conceivable semblance of analytic foundation.

               There is more pertinent detail for us to consider. Across this Trump- beleaguered land, our once traditionally revered Western Canon of literature and art has increasingly been replaced by more “practical” emphases on job preparation, loyalty-building sports and “branding.”  For most of America’s young people, even before the pandemic, learning has become an inconvenient and thoroughly burdensome commodity.

               Beware, warns Zarathustra, of seeking virtue, fairness or justice at the marketplace. This is a place only for commerce,  for trading, for buying and selling. It is a venue designed only for “deals.” It is never a proper place for identifying potentially suitable national leaders.

               In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired coyly about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This president (a president who actually read and wrote serious books) answered “yes,” but only if we would first refuse to join the misdirecting “herds” of mass society.

               Otherwise, President Wilson had already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty corrosion of broken machinery, more disabling even than the sordid decompositions of an individual human being.

                In all societies, Ralph Waldo Emerson had understood, the care of individual “souls” should be the most insistent national responsibility. Conceivably, there could sometime emerge a betterAmerican Soul,”but not until we could first agree to shun several inter-penetrating seductions of mass culture. These are rank imitation;  shallow thinking;  organized mediocrity; and a manifestly predatory politics  focused on  ethnicity, gender, race and class.

               Any such far-reaching rejection will not be easy. It will take time.

               Still, newly liberated from the degrading shackles of a Trump presidency, hope may no longer have to sing softly, in a determined undertone, sotto voce. Soon it will be able to re-emerge without excuses, increasingly reasonable and newly purposeful.

                The alternative could be unseemly and injurious. It would be for us not to have learned something useful from the defiling Trump Era; that is, to continuously embrace a rancorous orientation toward intellect and politics. In broad conceptual and generic outline, this orientation was described earlier by Sören Kierkegaard. The 19th century Danish philosopher invoked what he famously called  “a sickness unto death.”[29] For the moment, at least, “We the people” have managed to negotiate an eleventh hour escape from this all-consuming “sickness” – from the enduring horror of Donald J. Trump’s bitter presidency – but there remains one overriding obligation.

                It is to render this essential  escape from darkness to enlightenment[30] more conspicuous, more welcome, more durable and more permanent. The American public’s retreat from Reason did not begin with the bilious Trump presidency, and it will not end abruptly with the upcoming presidency of Joe Biden. Nonetheless, we can, as a society, take steps to get beyond the ruthless ignorance of Trump-era governance and to acknowledge the singularly incomparable benefits of thought[31]. With the electoral defeat of Donald J. Trump we have already made a necessary beginning, but that is all that we have accomplished thus far.

               Embracing apt imagery of education and learning, we ought to think of this new post-Trump opportunity for hope as merely an indispensable start. It essence, it is best considered as an historic American commencement. Reminds Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”


[1]Under law, Donald J. Trump; remains with full presidential powers until Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. During this brief remaining tenure, Trump retains, inter alia, full Constitutional authority as commander-in-chief. See, in this regard: by Louis René Beres, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/louis-beres-simultaneous-nuclear-election/ See also, by Professor Beres: https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/10/08/nuclear-decision-making-and-covid19-impairments-existential-perils-of-the-trump-presidency/

[2]This term will be explained more fully later on in the text, as an express referent to pertinent writings of political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

[3]See, by Professor Louis René Beres, at The Hill: https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/418509-americas-greatest-danger-nuclear-war-decision-making-by-donald-trump  In specific regard to Trump-created dangers of a nuclear war, we may be reminded of still-timely verse by “Beat Poet” Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “In a surrealist year….some cool clown pressed an inedible mushroom button, and an inaudible Sunday bomb fell down, catching the president at  his prayers on the 19th green.” (A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958).

[4]It was Juvenal (Satires, X) who coined the Latin phrase panem et circenses, forever stigmatizing the decadence and desolation of ancient Rome.

[5]We should be reminded here of Bertrand Russell’s trenchant observation in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death.”

[6]Ironically, the Founding Fathers of the United States were intellectuals. As explained by famed American historian Richard Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” See Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 145. To be sure, we can discover a tangible bit of sexism and racism in these commending characterizations, but such aspects of “enlightenment” thought must properly be viewed in their 18th century context.

[7]Prospectively, the worst such harm would be a nuclear war. On the plausibly expected consequences of a nuclear war, see by this author, Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986); and most recently, Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed., 2018).

[8] In a similar vein, Spanish 20th century thinker Jose Ortega y’Gasset says in The Revolt of the Masses (1932): “The mass man has no use for reason. He learns only in  his own  flesh.”

[9]Says Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Revolt, the “mass man” is a sorely primal and universal being, one who has somehow “slipped back though the wings….”

[10]In effect, because all US law is founded upon “the law of nature” (see US Declaration of Independence and US Constitution), this opposition to human rights and freedom is ipso facto in opposition to Natural Law. This Natural Law is based upon the acceptance of certain principles of right and justice that prevail because of their own intrinsic merit.  Eternal and immutable, they are external to all acts of human will and interpenetrate all human reason. It is a dynamic idea, and together with its attendant tradition of human civility runs continuously from Mosaic Law and the ancient Greeks and Romans to the present day.  For a comprehensive and far-reaching assessment of the Natural Law origins of international law, see Louis René Beres, “Justice and Realpolitik:  International Law and the Prevention of Genocide,” The American Journal of Jurisprudence, Vol. 33, 1988, pp. 123-159.  This article was adapted from Professor Beres’ earlier presentation at the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide, Tel-Aviv, Israel, June 1982.

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

[12]In 1965, the Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, lamented in Who Is Man?: “The emancipated man is yet to emerge…”

[13] In his  Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), German thinker Karl Jaspers explains: “There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason, but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought, but for the whisperings of the irrational.” These were the seductive “whisperings” of the Third Reich, and – at least among the several million avid subscribers to Donald J. Trump’s assorted conspiracy theories, also here in the United States.

[14] Reference here is to American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in the 19th century called famously for “plain living and high thinking.” Plainly, and meaningfully, virtually no one in the Trump orbit has even heard of this country’s most esteemed school of philosophy. Like their “master,” they typically “learn only in their own flesh.”

[15]See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[16] The belligerent nationalismof Donald Trump has stood in marked contrast to authoritative  legal assumptions concerning solidarity between states. These jurisprudential assumptions concern a presumptively common legal struggle against aggression, genocide and terrorism. Such a “peremptory” expectation, known formally in law as a jus cogens assumption, had already been mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey., tr, Clarendon Press, 1925)(1690); and Emmerich de Vattel, 1 Le Droit Des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758). In the introduction to Le Droit Des Gens -The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law – Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel cites to Cicero: “For there is nothing on earth more acceptable to that Supreme Deity who rules over this whole world than the councils and assemblages of men bound together by law, which are called States.” (Somnium Scipionis). This view is a far cry from the later Nietzschean view that “State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters” (Zarathustra) or Jose Ortega y’Gasset, “The state, after sucking out the very marrow of society, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with hat rusty death of machinery, more gruesome even than the death of a living organism (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930).

[17] See, by Professor Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2017/07/Beres-president-trump-impeachment1/

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

[19] C’est beau, n’est-ce pas, la fin du monde?” queries French playwright Jean Giraudoux. See: Sodome et Gomorrhe  II, 2

[20] See especially Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952).

[21] In the observation of French 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.” See: “The New Spirit and the Poets” (1917).

[22]In his philosophic essay, The Dehumanization of Art (1925), Jose Ortega y’Gasset accurately foresaw what has been happening here in the United States: “The demagogues, impresarios of alteracion, who have already caused the death of several civilizations, harass men so that they will  be able to reflect, manage to keep them herded together in crowds, so that they cannot reconstruct their individuality….They tear down service to truth, and in its stead offer us myths.”

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

[24] One has to wonder just how many Americans can even afford to have essential dental care. As a practical matter, for a great many Americans (both poor and aged) teeth are simply no longer affordable. In a nation of staggering inequality, they have become a luxury for most elderly persons.

[25]This brings to mind the Natural Law origins of US jurisprudence. The Stoics, whose legal philosophies arose on the threshold of the Greek and Roman worlds, regarded Nature as humankind’s supreme legislator. Applying Platonic and Aristotelian thought to a then-hopefully emerging cosmopolis, they defined this nascent order as one wherein humankind, by means of its seemingly well-established capacity to reason, can commune directly with the gods.  As this definition required further expansion of Plato’s and Aristotle’s developing notions of universalism, the Stoics articulated a further division between lex aeterna, ius natural and ius humanum. Though not widely understood or conspicuous in the United States, this division further elucidates the background of America’s ongoing legal responsibilities.

[26]See, by Professor Beres, at The Daily Princetonian:  https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/06/a-core-challenge-of-higher-education

[27]See, by Professor Beres at JURIST: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/06/louis-beres-secret-service-trump/  

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

[29] In a different essay, Point of View, “That Individual,” Kierkegaard says: “The crowd is untruth.” Though succinct, it remains a telling and comprehensive observation. The core sentiment here is almost identical to Friedrich Nietzsche’s discussion of the “herd” in Zarathustra and of “mass” by Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957). Sigmund Freud, too, spoke in several sources (e.g., Civilization and its Discontents) about the “horde.”

[30] See Immanuel Kant’s long famous imperative, “Dare to know!,” in What is Enlightenment (1784).

[31]As already revealed at the opening paragraphs of this essay, these benefits should call to mind the very relevant oeuvre of political philosopher Hannah Arendt, especially The Human Condition(1958); Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963); and The Life of the Mind (1978).

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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The liberal international order has not crumbled yet

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Since 2017 when Donald Trump took office, the “liberal international order” erected in 1991 has been under serious challenges raised by the United States’ relative decline, the Trump administration’s isolationist policy, and on top of that, the outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, this order is greatly plagued, which is evidenced by its dysfunction. Against this backdrop, its endurance in the upcoming time is questionable. Nevertheless, the liberal international order has not collapsed yet. It will even revive, and endure in the post-pandemic era.

The victory of Biden 

Notwithstanding facing great threats, the liberal international order is far from crumbling. On the contrary, it is gradually reviving. In the Western world, countries are making effort to reform their order that is on the verge of collapse. This is true in the US – the world democracy’s leader. Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump may be a positive signal for the US and the global democracy. As a strong advocate for values including democracy, multilateralism and international trade, at no doubt, President Biden will be opposite to Trump in his policy, both domestic and foreign ones. Indeed, during his first 100 days, Mr.Biden has implemented some meaningful things. Regarding the pandemic, he has a stricter approach than his predecessor’s: Mandatory mask wearing, a $1.9-trillions bill, historical vaccination campaign, to name a few. All of Biden’s actions have been so far effective, when the new cases and deaths are steadily declining, and the number of vaccinated people is substantially high. This lays a foundation for Biden to reinvigorate his country’s ruined democracy and governance system, as his efficiency in countering COVID-19 may help him regain American people’s trust on the future of American democracy.

In terms of foreign policy, President Biden has some radical changes compared to that of Trump, which might be favorable to the Western world. At first glance, Biden embraces multilateralism much more than his predecessor, with the hope of saving the American global leadership. He supports Washington’s participation in international institutions, which is illustrated by the rejoining of WHO, Paris Agreement and several multilateral commitments. In tandem with this, Biden values the US’ alliances and strategic partnership as vital instruments for the US’ hegemony. Unlike Trump’s transactional approach, Biden prioritizes early and effective engagement with allies to tackle regional and global issues, especially major ones like NATO, G7. In Asia, he also seeks for further cooperation with traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and deepening partnership with Vietnam, Singapore, India and ASEAN countries.

More importantly, President Biden’s policies towards the US’ competitors and “rogue states” are far different from Trump’s. Granted, despite seeing China as the biggest threat to the American global leadership, Biden adopts a more flexible and multilateral policy. His administration looks to cooperate and compete with China, which implies a different trajectory of the US-China relationship in the upcoming time. Additionally, as noted above, instead of unilaterally escalating tensions with China as Trump did, Biden has been forging relations with traditional and potential Asian allies to contain China together, given China’s increasing assertiveness. With regard to Iran, Washington is now working on the Iran Nuclear Deal with other six parties, promising a potentially positive future on the relations of Iran with the US and the West. The bottom line is, a radical change in Biden’s foreign policy will be a clear message to the world that the US will still try to save the liberal international order and make this world safer for democracy.

The European Union is recovering 

Things are happening in the same pattern in Europe. European leaders are also closely cooperating, both inside and outside the bloc, to defeat COVID-19. That said, they are ardently supporting multilateralism. So far, the EU has spent billions of dollars in vaccine development as well as humanitarian support, demonstrating its solidarity in the battle against COVID-19. As such, if EU leaders can successfully lead their bloc out of the current crisis, they can reform this currently plagued institution in the post-pandemic era. Not only seeking further intra-bloc cooperation, but also European leaders are working with other major actors around the world to substantiate the global battlefront against COVID-19. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her country and China to jointly develop COVID’s vaccine in an open, transparent way, and to a further extent, maintain good and stable bilateral partnership, regardless of two sides’ differences.

Similarly, the EU has been putting the Transatlantic relationship among the priorities of its foreign policy agenda. After Biden’s election, the European Commission has proposed refreshing the US-EU alliance and establishing a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, being seen as an informal tech alliance with the US to prevent China from dominating this critical sector. The Transatlantic relationship is perhaps one of the pillars for the liberal international order, given its long history and its contribution to maintain the global stability. In the last decades, this axis has been damaged by numerous issues, from economic to security, which is one of the main causes for the decline of liberal international order. Thus, a fresh Transatlantic relationship is conducive to the re-emergence of this order. In this respect, the EU’s effort to strengthen the Transatlantic alliance, despite being questionable in terms of feasibility and outcome, is still paving the way for reinvigorating of liberal international order. More notably, the most recent G7 Summit has illustrated the Western’s solidarity, when there is a convergence in most issues related to global governance and maintaining the Western-based order. This may be a harbinger of the liberal international order’s revival, at least in a foreseeable future.

Non-Western world is struggling 

The dynamics outside the Western world is also changing in a more favorable direction. Many non-Western countries, once were effective in combating against the pandemic, are now struggling with a greater threat. Taiwan, in spite of being praised as one of the most successful states in the battle against COVID-19, is currently facing another wave of pandemic when the new cases in this island are surging recently. Other successful stories, let us say Thailand, Japan or South Korea, are questionable of maintaining their momentum in preventing the virus, showcased by their relatively inefficiency during this new wave, in implementing strong measures and getting their people vaccinated. This raises question about these countries’ model of governance, which was used to be praised as a better alternative for a plagued, dysfunctional Western one, thanks to its merits in helping those above-mentioned states contain COVID-19.

Major non-Western blocs are in the midst of COVID-19 crisis as well. The clearest example is the BRICS. Except China, all other countries in this bloc have been tremendously suffering from the pandemic. Due to this, they are far from being recovered quickly. This failure in dealing with the virus undermines the bloc’s previous effort in establishing its position as a major, effective one, not to mention building a new, non-Western international order. This is also the case with ASEAN, as the organization was sharply divided by COVID-19. There are countries doing well with controlling the pandemic such as Vietnam, Singapore, but the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to do so, making this bloc suffering from institutional sclerosis without having any coherent COVID-19 policy. Therefore, non-Western blocs and countries are far from being more efficient than Western ones, implying they are unable to come up with any better international orders than the current liberal international one.

More importantly, Western values underpinning the liberal international order are universal. This is noteworthy when arguing for the long-lasting of Western order, as its existence and endurance mainly hinge on the universality of Western values. These values have been embraced by many countries for a very long time. Hence, despite being deteriorated in recent years, they cannot be easily changed. On the other hand, non-Western values are also not as highly embraced as Western ones. China, desiring to topple the US, is initiating numerous projects and agreements to spread its values around the world, making the world less Western and more Chinese/Asian. Nonetheless, Beijing has yet achieved any remarkable achievements in making their values more widespread and embraced by the rest of the world. Even worse, its image has been tarnished due to its rising assertiveness. Its projects in developing countries, especially BRI-related projects, have been notorious for a large number of problems related to environment or local corruption, and it is raising strategic uncertainty in the region by its increasing militarization, particularly on the South China Sea. These movements have turned China into a “malevolent” major power, hindering its process of disseminating and socializing its values to the world.

It is also worth noting that although Western values have declined, they have been proven to be benevolent for this world. Most recently, it is Western countries that have successfully developed good COVID-19 vaccines to save themselves and save the world from this unprecedented health crisis. Non-Western countries, for instance China and Russia, have their own vaccines, but they are not as welcome as other developed countries in the West in the vaccine race, because their vaccines are relatively less effective than Western-produced ones. Democracy, liberty, lassaiz faire are values that help Western countries or ones embrace such things able to produce massive amount of effective vaccines, and more broadly to develop a strong science and technology foundation. Producing and distributing vaccine for the rest of the world would make the West become a savior, which is good for saving the liberal international order.

Without doubt, the liberal international order has been in its worst time since 1991 when it reached its heyday. However, thanks to its merits, the liberal international order will not die. Instead, most countries will jointly save it, because they have been benefitting from this order for a long time, and will be so in the future. The order’s founding members are recovering, and cooperating closely to reform it, as well as there are no better international orders that can replace the existing one. Given these circumstances, the liberal international order would re-emerge as a dominant form of ordering this world after the pandemic, and would be perpetuated.

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Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.

Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.

Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.

In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.

Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?

In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.

This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.

President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.

What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.

If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.

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Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.

A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.

I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.

The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.

But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.

Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.

Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.

Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.

For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.

This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.

Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.

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