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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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Americas

New US Administration Approach to Syria: How Different Could It Be?

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With the new US administration in the White House, there are rather lofty expectations about a change in the American Middle East policy in general and towards Syria in particular. Some argue that the US Middle East policy will remain somewhat in line with that of Trump’s presidency, while others believe that Biden’s team will try to reverse many of the previous foreign policy steps. The rest say that we should expect an Obama-style Middle East policy, which means more diplomatic engagement with less military involvement and a heavier focus on the human rights issues.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. The new US administration will certainly attempt to undo some of the predecessor’s moves: withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, putting the Houthis on the terror list, suspending aid to the Palestinians, etc. However, this will require considerable effort on the part of the new White House.

First, the new Administration will spend much more time dealing with the domestic issues they have inherited from Trump: polarized domestic politics, economic issues, consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and response to it, etc. Biden’s administration will have to devote much of its time to all of this, so it is safe to say that the Middle East will not stand in the forefront of the US foreign policy focus.

Second, in the realm of foreign policy, US relations with Europe, China and Russia are of far greater importance to Washington than those with the Middle East which will remain on the margins of the US foreign policy, being a concern only through the lens of strategic threats, such as combatting terrorism (anti-ISIS coalition efforts), nuclear non-proliferation (revival of the JCPOA), and interacting with actors involved in those issues.

Third, Biden will face certain domestic opposition to some of the Middle East policy issues, e.g. Iran nuclear deal, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, sanctioned entities and so on.

Finally, having different views, approaches and rationale, US allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey and Israel) could possibly frustrate some of the plans devised by the new administration.

Therefore, we should not expect the Middle East to figure high on the US foreign policy agenda, as well as keep our expectations low as concerns possible breakthroughs on the profiles which will get certain US attention: the Iran nuclear deal, Syrian Kurds issue, reconciliation with Turkey, dealing with Libya, cultivating relations with Israel and Palestine.

Syria Is Not a Priority

Syria has never been a priority for the US foreign policy and will likely remain a second-tier issue for Biden and his team. In fact, some analysis of the US Middle East policy over the last decade shows consistency of approach. Although Obama started his presidency with his 2009 Cairo speech, intended as a signal of support to the region and increased attention from the US, his administration responded to the Arab Uprising with certain discretion and was reluctant to increase American involvement in the regional conflicts—Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya—rather opting for a low profile, proceeding with its fight against terrorism and focusing on diplomacy to a greater extent. Trump administration, by and large, continued this approach avoiding military involvement and shifting more of the responsibility for security and regional problems onto its regional allies—Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, etc. While Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and increased sanction pressure on Tehran, this never translated into a significant change in the American approach to the region. Even in Syria, which suffered several US missile attacks, the moves of the previous administration did not lead to a drastic change of the situation on the ground. Moreover, US “betrayal” of the Kurds and a partial withdrawal of its military from Syria had little serious impact on the course of the conflict. Therefore, over the last decade, the US regional policy has, by and large, been going along the similar lines of limited engagement, fight against terrorism, support of its regional allies.

Today, Biden administration’s plans do not provide for a change in the established approach and deal only with a limited number of policy issues, those coming in for heavy criticism under Trump, e.g. the Iran deal, extending support to the Syrian Kurds, suspending dialogue and aid to the Palestinians, etc.

It is worth noting that the new US administration does not regard the Syrian conflict as a separate problem, important in its own right. It, rather, treats it as a secondary issue linked to other, more important policy issues, such as dealings with Iran and the nuclear deal, relations with Turkey, which happens to brand US-backed Syrian Kurdish militias (YPG) as terrorists, as well as dealings with Russia who, in recent years, has become more active in Syria and in the region at large, or ensuring security of US allies in the region (Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq, etc.) who feel threatened by increased Iranian military presence in Syria. Therefore, the Syrian profile is largely viewed in the context of US policies towards Iran, Russia and Turkey, rather than as a separate foreign policy concern.

Interestingly, though, the new Administration refused to send its representative to the 15th round of the Astana Syria talks held in Sochi on Feb. 16–17, despite an invitation being sent, as is argued by Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia’s special envoy on Syria. The US ceased to participate in the Astana meetings in mid-2018. Mr Lavrentiev went on to suggest that the new administration has yet to formulate its Syria policy, despite being officially in office for over a month now. “There are signals [coming from the US] that they will be ready to work with us, but so far no conclusive proposals have been made,” concluded the Russian envoy. Thus far, Washington has not devised its Syria policy, having other actors involved guess its possible approach and future steps.

Moscow Concerns with US Syria Policy

US military presence in Syria is among major concerns for Russia. American soldiers are deployed in northeastern and eastern provinces of Syria as well as in the south, around al-Tanf settlement, on the border with Jordan and Iraq. Moscow perceives American presence in the country as illegal and among the key obstacles to its reunification. US support to the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) prevents them from striking a deal with Damascus, something that is needed to restore the country’s territorial integrity and to assume control over those areas, as the majority of oil fields, water resources (Euphrates river), and some 40% of all agricultural lands are located in Kurdish-held regions. When the US is going to leave Syria is thus one of the most important questions for Russia.

A short answer would be that Washington will not pull out its forces from Syria, at least in the mid-term. Regardless of who occupies the White House, there are certain interests and goals that the US has in Syria, and it will hardly abandon them.

First and foremost, American military presence in Syria serves as a deterrent for the Syrian government forces and loyal militias, as well as for Russia, Iran, pro-Iranian units and Turkey. American troops prevent the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Russian forces from asserting control over the oil fields and extending it to the economically-needed, 3-million strong northeast and east provinces of Syria. They also keep an eye on Iranian activities in east Syria, on the border with Iraq (border-crossing in Al-Bukamal), and keep Iran from further entrenchment. Finally, American troops keep the Turkish forces and the Ankara-backed armed Syrian opposition from the offensive against the Syrian Kurds. In addition, American military surveilles Russian activities and moves in the region. Being no heavy burden for Washington, the mere presence of several hundred US soldiers in the country kills many birds with one stone. That is why we can hardly expect the new US leadership to abandon such a position.

Second, the fact that the US is capable of significantly increasing its military presence in Syria at any given moment and within a short span of time puts it in a position of being a potential spoiler of any military or political/diplomatic initiative or deal that Russia, Iran, the Syrian government or Turkey may undertake. Besides, recent reports indicate that the US is constructing a new military base with airfield facilities near al-Omar oil field in Deir ez-Zor. Its runways are 2.5 km-long, which allows it to host heavy military planes (Lockheed C-130 Hercules, Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, or В-52). Once finished, the base will let the US easily send several thousands of soldiers or PMC fighters to Syria overnight, handing it an opportunity to rapidly build up its military presence and capabilities in the area. This makes Washington an indispensable participant of any settlement in Syria and forces Moscow, Ankara, Tehran and Damascus to take American interests and concerns into account. It is unlikely that Washington is ready to lose such leverage.

Third, being the leader of the anti-ISIS coalition, the US maintains its presence on the ground, which enables it to fight the remnants of terrorists. US officials have recently called attention to the fact that the main focus of US military in Syria is to fight the Islamic State which has become more active over the past six months. This reason serves as an official excuse to justify US presence in the country.

Finally, the US wants to maintain its ability to influence the political process in Syria. As of now, Washington has several instruments at its disposal. Its unilateral sanctions coupled with the Caesar Act, created serious additional problems not only for the Syrian economy but for the socio-economic, humanitarian and medical situation affecting millions of ordinary civilians as well. Such sanctions are politically motivated, pursuing a change in the regime’ behavior, something that was never achieved. Essentially, this results in making the socio-economic and humanitarian conditions in the country only worse and obstructing any attempts to reconstruct critical infrastructure. Many humanitarian organizations report severe impediments in delivering humanitarian aid to Syria and rebuilding the country, with many INGOs being simply afraid to work in Damascus-controlled areas because of their fear to be sanctioned. According to the UN Special Rapporteur Prof. Alena Douhan, “secondary sanctions and over-compliance with unilateral sanctions result in fear for all interlocutors and drastically affect all population groups in targeted societies impeding people, private business, workers, scholars and doctors to do their job and to enjoy human rights.” As a result, US sanctions on Syria allow Washington to exert serious influence on the political settlement of the conflict as well as on Syria’s economic reconstruction, along with letting the United States remain a key actor in the conflict resolution.

Another leverage the US has in terms of shaping the political process in Syria is its support to SDF. Today, while backing the Syrian Kurds, Washington also obstructs any serious talks between them and the Syrian authorities in Damascus aimed at reaching reintegration of the northeast and eastern provinces of Syria back under control of the central government. Even though the most recent round of talks between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Damascus activated by Moscow ended up with reaching an important preliminary agreement on major controversial issues, this does not prevent the Kurds from backtracking once the Americans decide to sustain or increase their support to them and reaffirm their commitments. Such moves can substantially affect the ongoing intra-Syrian political processes and prevent the country from restoring its territorial integrity. As long as the Syrian Kurds enjoy support and commitments from the US, it is extremely hard to expect them to reach any viable deal with Damascus.

By the same token, the US can influence Turkey and its Syria policy—either through increasing pressure on Ankara or trying to co-opt it by addressing its concerns and moderating the Turkish-Kurdish agreement. Such steps can potentially change the course of the conflict, thus profoundly affecting Russian positions in Syria.

Similar logic applies to the US policy towards Iran and to the revival of the JCPOA. Washington would very much like to tie the nuclear deal to other issues of concern, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and/or its “malign activities in the region”, including those in Syria. Such an approach aspires to change Iran’s behavior, for instance, in Syria in exchange for the nuclear deal revival and lifting US sanctions. In the US line of reasoning, the White House has an upper hand in the talks with Iran to be able to force it to follow its preferred path. That can, in turn, affect Iran’s behavior not only apropos the return to the JCPOA but concerning its Syrian policy as well. The risks, if this approach fails, are high, as this will have counter-productive results. If the nuclear deal is not revived and sanctions remain at place, Iran will most likely persist in its “malign activities” in Syria and throughout the region, while reserving the option to escalate them. Even the most recent US attack on pro-Iranian targets in Syria had more to do with Iran and its activities in Iraq and Syria rather than with the Syrian conflict itself.

This is to say that the US policy towards Iran and the revival of the nuclear deal, or towards the Syrian Kurds, or the way how Biden’s administration will deal with Turkey, or Russia on the track of the Syrian conflict will have a serious impact on the situation in Syria. So far, there is no indication that it is going to be among the priorities of the new administration. Syria, though, will most likely remain part of US regional policies and subordinate to US dealings with Iran, Turkey and Russia. Outcomes of US-Iran, US-Turkey and US-Russia dialogue can potentially have a profound effect on the situation in Syria. Although it is hard to expect the new US administration to drastically change its approach to the Syrian conflict, there may be new promising avenues for diplomacy which will, hopefully, yield more positive results than negative ones.

From our partner RIAC

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Washington Ill-Prepared to Set Human Rights Agenda

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It is evident that US Democratic President Joe Biden and his team will pay more attention to the human rights agenda in foreign policy than their Republican predecessors did. It is also clear that Washington will actively use this agenda in dealing with its main geopolitical adversaries—above all, China and Russia. Finally, it is obvious that the United States will try to put together a consolidated Western front to shoulder American human rights initiatives. Human rights will become one of the tools to keep liberal democracies together confronting what is perceived to be the global rise of illiberal authoritarianism. We are likely to hear strong rhetoric on human rights coming out of the White House and the State Department. We will observe multiple human rights-focused US initiatives in international organizations. And we will also see new American human rights-related sanctions against Moscow and Beijing.

Still, at the end of the day, this strategy might turn out to be less successful than the new US leaders anticipate. No matter how Russian or Chinese governments are planning to handle, respectively, the Alexey Navalny case or political protests in Hong Kong, it is very unlikely that either Moscow or Beijing will yield under US pressure. Moscow and Beijing will continue going hand in hand with each other in blocking US-proposed international resolutions, in containing US foundations and NGOs operating in sensitive areas, and in countering the coming American information offensive on the human rights front. The growing pressure from the White House will only further cement the China-Russia partnership.

Moreover, the reality is that Washington is ill-prepared to make a convincing case on human rights and broader democracy issues.

First, America itself has not fully recovered from a deep and protracted political crisis. Many inside the US still question the standards of November’s presidential elections as well as the legitimacy of information restrictions imposed on Donald Trump and his supporters by major social networks and the US mainstream liberal media. The 2020 large-scale violent racial riots also question the assumption that the United States can serve today as a universal model of human rights observance. Until President Biden fixes related problems at home, his international human rights crusade will not look too credible even for his fellow citizens.

Second, it is easy for Biden to raise human rights issues against Russia and China—or against North Korea and Iran. This is a light and unburdensome task—in any case, these countries are not and will not be US allies or partners anytime soon. However, what about other potential targets—like Turkey and Saudi Arabia? On the one hand, both Ankara and Riyadh are perceived in Washington as gross violators of basic human rights. On the other hand, Washington badly needs partnerships with both of them. If the Biden administration heads down a slippery slope of double standards and selective use of the human rights agenda in foreign policy, this will not make this agenda more convincing for anyone. If Biden chooses to go against traditional US clients and friends, the political price for such integrity might turn out to be prohibitively high.

Third, though the international human rights agenda remains important, it seems that today, in most societies, the public puts fairness before freedom. 20 or 30 years ago, the quest for freedom was the driving force behind the majority of street protests, political upheavals and revolutions. Today people revolt mostly against what they believe to be unfair and unjust. The widely shared sentiment of unfairness and injustice rather than human rights or political democracy is the main source of various populist movements in all parts of the world.

The balance between the quest for freedom and the quest for fairness has always been moving from one side to the other, forming long political and social cycles in human history. In the first half of the 20th century, fairness and egalitarianism were perceived as more important than freedom and human rights, while in the second half of the century, the balance shifted away from the former and toward the latter. Today we observe the global social pendulum once again swinging in the opposite direction.

In this context, the recent statement of Chinese President Xi Jinping about the ultimate victory over absolute poverty in China may well outweigh all the eloquent human rights rhetoric coming from US President Joe Biden.

From our partner RIAC

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Witnessing Social Racism And Domestic Terrorism In Democratic America

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With just less than two weeks away from President-elect taking the office, the United States of America witnessed the worst of the worst it could ever do, since its discovery. Anti-democracy moves and violence is what American leadership stood against around the world and in particular in recent times since the Arab Spring, but the same ‘Mini Arab Spring’ was faced by America itself. The brave soldiers of America who took arms and enjoyed Saddam’s palace could not protect its own legislative branch, details about which make the very beginning of the American Constitution. The savior of democracy is struggling democracy at home as white supremacists and Trump supporter militias stormed at the US Capitol. Before having a critical outlook through the lens of Johan Galtung’s triangle of violence, it is potent to dig into what exactly is causing this situation in America. This started as protests at the National Mall which soon after Trump’s incitement turned into riots at the Capitol Building by masses without masks, painted with Republican colors and wrapped in MAGA merchandise. This storm over Congress seats came after months long instigation of Donald Trump’s claims about rigging in elections and his refusal to accept the results and especially when on Wednesday the Congressmen gathered to count the electoral votes and officially declared Biden as the next President of America. Amidst this siege over Capitol, arrests and vandalism of state property; Joe Biden was officially validated as the 46th President of the United States of America.

Apart from what became highlight of that week about Capitol Hill being invaded by pro-Trump supporters, critically analyzing the situation, it is evident enough that MAGA riots and Black Life Matters riots were quite evidently, differently handled by the state forces. This discrepancy in response to BLM can be better explained through Galtung’s 3 sides of violence. Galtung’s triangle shapes around three joints of connections: direct, cultural and structural violence, while the former has its roots in the latter two. Structural violence is defined as the unequal access and advantages to one racial, political, ethnic or religious group than the other in social and political orientations of systems that govern the state. Structural violence or social racism is evident in the varying responses that despite warnings about possible attacks during the electoral vote counts, Police did not seek advance help to prevent it, rather National Guard was deployed an hour after the protestors had already breached the first barricade. While in the case of BLM, the aggression of the Police and National Guard was evident in their gestures. While the anti-racism protests in June last year faced militarized response, none was done with anti-democratic riots.

While social racism is evident in America, it is yet to be witnessed what is to come next. Speaker of the House of Senate, Nancy Pelosi has already indicated removing President Trump from his office through the 25th Constitutional Amendment. Along with this, Joe Biden’s remarks about the situation also have long-term repercussions as well as expectations. Repercussions might come in terms of him calling the protestors as “domestic terrorists”. The FBI defines domestic terrorism as: “Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” America, since more than 2 decades is already fighting its war against terrorism in various segments of the world, the use of this word at home, although might bring support for Biden’s sympathies for BLM and democracy, yet it might have long-term impacts. Mentioning of expectations, Americans at home and abroad, both desire to see actual reforms followed by on ground implementations to counter structural violence. Along with this, Biden shall have to re-construct the de-constructed notion that political violence and threat to democracy is far away from America and is for third world countries. The states upon which America used to show serious concern and used to send arms for their national interests are showing their worry over the situation in America which is even termed as ‘coup’. Having pin-pointed all this, Biden’s era needs a lot of reconstruction before it opts to enter any third world country or show its presence in any new Spring for democracy outside America.

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