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Looking Back: The Trump Presidency as Triumph of Absurdity

After a six-decade gestation, György Kurtág’s ‘Fin de Partie,’ based on Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame,’ has come to life in a co-production by La Scala and (shown here) the Dutch National Opera. (Photos: Ruth Welz)

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Hamm: “What time is it”?

Clov: “The same as usual.”

Samuel  Beckett, Endgame

Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher. “I believe because it is absurd.”[1] Are there any rational explanations for enduring four dissembling years of lethal Trump horror?  Though pertinent explanations are ipso facto rational, what about the object of these required answers – that is, a far-reaching national surrender to wholly irrational governance?

               It’s time for candor. Even on a planet so wittingly disordered, so seemingly resigned to self-destruction,[2] the Trump years have been uniquely corrosive and dangerously incoherent. In essence, where so much has been preposterous on  its face, these once unimaginable times have signaled a genuine victory for absurdity[3]. What else can one reasonably say after an American president makes repeated medical claims that contradict his own scientific advisors; asserts that Joe Biden, then his rival, “hates and wants to hurt God…;” recommends injecting household disinfectants as therapeutic or prophylactic agents for Covid19 infection; insists that children are “almost immune” to Corona virus; and maintains that “only 1%” of those infected” suffer palpable harms?

               Credo quia absurdum.

               Approaching the end of his presidency – in late December 2020 – Donald J. Trump was cited for being “the most admired man in America. This was at exactly the same moment that Covid19 deaths had reached a grievous record and when  the federal government openly abdicated its core responsibilities for rational vaccine distribution. It was also at the precise moment of Trump-Pence celebrations of “US Space Force,” a caricatural creation that siphoned off billions of desperately-needed health dollars to fund military operations that were quite literally inconceivable.

               There are egregious particulars to note. Any viable democracy demands carefully refined efforts of “mind.” This means, in turn, variously careful applications of analytic scrutiny and disciplined “thought.”[4] Anything less substantial could leave the United States unprepared for a paralyzing “second wave” of leadership abdications.  

               Let us not be unwary. America could not tolerate any Trump-like presidential encore. Without systemic remediation, the United States could sometime make itself existentially vulnerable again, either incrementally, or all at once.  

               Next time such vulnerability could extend to assorted nuclear harms.[5] And these harms could intersect or overlap with the ravaging damages of pandemic disease. Indeed, it is not beyond plausible probability that such intersections o r overlaps would be authentically synergistic.

               By definition, if synergistic, the “whole” of any prospectively negative effects would exceed the sum of its constituent “parts.”

               What then?

               What now?

               First, Americans need to learn more systematically and insightfully from the many Trump-created declensions.  This means an overarching imperative to discover the origins of this country’s near-fatal leadership plague . This ought not be a query of geography, but rather one of mindset or ideology. In this indispensable inquiry, history, science and law must be restored to an appropriate pride of place.    It must be understood that 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,”[6] the result of an amusement-based commonwealth that too often loathes serious thought.[7] Tens of millions of Americans were comfortable voting for a president who openly and habitually undermined “due processes of law,” who allowed an unprecedented mass dying and who never read anything, ever.[8]

               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 have generally resisted the strenuousness of honest intellectual effort or analytic thought. 

               The basic problem is not just that tens of millions of citizens know so very little of truth. It is that they want to know so very little. For ascertaining truth, there is “simply” too little will.[9]

               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 governmental contrivance and anti-Reason? Who is America’s real “enemy?”

               To reply, the discernible core adversary of any dignified American polity is never any one particular ideology or another. It is 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-Socratic ) origins of these coinciding objectives, but they can at least make an effort to learn about underlying ideas.

               In its basic contours, this craven American antipathy to Reason and Virtue is universal. It is rooted less in any specific time or place than in a ubiquitously human horror of exercising disciplined thought. At the same time, this species of universality in no way diminishes anti-Reason’s durable harms to the United States.[10] 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 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.[11] 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.”[12] Here, often  diligently, they prepare to pounce against whatever might support the less immediately gratifying claims of intellect or “mind.” Or against whomever.[13]

               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.[14]

               Perversely, it was Donald J. Trump’s unabashed disregard for justness and fairness that became its singular and signature mantra.[15] 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.[16] “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.[17]

               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 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. Let us cut to the chase. In the most cantankerous public realms defined by the White House, truth has never been regarded as worthwhile or advantageous.

                For this now outgoing president who learned a great deal from de facto mentor Joseph Goebbels, truth was just a regrettable 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 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,[18] it should have become perfectly obvious that one superpower president became the all-too-submissive marionette of the other. Functioning within a balance of power or Westphalian[19] international system, this eccentric sort of  US geopolitical subordination put the entire American nation in existential jeopardy.[20]

               Donald  Trump’s “America First”[21] was merely the newest iteration of a long-failed world political system of belligerent power management.[22] The “balance-of-power” has never actually been more than a facile metaphor. Despite its name, it has never had anything to do with ensuring or ascertaining equilibrium. As such, balance has always been subjective, a matter of assorted individual perceptions.       There is more. Adversarial states in this zero-sum “Westphalian” dynamic can never be sufficiently confident that strategic circumstances are suitably “balanced.” In consequence, each side to any contest or competition must perpetually fear that it will somehow be left behind, thus creating ever wider and even cascading patterns of national insecurity and collective disequilibrium.

               There remain still more serious questions to answer. As a nation, when shall Americans finally agree to bear truthful and informed witness on Constitutional governance?[23] 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.[24]  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.[25]

               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[26]), 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 and manipulative skill sets were acquired in the market-based worlds of real-estate bargaining, casino gambling and “branding.” Plainly, they did not “carry over” to intersecting intricacies of high-politics and diplomacy. Basing his foreign policies on an explicit rejection of intellect[27]  – a rejection continuously affirmed by his various appointments of ill-equipped family members and others to senior posts –  we have been left with a tortured world of disappearing friends and still-multiplying foes.

               Now, perhaps, with a promisingly sane new president elected, American national leadership can begin to offer more than clichés, empty-witticisms or delusionary “deals.”[28]  Trump’s assorted trade wars, like his 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 and suiffered, 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.[29] 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[30] – 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,  cynical simplifications represented the planned path to electoral victory. Correspondingly, evident anti-Reason became this president’s primary stock in trade. Even more sinister, this nefarious posture quickly became a hideous 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.”[31]

               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.[32] 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.”[33]

               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.[34]

               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,[35]  Donald J. Trump issued pardons for egregious war crimes. This issuance included the “Blackwater Four,” criminals convicted inter alia of murdering children in Iraq and Afghanistan.

               Under law, these criminals merited the description known as hostes humani generis, or “common enemies of humankind.”

               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.[36]

               Any such far-reaching rejection will not be easy. It will take time. It will take vision.[37]

               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.”[38] 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[39] 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 presidency of Joe Biden. Nonetheless, we can, as a society, take steps to get beyond the ruthless ignorance of Trump-era governance and acknowledge the singularly incomparable benefits of reasoned thought[40]. With the electoral defeat of Donald J. Trump Americans have already made a necessary beginning, but that is all that has been accomplished thus far.

               We are still only at “the beginning.”

               In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus inquires: “Does the Absurd dictate death?” Understood in specific context of the recent Trump presidency, the “correct” answer is tangible and also unassailable. At every imaginable assessment of Trump-induced or accelerate harms – e.g., pandemic disease; human rights disregard; nuclear arms proliferation; Realpolitik or global power politics; chaos[41] – the specter of nothingness made itself palpable.[42] With little basis for any disagreement, (1) death remains the glaring prototype of absolutely all injustice; and (2) Trump-generated absurdities produced or actively promoted a terminal outcome.

               At the beginning of a new American presidency, shall we start to imagine some plausible “liberation” from lethal absurdity, or ought we to resignedly accept this death-dictating ethos as irremediably fixed and immutable? The most realistic answer, paradoxically, may come from the absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett, with whose Endgame dialectic this essay first began.

                “What time is it?”queries one character.

               “The same as usual,” responds the other.

               There is no “cure” for absurdity. It is a condition, a predilection, that lies latent in the human species itself, unchanging, most likely forever. It follows that absurdity should be regarded as an immutable “first principle,” an axiom or postulate that  must simply be taken as given and from which all policy prescriptions must ultimately be deduced.

               This conclusion need not be interpreted as either a lamentable liability or as an existential threat. It just “sets the stage” for future presidential policy prescriptions based upon truth,  not on contrivance.  Absurdity is neither good nor bad.

                It merely is.

—————-


[1] See Tertullian, De Carne Christi. See also: Timothy David Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study. Oxford University Press, 1985.

[2]See, in this vein, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (1927: “The world, as it is now, wants to die, wants to perish, and it will.”   

[3]The term also refers to a once-ascendant literary genre, the “theatre of the absurd,” a posture highlighted by such playwrights as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Adamov, and Jean Genet. One can discover pertinent intellectual roots here in the earlier writings (and paintings) of surrealism, dada and – especially – Franz Kafka.

[4]This term will be explained more fully later on as an express referent to writings of 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

[5]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).

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

[7]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.”

[8]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.

[9] In modern philosophy, the provenance of this key explanatory term lies in Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea (1818). For his own inspiration (and by his own expressed acknowledgment), Schopenhauer drew freely upon Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Later, Nietzsche drew just as freely (and perhaps more importantly) upon Schopenhauer. Goethe. also served as a core intellectual source for Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, author of the prophetic work, The Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas (1930). See, accordingly, Ortega’s very grand essay, “In Search of Goethe from Within” (1932), written for Die Neue Rundschau of Berlin on the occasion of the centenary of Goethe’s death. It is reprinted in Ortega’s anthology, The Dehumanization of Art (1948) and is available from Princeton University Press (1968).

[10]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).

[11] 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.”

[12]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….”

[13] “Conscious of his emptiness,” warns Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “a man tries to make a faith for himself in the political realm. In vain.”

[14]In effect, because all US law is founded upon “the law of nature” (see US Declaration of Independence and US Constitution), this Trump-era 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.

[15]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?”

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

[17] 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.

[18] 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.”

[19]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.

[20] 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).

[21] See, by this author, Louis René Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2019/06/louis-beres-america-first/  See also, by Professor Beres, at Yale Global Online: https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/what-trumps-foreign-policy-ignores

[22] Earlier, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (University of Denver, 1973) and Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (University of Denver, 1975).

[23] See, by Professor Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2017/07/Beres-president-trump-impeachment1/ See also, by Professor Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/12/louis-rene-beres-presidential-crimes-and-pardons/#

[24] 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”?

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

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

[27] 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).

[28]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.”

[29] 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.

[30] 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.

[31]To coexist in this all-consuming “soup,” there have been insightful prophets of global integration, notably Condorcet, Immanuel Kant, Auguste Comte and H.G. Wells. For the best available treatment of these prophets and their still-indispensable ideas, see W. Warren Wagar’s The City of Man (1963) and Building the City of Man: Outlines of a World Civilization (1971). Professor Wagar was a commendable visionary himself, one with whom I earlier had the honor to work at Princeton (World Order Models Project) during the late 1960s.

[32]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.

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

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

[35] 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.”

[36] Sigmund Freud was always darkly pessimistic about the United States, which he felt was “lacking in soul” and a demeaning place of great psychological misery or “wretchedness.” In a letter to Ernest Jones, Freud declared unambiguously: “America is gigantic, but it is a gigantic mistake.” (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (1983), p. 79.

[37]Italian film director Federico Fellini insightfully: “The visionary is the only realist.” Similarly, from the German philosopher Karl Jaspers: “Everyone knows that the world-situation in which we live is not a final one.” (Man in the Modern Age, 1951).

[38] 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.”

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

[40]These benefits call to mind the relevant oeuvre of political philosopher Hannah Arendt, especially The Human Condition(1958); Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963); and The Life of the Mind (1978). In the same vein, the seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarks prophetically in Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought….It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further from Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge.

[41]Whether it is described in the Old Testament or other major sources of ancient Western thought, chaos can also be viewed as a source of human betterment. In essence, chaos is that which prepares the world for all things, both sacred and profane. Further, as its conspicuous etymology reveals, chaos represents the yawning gulf or gap wherein nothing is as yet, but where all civilizational opportunity must inevitably originate. Appropriately, the great German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observed: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic which stands at the roots of the things and which prepares all things.” Even in the pagan ancient world, the Greeks thought of such a desert as logos, which indicates to us that it was presumed to be anything but starkly random or without conceivable merit.

[42]Says the French poet Saint-John Perse, “And all at once, all is power, and presence for me, here, where the theme of nothingness rises still in smoke.”

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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Biden Revises US Sanctions Policy

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In the United States, a revision of the sanctions policy is in full swing. Joe Biden’s administration strives to make sanctions instruments more effective in achieving his political goals and, at the same time, reducing political and economic costs. The coordination of restrictive measures with allies is also seen as an important task. Biden is cautiously but consistently abandoning the sanctions paradigm that emerged during Donald Trump’s presidency.

The US sanctions policy under Trump was characterised by several elements. First, Washington applied them quite harshly. In all key areas (China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the United States used economic and financial restrictions without hesitation, and sometimes in unprecedented volumes. Of course, the Trump administration acted rationally and rigidity was not an end in itself. In a number of episodes, the American authorities acted prudently (for example, regarding sanctions on Russian sovereign debt in 2019). The Trump-led executives stifled excess Congressional enthusiasm for “draconian sanctions” against Russia and even some initiatives against China. However, the harshness of other measures sometimes shocked allies and opponents alike. These include the 6 April 2014 sanctions against a group of Russian businessmen and their assets, or bans on some Chinese telecommunications services in the United States, or sanctions blocking the International Criminal Court.

Second, Trump clearly ignored the views of US allies. The unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 forced European businesses to leave Iran, resulting in losses. Even some of the nation’s closest allies were annoyed. Another irritant was the tenacity with which Trump (with Congressional backing) threw a wrench in the wheels of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Despite the complicated relations between Moscow and the European Union, the latter defended the right to independently determine what was in its interests and what was not.

Third, concerns about sanctions have emerged among American business as well. Fears have grown in financial circles that the excessive use of sanctions will provoke the unnecessary politicisation of the global financial system. In the short term, a radical decline in the global role of the dollar is hardly possible. But political risks are forcing many governments to seriously consider it. Both rivals (Moscow and Beijing) and allies (Brussels) have begun to implement corresponding plans. Trade sanctions against China have affected a number of US companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors.

Finally, on some issues, the Trump administration has been inconsistent or simply made mistakes. For example, Trump enthusiastically criticised China for human rights violations, supporting relevant legislative initiatives. But at the same time, it almost closed its eyes to the events in Belarus in 2020. Congress was also extremely unhappy with the delay in the reaction on the “Navalny case” in Russia. As for mistakes, the past administration missed the moment for humanitarian exemptions for sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. Even cosmetic indulgences could have won points for US “soft power”. Instead, the US Treasury has published a list of pre-existing exceptions.

The preconditions for a revision of the sanctions policy arose even before Joe Biden came to power. First of all, a lot of analytical work was done by American think tanks—nongovernmental research centers. They provided a completely sober and unbiased analysis of bothха! achievements and mistakes. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office has done serious work; in 2019 it prepared two reports for Congress on the institutions of the American sanctions policy. However, Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election significantly accelerated the revision of the sanctions instruments. Both the ideological preferences of the Democrats (for example, the emphasis on human rights) and the political experience of Biden himself played a role.

The new guidelines for the US sanctions policy can be summarised as follows. First, the development of targeted sanctions and a more serious analysis of their economic costs for American business, as well as business from allied and partner countries. Second, closer coordination with allies. Here, Biden has already sent a number of encouraging signals by introducing temporary sanctions exemptions on Nord Stream 2. Although a number of Russian organisations and ships were included in the US sanctions lists, Nord Stream 2 itself and its leadership were not affected. Third, we are talking about closer attention to the subject of human rights. Biden has already reacted with sanctions both to the “Navalny case” and to the situation in Belarus. Human rights will be an irritant in relations with China. Fourth, the administration is working towards overturning Trump’s most controversial decisions. The 2020 decrees on Chinese telecoms were cancelled, the decree on sanctions against the International Criminal Court was cancelled, the decree on Chinese military-industrial companies was modified; negotiations are also underway with Iran.

The US Treasury, one of the key US sanctions agencies, will also undergo personnel updates. Elisabeth Rosenberg, a prominent sanctions expert who previously worked at the Center for a New American Security, may take the post of Assistant Treasury Secretary. She will oversee the subject of sanctions. Thus, the principle of “revolving doors”, which is familiar to Americans, is being implemented, when the civil service is replenished with personnel from the expert community and business, and then “returns” them back.

At the same time, the revision of the sanctions policy by the new administration cannot be called a revolution. The institutional arrangement will remain unchanged. It is a combination of the functions of various departments—the Treasury, the Department of Trade, the Department of Justice, the State Department, etc. The experience of their interagency coordination has accumulated over the years. The system worked flawlessly both under Trump and under his predecessors. Rather, it will be about changing the political directives.

For Russia, the revision is unlikely to bring radical changes. A withdrawal from the carpet bombing of Russian business, such as the incident on 6 April 2018 hint that good news can be considered a possibility. However, the legal mechanisms of sanctions against Russia will continue to operate. The emphasis on human rights will lead to an increase in sanctions against government structures. Against this background, regular political crises are possible in relations between the two countries.

From our partner RIAC

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Sea Breeze 2021: U.S. is worryingly heading closer to conflict with Russia in the Black Sea

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On July 10th, the 2021 iteration of the joint military exercise, Sea Breeze, concluded in the Black Sea. This exercise, which began on June 28th was co-hosted by the Ukrainian Navy and the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet. According to the U.S. Navy, the annual Exercise Sea Breeze consists of joint naval, land, and air trainings and operations centered around building increased shared capabilities in the Black Sea.

This year’s Sea Breeze included participation from 32 countries, including NATO members and other countries that border the Black Sea, making it the largest Sea Breeze exercise since its inception in 1997. All other countries bordering the Black Sea were included in participating in the joint drills, except Russia.

Russia’s exclusion from these exercises is not unsurprising, due to its current tensions with Ukraine and its historical relationship with NATO. However, it signals to Moscow and the rest of the world that the NATO views Russia as an opponent in a future conflict. At the opening ceremony of Sea Breeze 2021 in Odessa, it was made clear that the intention of the exercise was to prepare for future conflict in the region when the Defense Minister of Ukraine, reported that the drills “contain a powerful message – support of stability and peace in our region.”

These exercises and provocations do anything but bring peace and stability to the region. In fact, they draw the United States and NATO dangerously close to the brink of conflict with Russia.

Even though Sea Breeze 2021 has only recently concluded, it has already had a marked impact on tensions between NATO countries and Moscow. U.S. Navy Commander Daniel Marzluff recently explained that the Sea Breeze drills in the Black Sea are essential deterrents to Russian assertions in region. However, these drills have consisted of increasingly provocative maneuvers that ultimately provoke conflict in the region.

These drills have done anything but act as a deterrent for conflict in the Black Sea. In response to the Sea Breeze drills, Russia conducted its own drills in the Black Sea, including the simulation of firing advanced missile systems against enemy aircraft. As the Black Sea is of utmost importance to Russia’s trade and military stature, it follows that Russia would signal its displacement if it perceives its claims are being threatened.   

Sea Breeze followed another rise in tensions in the Black Sea, when just a week prior to the beginning of the exercise, a clash occurred between Russia and Britain. In response to the British destroyer ship, the HMS Defender, patrolling inside Crimean territorial waters, Russia claimed it fired warning shots and ordered two bombers to drop bombs in the path of the ship. When asked about the HMS Defender, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the ship’s actions as a “provocation” that was a “blatant violation” of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Putin also went on to claim that Moscow believes U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were a part of the operation as well. Despite this, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded with a denial of any wrongdoing.

Russia’s actions to provocations by the United States-led Sea Breeze and interaction with the HMS Defender in the Black Sea signal its resolve to retaliate if it feels as its sovereignty and its territorial claim on Crimea is being impeded on. Despite Russia signaling its commitment to defending its territorial claims in the Black Sea, the United States still willingly took actions during Sea Breeze that would bring the United States closer to a clash with Russia.  

Provoking conflict in the Black Sea does not align with the national security interests of the United States. In fact, it only puts the United States in the position to be involved in a costly clash that only would harm its diplomatic relationships.  

As Russia has signaled its commitment to its resolve and scope of its military response in a possible conflict, any potential conflict in the Black Sea would be costly for the United States. Over the past few years, Russia has increased the size and capabilities of its fleet in the Black Sea. Two of these improvements would especially pose a challenging threat to the U.S. and NATO – Russia’s drastically improved anti-access/area-denial capabilities and its new Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile. This would mean any conflict in the Black Sea would not be a quick and decisive victory for U.S. and NATO forces, and would instead likely become costly and extensive.  

A conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only be costly for the U.S. and its allies in the region, but could irreparably damage its fragile, but strategically valuable relationship with Russia. If the United States continues to escalate tensions in the Black Sea, it risks closing the limited window for bilateral cooperation with Russia that was opened through increased willingness to collaborate on areas of common interests, as evidenced by the recent summit that took place in Geneva. After a period of the highest levels of tension between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War, this progress made towards improving bilateral relations must not be taken for granted. Even if the U.S. and NATO’s maneuvers in the Black Sea do not ultimately materialize into a full-scale conflict with Russia, they will most likely damage not just recent diplomatic momentum, but future opportunities for a relationship between the two powers.

In such a critical time for the relationship between the United States and Russia, it is counterproductive for the United States to take actions that it can predict will drive Russia even further away. Entering into a conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only engage the U.S. in a costly conflict but would damage its security and diplomatic interests.  

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Maximizing Biden’s Plan to Combat Corruption and Promote Good Governance in Central America

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Authors: Lauren Mooney and Eguiar Lizundia*

To tackle enduring political, economic and security challenges in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the Biden administration is attempting to revitalize its commitment to the region, including through a four-year, $4 billion plan submitted in a bill to Congress.

In its plan, the White House has rightly identified the root causes of migration, including limited economic opportunity, climate change, inequality, and violence. Systemic corruption resulting from the weak rule of law connects and entrenches the root causes of migration, while the increased devastation brought about by climate change exacerbates economic hardship and citizen insecurity. 

The renewed investment holds promise: previous foreign assistance in the Northern Triangle has shown results, including by contributing to a reduction in the expected level of violence. As the Biden Administration finalizes and begins implementing its Central America strategy, it should include three pillars—rooted in lessons learned from within and outside the region—to maximize the probability that the proposed spending in U.S. taxpayer funds has its intended impact. 

First, the Biden administration should deliver on its promise to make the fight against corruption its number one priority in Central America by supporting local anti-graft actors. The sanctions against officials which the United States is considering  are a step in the right direction, but lasting reform is best accomplished through a partnership involving regional or multilateral organizations. Guatemala’s international commission against impunity (CICIG) model was relatively successful until internal pushback and dwindling U.S. advocacy resulted in its dismantlement in 2019. Though Honduras’ equivalent was largely ineffective, and El Salvador’s recently launched version is marred by President Bukele’s campaign against judicial independence, there is room for learning from past mistakes and propose a more robust and mutually beneficial arrangement. The experience of Ukraine shows that while external engagement is no silver bullet in eliminating corruption, the role of foreign actors can lead to tangible improvements in the anti-corruption ecosystem, including more transparent public procurement and increased accountability for corrupt politicians.

In tandem with direct diplomatic pressure and helping stand up CICIG-like structures, the U.S. can harness lessons from prior anticorruption efforts to fund programs that address other aspects of graft in each country. This should involve empowering civil society in each country to monitor government compliance with anti-corruption laws and putting pressure on elected officials to uphold their commitments. While reducing impunity and improving transparency might not automatically persuade Central Americans to stay, better democratic governance will allow the three Northern Triangle nations to pursue policies that will end up expanding economic opportunities for residents. As Vice President Harris recently noted, any progress on addressing violence or food insecurity would be undermined if the environment for enabling corruption remains unchanged.

Second, the United States should support local initiatives to help reverse the deterioration of the social fabric in the region by expanding access to community decision-making. Given the high levels of mistrust of government institutions, any efforts to support reform-minded actors and stamp out corruption at the national level must be paired with efforts to promote social cohesion and revitalize confidence in subnational leaders and opportunities. In the Northern Triangle countries, violence and economic deprivation erode social cohesion and undermine trust in democratic institutions. The U.S. government and practitioners should support civic efforts to build trust among community members and open opportunities for collective action, particularly in marginalized areas. A key component of this is expanding sociopolitical reintegration opportunities for returning migrants. In so doing, it is possible to help improve perceptions of quality of life, sense of belonging, and vision for the future. While evidence should underpin all elements of a U.S. Strategy for Central America, it is particularly important to ensure social cohesion initiatives are locally-owned, respond to the most salient issues, and are systematically evaluated in order to understand their effects on migration.

Lastly, the U.S. should take a human-rights based approach to managing migration and learn from the pitfalls associated with hardline approaches to stem migration. Policies rooted in a securitized vision have a demonstrable bad record. For example, since 2015, the European Union undertook significant measures to prevent irregular migration from Niger, including by criminalizing many previously legitimate businesses associated with migration and enforced the imposition of legal restrictions to dissuade open and legal migration. Not only did this violate freedom of movement and create adverse economic consequences, but it also pushed migration underground, with individuals still making the journey and encountering significant threats to their lives, security and human rights.

A welcome realignment

Acknowledging the role of push factors is key to responding to migration effectively. Most importantly, putting political inclusion and responsive governance at the center is critical for ensuring vulnerable populations feel rooted in their community. A more secure, prosperous, and democratic Central America will pay dividends to the United States not only in terms of border security, but also in the form of improved cooperation to tackle global challenges, from climate change to the rise of China. 

*Eguiar Lizundia is the Deputy Director for Technical Advancement and Governance Advisor at IRI

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