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US national policy regarding the nuclear threat in the Russo-Ukrainian war



The Russian invasion of Ukraine raises two areas of interest for the US – the fight between democracy and authoritarianism and the nuclear threat to humanity. Democracy faces deep challenges that could threaten the longest peace between great powers ever recorded in history. Nuclear weapons are a leading existential threat to humanity. Both are intertwined in this war.

There seem to be two general views in the West regarding the Russian invasion.

The first, represented by John Mearsheimer (Mearsheimer, 2022), sees the war as the logical and reasonable outcome of a “bad play” by the West against Russia in a realist world run by a zero-sum game for power. According to this view, liberal values and international law are a luxury that the West could impose on other civilizations as long as the US was the sole hegemon in the world, a time which has now passed.

The second, represented by Yuval Noah Harari (Harari, 2022), sees the war as an epic moment in a struggle to preserve the peace mechanisms and global order that humans managed to construct since the end of World War II, and which have begun to crack in the last few years. According to this view, liberal values and international law are not just another cultural theme of a sinking hegemon, but an amazing “human progress” to achieve the longest peace periods ever known in history.

Though different from each other, both perspectives represent the current reality. On the one hand, although imposed by the West, these values do reflect a tremendous “human progress” in maintaining low violence levels (although the view that they are a central factor in peace can be debated). On the other hand, although being such an important “human progress,” they have in fact been imposed by the West to a great degree.

Now consider that the West’s power is declining and that some authoritarian regimes possess nuclear weapons and might be willing to use them in contexts irrelevant to the MAD effect. What we get out of this is that the world is heading toward an era in which the use of nuclear weapons might become an unfortunate reality.

Putin’s ideological view of Ukraine’s role in the Russian Slavic empire (Putin, 2021), combined with core security concerns (Kofman, 2022), circumstantial reasons, and the “Westernization” course of Ukraine (Kofman M. , 2022), led him to the current invasion. Putin aims to weaken Ukraine militarily, economically and politically, to take the pro-Russian territories from Ukraine, to bring Ukraine back under Russian control and influence, and to have the West’s attention and willingness to give in to his interests (Reynolds, 2022). 

However, Putin met an unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance, supported by a Western unity demonstrated by significant military aid and extreme economic sanctions. Putin’s army failed to capture Kyiv, lost a lot of manpower, and was forced to focus on the Donbas region in the south-east (Kofman D. A., 2022). Yet, Ukraine has renounced its wish to join NATO, China, and to a lesser extent India, remained on Russia’s side diplomatically and economically, and Putin managed to rally most of the Russian public around the war (Kirby, 2022).

To reach a peaceful ending, three top issues in serious disagreement need to be resolved, and the West is an essential player in all of them: security arrangements, the lifting of the sanctions, and the status of the conquered territories (Beddoes, 2022b).

The possibility that Russia will use nuclear weapons against Ukraine is a big threat for the US. A dissatisfying response could potentially drive extremely negative trends and outcomes for US national security strategy and deterrence: legitimacy for nuclear use by other nuclear states, nuclear proliferation, and aggressive actions towards the US by its enemies who are less deterred.

This paper will analyze scenarios for Russian uses of nuclear weapons and suggest American response policies. The responses are based on the strategies of deterrence and enforcement from Lawrence Freedman’s “strategic coercion” theory (Freedman, 1998), suited for the US’s defensive aim to maintain the “nuclear taboo”. Both strategies aim to guide the enemy to choose an alternative behavior that should be presented to him, and demonstrated to be more favorable to his interests. However, these strategies can fail due to internal pressures, cognitive dissonance, wrong calculations, and cultural differences.

American nuclear policy towards Russia and arms limitation agreements

The US began to develop a nuclear strategy after it had reached a nuclear capability in 1945, and as the Soviet Union (SU) had also managed to achieve it in 1949. Until the 1960’s, the US tried two strategies: A. “Containment”: not using nuclear weapons militarily or diplomatically, containing the communist advance to neutral states and maintaining the status quo. B. “Massive Retaliation”: fearing from exhaustion in long and esoteric wars, the US aimed to prevent them by threatening to use nuclear weapons in any war (Freedman L., 1981).

Since the 1960’s, the US understood that a nuclear war should only be deterred from and could not be “won” under the MAD effect (Mutually Assured Destruction), created by the “second strike” (nuclear retaliation after an enemy attack) ability of both sides (Art, 1985). This led to the “Flexible Response” strategy: attempting to first stop conventionally a SU conquer of Europe, then with tactical nuclear weapons (TNW), and then, if failed, with strategic ones. Later, the stability of MAD was challenged by developments like the first satellite launch into space, the ability to carry a few nuclear warheads on missiles, a growing accuracy, the space laser interception project, and anti-ballistic missiles that could prevent a “second strike” ability by defending from the few missiles the enemy has left after a “first strike”. (Freedman L., 1981).

These challenges pushed both sides to a nuclear arms race that led eventually to a series of arms limitation deals, starting with “SALT” at 1972. This process was also strengthened after the Cuban missile crisis (1962), the closest event to an unwanted nuclear war. In 1968, the international NPT treaty was signed, forbidding all signatory states from developing nuclear weapons, besides the nuclear super-powers. The latest agreement, NEW START (2012), is in power until 2026 and limits both sides to 1,550 warheads, 700 delivery systems, and 800 launching platforms (Daryl Kimball, 2020). However, in 2002, the US withdrew from the ABM treaty (1972) which limited the number of anti-ballistic missiles to 100 (Daryl Kimball, 2020a). Under Trump, the US withdrew from the INF treaty (1987), which abolished all intermediate-range missiles, arguing for China’s inclusion and claiming that Russia cheated (Daryl Kimball, 2020b).

Today, the US arms control agenda is to limit new kinds of delivery systems for intercontinental weapons, to address tactical warheads, to preserve NEW START’s limits, and to include China in agreements. Russia’s seeks to limit American missile defense systems, prevent a space arms race, include France and Britain in agreements, and a US removal of nuclear weapons from Europe (Ibid). 

Scenarios for Russian use of nuclear weapons and US strategic responses

The American strategy

With the collapse of the SU, the US became a sole hegemonic world power, while Russia experienced a painful decline in political and military status, loss of territory, and the beginning of an economic rehabilitation process. However, the West’s and American image today is of a civilization suffering deep systematic political crises. Furthermore, Western global order and its international law are challenged by Russia’s and China’s authoritarian model that promotes “rationality” and detachment from “confused” public opinion by means of a meritocratic system, is gaining support (Michael Kofman A. S., 2021). Russia and China also point to the failure of the Western model in places where it attempted military intervention to build a Western state, as proof that Western democracy is neither a universal value nor a successful one (Jana Puglierin, 2021).

In recent years the US has become in fact less and less willing to involve itself in military conflicts to project its influence to distant places, as seen in the decisions of the last three presidents to leave Iraq and Afghanistan and to avoid broad intervention in Syria. That stems both from the lack of public support for such interventions, which demand many resources and fail to bring desired results, as well as the shift in US priorities to focus on China (Jana Puglierin, 2021). The US views China, in Biden’s words, as “the only competitor with the potential to combine economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to create a constant challenge to an open and stable international system” (Biden, 2021, p. 8). Despite the eruption of the Russian challenge in Europe, China is still the top priority, while the declared American strategy toward Russia is to strengthen deterrence against her by cooperation with NATO and other partners (Biden, 2022b).

First scenario – “demonstration” towards a preferable ending to the war

The Russian action in this scenario is explosion of one TNW in an uninhabited area in Ukraine or in its territorial waters in order to avoid casualties (Hoffmann, 2022). To blur the red line of the “nuclear taboo”, (Joshi, 2022) Russia declares that it was only a “legitimate test launch in light of NATO’s aggression fighting Russia indirectly and leading to World War III.”  Russia would call on all sides to show “real willingness” for peace and stability in the region as a condition for peace talks.

This scenario is likely to occur in case of a wider NATO intervention in Ukraine, for example in sending volunteer soldiers, improving the size or quality of military aid, or enforcing a no-fly zone.

The Russian rationale behind it would be deterring the West from intervening too far in the war and limiting the Russian room for maneuver, by demonstrating the threat of nuclear destruction in Ukraine and thereby leading the West to bigger concessions to end the war (Beddoes, 2022a).

This mechanism of action is based on the Russian military and nuclear doctrine. The Russian doctrine has been updated in recent years and is focused on the enemy’s psychology as a target to influence in different areas in accordance with Russian interests (Adamsky, 2015). Russia inflates its perceived will and resolve to use nuclear weapons by threats, alertness, and exercises.

Beyond verbal threats in the psychological domain, it is common to divide the operational use of nuclear weapons in the Russian doctrine into two distinct strategies: “global deterrence” and “regional deterrence” (Michael Kofman, 2020).

Global deterrence is a continuation of the Soviet strategy in the Cold War to prevent a nuclear attack from the West. Regional deterrence is aimed at deterring a large conventional war, most likely with tactical nuclear weapons (TNW).

Regional deterrence includes a hierarchy of growing escalatory use of TNW which starts after readiness is exhibited in order to show resolve. The hierarchy begins with “demonstration” – a bomb in an uninhabited place or on non-strategic enemy facilities to avoid enemy casualties or significant damage. This is followed by a step up to “intimidation” – several bombings of enemy forces in order to impede their progress and for defense. Finally, “retaliation” represents the most escalatory step and includes massive bombings of enemy forces and strategic targets aiming to severely damage him and change the course of the war (Ibid).

TNWs are central in the Russian nuclear doctrine as stated. While the US holds today a few hundred bombs (some of them in Europe), Russia holds an estimated 2,000 bombs (Corera, 2022). Despite the humble image implied by the word “tactical,” TNW has the same destructive nuclear effect on its surroundings as SNW, just in a smaller range. For example, a TNW blast will also create a fireball, shock waves, and lethal radiation that will inflict long term health damage on survivors, while the nuclear fallout will contaminate the air, water, soil and food for a long time (Tannenwald, 2022). 

Evidently, Russia’s recent behavior exemplified this doctrine. Three days after the start of the invasion, Putin declared that he ordered “the Russian army deterrence forces to be put on high combat alert.” He also warned other countries from interference that could lead to “consequences greater than any you have faced in history” (Andrew Roth, 2022).

On March 4, Russia attacked and took over the biggest nuclear plant in Ukraine and in Europe, Zaporizhzhia. On March 6, Russia claimed that the Ukrainians tried to make a “dirty bomb” that emits radiation but without a nuclear explosion. Toward the end of March, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared that Russia was in nuclear readiness (Boffey, 2022). On April 26, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threatened again and said that the risk for a nuclear war in Ukraine is “serious and real,”, arguing that unlike the Cuban missile crisis, there are “few rules left” between Russia and the US (ALJAZEERA, 2022).

The proposed American strategic response is immediate and extended deterrence against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Deterrence aims to prevent an enemy’s action before it is taken. Its success is conditioned on the deterrent’s reputation for enforcing its threats, communication of the red lines, capability to realize its threats, and credibility in its will to do so. There are two kinds of threats (Freedman L. , 1998):

  1. “Punishment”: to inflict such great pain on the enemy that any achievement he gets from his action will be a total loss.
  2. “Prevention”: of the achievement the enemy hopes to gain from his action, which cancels his rational.

The rationale behind this strategy is that due to the failure of US general deterrence, an immediate deterrence should be created toward any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This can be achieved by “punishment” threats, augmented by an increased ability and showing a clear will to do so, and by “prevention” steps as well.

The ultimate goal of this strategy is prevention of further use of nuclear weapons until the end of the war. In any case, the US will strive to prevent further escalation to a direct conflict between NATO and Russia and will present Putin with an alternative to the war.  

Regarding the American action, first, President Biden will open the hot-line and will speak to Putin (Nye, 2000). The message will be that the US has no intention to go to war but any use of nuclear weapons is a red line that, if crossed, will lead to changing the policy of non-intervention and will not achieve deterrence as the Russian doctrine falsely assumes. It will also be made clear that any radiation entering a NATO state will be considered an attack on NATO and will lead to a military response (Kheel, 2022). Putin will be presented with an alternative: a complete lifting of sanctions in return for a full retreat from Ukraine, which will remain neutral outside of NATO.

Militarily, The US will announce a nuclear alert and mobilize more forces to Europe that could attack Russian targets in larger force and scale if needed. Diplomatically, the US will threaten that any further use of nuclear weapons will lead to action in the UN to ban all Russian representatives from international institutions and cancel its veto power. In the press, the US will conduct public polls to show support for carrying out the threats against Russia if necessary and thus strengthen their credibility.  

Second scenario – “breakthrough” to change the war’s course

The Russian action in this scenario is explosion of a small number of TNWs against military targets in order to paralyze strategic facilities and weapons, while striving to minimize civilian casualties (Corera, 2022). Russia will blame Ukraine and the US for preparing radioactive “dirty bombs” to bomb Russian forces (perhaps even exploding one of these as a “false flag”) which will supposedly justify the nuclear response within the official policy against nuclear attacks (Kirby, 2022). Russia will also call on the US to stop fighting in Ukraine indirectly, threatening that it will lead to World War III and declaring weapons sent to Ukraine to be a legitimate target. 

This scenario is likely to occur in case of a Ukrainian shift to counter-attack and signs of success in retaking the lost territories in Donbas, or threatening on the Crimean Peninsula (David E. Sanger, 2022). The Russian rationale behind it would be reversing the course of the war to allow expansion of conquests along the Ukrainian southern shoreline, so as to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea. 

This mechanism of action is based too on the Russian military and nuclear doctrine and war actions so far – both described above. However, this scenario is different from the first one, because here Russia is breaking the “nuclear taboo” clearly and explicitly. A Russian success to achieve its purposes through the use of nuclear weapons, could severely damage the American nuclear strategy on a few levels.

First, for a country signed on the NPT treaty to break the “nuclear taboo” would give legitimacy to other states to challenge the “red line.” Second, a successful use of nuclear weapons that the US fails to deter could induce countries now dealing with security threats to choose to develop nuclear weapons of their own for deterrence purposes and thus lead to renewed nuclear proliferation that could also include terrorist groups. Third, the damage to American deterrence could lead to actions against American interests from other enemies like China, Iran, and North Korea.

The proposed American strategic response isenforcement on the use of nuclear weapons, including a 48-hour ultimatum to stop any use of nuclear weapons. Enforcement aims to restore the status quo after an enemy’s challenging action has already happened and has broken deterrence. It is based on two efforts (Freedman L. , 1998):

  1. Taking a significant toll from the enemy to realize the deterrent threat and prove resolve to strengthen deterrence again.
  2. Posing demands for the enemy to change his behavior, by threatening for greater costs.

The rationale behind it is thatto reestablish the “nuclear taboo”, the US must use enforcement by actualizing its previous threats and making Russia pay a price for its action, and by posing an ultimatum with a significant threat for violating it. The ultimate goal of this strategy isa complete stop to any use of nuclear weapons within 48 hours. However, the US will strive to prevent a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia and will present Putin an alternative to the war.

In 2018, the Trump administration wrote the most recent Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to be published in full, which portrayed a problematic situation for American nuclear deterrence (Jim Mattis, 2018). The NPR highlighted a problem in one of four key factors in deterrence according to Freedman’s “Strategic Coercion” (Freedman L. , 1998) – communication, clarifying your red lines to the other side. It suggested that the Russians might assume that they can use TNWs to escalate and deter the West, and lead to a convenient end for a war.

Therefore, it is suggested in the NPR that the US clarify unequivocally to Russia that any first use in nuclear weapons against the US or its allies and partners will fail in achieving its purpose and lead to unacceptable costs for Russia. For the threat to be credible, it is argued that the US must have both nuclear and conventional tools that can endanger Russian targets (Jim Mattis, 2018).

Regarding the American action, first, President Biden will open the hot-line and will speak to Putin. The message will be that the US will make Russia pay for this use of nuclear weapons which is an unacceptable violation of its red line. Biden will threaten graver consequences in the event of a violation of the 48-hour ultimatum, including a humanitarian direct intervention in the war. Putin will be presented with an alternative, but a complete ceasefire will be a pre-condition to any peace talks. He will be offered a recognition in the Ukrainian constitution of its neutrality position outside of NATO, and a gradual removal of sanctions, in return for an immediate Russian retreat.

Militarily, the US will send maximum conventional military aid to Ukraine, to allow some protection from TNWs, and offensive tools to attack the Russians (Blair, 2022). Moreover, the US will deploy defense systems against nuclear weapons in NATO territory, declaring that nuclear attacks near the borders of NATO will be thwarted. In addition, the US will commit to secure humanitarian corridors with no-fly zones if Russia violates the ultimatum (Raine, 2022).

Diplomatically, NATO will announce that a Russian violation of the ultimatum will lead Finland and Sweden to join the alliance immediately. In the UN, a resolution to ban all Russian representatives from international institutions and cancel its veto power will be prepared for immediate passage if Russia violates the ultimatum.

Economically, NATO countries will announce a complete cutoff of all economic relations with Russia should the latter violate the ultimatum. Moreover, the US will conduct dialogue with China and India on joining the sanctions and pressuring Russia diplomatically to comply with the ultimatum. China might be persuaded by a combination of carrots and sticks.

The carrots would include allowing her to take the diplomatic credit for ending the crisis and pointing to the potential economic loss from the wrecking of Ukraine in which China is the biggest investor (Rennie, 2022) . The sticks would be a threat from the US to further limit economic relations in case China avoids any sanctions after a Russian violation of the ultimatum.

In the press, horrifying pictures from the bombing of Japan in 1945 will be shown with the message that the world must stand up to Putin and join economic sanctions.

Third Scenario – “a killer blow” to Ukrainian resistance

The Russian action in this scenario is explosion of a nuclear bomb in a size similar to those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (15 kiloton TNT). Russia will drop the bomb on two symbolic Ukrainian targets, far enough from NATO and Russa: Dnipro (a large industrial city) and Odessa (a city that has an important trade harbor and a Ukrainian naval base).

Russia will use Hypersonic missiles (with a speed faster than five times that of sound) to display its power to the world. The explosion will lead to tens of thousands of Ukrainians casualties, to mass destruction, and to radiation that will contaminate a wide area, similar to the effects of the bombs in Japan.

The Russians will declare that they have warned the Ukrainians and that this is a step to end the war and save lives on both sides. They will call on Ukrainians to get away from industrial and military centers and urge the Ukrainian leadership to surrender and avoid more bombings.

Russia will point out that the US did the same in World War II and warn NATO against continuing to aid Ukraine if they wish to avoid World War III, explaining that this war is “existential” for Russia and justifies the use of nuclear weapons.

This scenario is likely to occur in case of a war of attrition in Ukraine in which Western aid leads to a large number of Russian casualties and hurts the Russian army’s image, while Ukrainians are not ready for any concessions. In addition, Russia is economically collapsing and there is a real threat to Putin’s regime.

Given the immense economic, political and military damage to Russia due to the prolonging of the war and the domestic pressure to produce achievements, the Russian rationale would be that Russia must win the war at all costs. It will do so by breaking Ukrainian resistance with a killer blow, which will deter NATO from continuing to intervene in the war, posing a direct threat to escalate to World War III.  

The proposed American strategic response is a combination of enforcement after Russia’s use of nuclear weapons on civilians with a 48-hour ultimatum for a complete cease-fire and an immediate cessation of nuclear weapons use, with deterrence from attacks on the US or NATO members by threatening punishment and prevention measures. 

Russia used powerful nuclear weapons on the centers of populated cities, committing the biggest war crime possible, and shattering the international norms and American deterrence. Therefore, the rationale behind the American response is preventing any achievement from Russia and sustaining the deterrence from using nuclear weapons in the rest of the world.

To do that, the US will exert maximum political, economic and military pressure to end the war as soon as possible in a complete defeat for Russia and Putin (with the aim of removing him from power). This includes enforcing a 48-hour ultimatum for a cease-fire and an immediate cessation of nuclear weapons use, while prioritizing a complete Russian withdrawal as soon as possible to keep Ukraine independent.

The US will avoid the use of nuclear weapons in response to Russia, given the danger of escalation of the war, and to present Russia as the only side who committed crimes against humanity. The ultimate goal of this strategy is a cease-fire within 48 hours and a clear defeat for Russia and Putin.

Regarding the American action, first, President Biden will open the hot-line and will speak to Putin. The message will be that the US will exact a maximum price from Russia and will cut off all relations and communications with Russia apart from military contact to avoid escalation. In addition, the US will intervene directly in the war and is declaring a 48-hour ultimatum for a cease-fire.

Militarily, the US will secure humanitarian corridors, supply chains, and communications lines for the Ukrainians. NATO will announce that violating the ultimatum, using nuclear weapons again, or attacking NATO forces or state members will be answered with a military response against Russian military targets in Ukraine or in Russia itself.  In addition, the US will deploy a variety of nuclear and conventional weapons that can endanger Russian targets.

Diplomatically, NATO will lead a global effort to ban Russia from the international community: to close Russian embassies, to ban Russian delegates from international institutions, and to cancel Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council.

Economically, the US and Europe will cut off all economic ties with Russia, while coordinating with Saudi Arabia to produce more oil and balance the rise in its price. The US will make significant efforts to persuade all the countries in the world to cut off their economic ties with Russia. The message to those countries refusing will be that the more pressure put on Putin now, the faster this war ends and the danger of calamity passes. It will also be hinted that the West will punish the states who chose to collaborate with Putin.

In the press, pictures and videos from the horrific disaster in Ukraine will be brought to the whole world, together with evidence that the Ukrainians are not breaking and remain independent. In addition, the US will conduct efforts to spread information to the Russian public to facilitate domestic pressure on Putin to end the war. These will include securing Ukrainian communications and breaking through the Kremlin’s firewall (Todd C. Helmus, 2022).

To present Putin with an alternative, the US will work with China to mediate for a peace settlement. This will include an offer for gradual removal of economic and diplomatic sanctions as long as the cease-fire and Russian withdrawal remain in force. In addition, the US will offer to commit to avoid security cooperation with Ukraine, which will be established as a neutral state in its constitution, so long as the Russian forces remain outside of Ukraine.


This paper discussed three scenarios for Russian use of nuclear weapons and suggested US strategies. The first scenario (“demonstration”) is driven by an effort to deter the West from further involvement in the war. It includes a single blow in an unpopulated area, which resembles an experiment, albeit in Ukraine’s territory. The proposed strategy is immediate and extended deterrence against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The second scenario (“breakthrough”) is driven by an effort to change the war’s course, if it deteriorates for Russia. It includes detonating TNWs against Ukrainian military targets in order to paralyze strategic facilities and weapons. The proposed strategy is enforcement on the use of nuclear weapons, including a 48-hour ultimatum to completely stop any use of nuclear weapons. The third scenario (“a killer blow”) is driven by an effort to break the Ukrainian resistance, and is possible in case of immense damage to Russian interests which poses a real threat to Putin’s regime. It includes blowing a SNW on two symbolic Ukrainian targets. The proposed strategy is a combination of enforcement after Russia’s use of nuclear weapons on civilians with a 48-hour ultimatum for a complete cease-fire and an immediate cessation of nuclear weapons use, and deterrence from attacks on the US or NATO members by punishment and prevention threats. 

Looking forward, two subjects for future research stand out: A. The Chinese role – as the most powerful state in the world other than the US, and who has immense influence on Moscow, China can be a tiebreaker. Although it may seem like China and Russia are always “on the same page”, in fact they are compete for dominance in the same region and have opposite perceptions of the international system (China tries to achieve influence within it while Russia aims to “break it”). The way to reach China and make it cooperate to make Russia comply is of utmost importance. B. Security arrangements – Ukraine’s neutral status is a major issue that each side cannot compromise on (Beddoes, 2022b). Although agreeing to remain outside of NATO, Ukraine seeks “hard” assurances that it will not be attacked again, while Russia denies any Western involvement. A formula that could be agreed on both sides (at least temporarily to end the war) can be a decisive factor in presenting a workable alternative to Putin.

Yuval Rymon is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) student at Tel Aviv University, and incoming student at Columbia University (starting September 2022). He has previously served as an officer and head of research teams in various positions in the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Directorate.

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An Ironic “Side-Effect”: Trump Document Mishandling And America’s Nuclear Strategy



“I learn a science from the soul’s aggressions.”-St. John Perse

Mar-a-Lago, Search Warrants and Beyond

The contentious issue of Trump’s “mishandled” national security documents has reached the very highest levels of public urgency. Above all, this issue now centers on the safety of US nuclear policy plans. Though the United States ought finally to be freed from the endless machinations of its former president, latest high-value document revelations could still produce unexpected benefits.

                Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.”

                Unwittingly, to be sure, what is being revealed at Mar-a-Lago could help to focus educated Americans’ most rapt attention on the nation’s military nuclear perils. These are prospectively existential dangers. Prima facie, therefore, nothing could be more important.

                But how should capable analysts and US government officials proceed?

                There will arise several immediate questions. At most elementary levels of concern, all should promptly inquire: “What does the Mar-a-Lago document search suggest about the reasonableness and efficacy of US government protection procedures?”

                “What are the linkages between wrongly-held public documents and always-necessary efforts to refine US nuclear doctrine and strategy?”

                 “What should these indispensable efforts include?”

                Oddly, this last question, one upon which the physical survival of the United States must ultimately depend, is almost never addressed by non-specialist Americans.

                 To remediate, US military planners and strategists are impressively familiar with complex aspects of war and defense. Simultaneously, however, they generally lack needed background in associated philosophical skills. This stark deficiency has nothing to do with any intellectual or methodological shortcomings. On the contrary, America’s premier strategic thinkers remain talented in virtually every arena of data collection, data manipulation and reason-based assessment.

                So what has gone so palpably wrong? On its  face, this country’s “unphilosophical spirit”[1] does reflect a lack of acquaintance with epistemological (philosophy of knowledge) and philosophical (philosophy of science) underpinnings.[2] In consequence of this lack, there could arise a number of variably injurious policy costs. In absolutely worst case scenarios, these costs could prove existential.

                What next? In any scientific study of strategic military issues, every inquiry must commence with an appropriate hypothesis.[3] Such a tentative explanation would then need to undergo appropriately deductive forms of elaboration.[4] This effort should be followed (wherever possible) by empirical testingof logically “entailed” propositions.

                There is more. For US military planners, strategic theory should offer inestimable practical value. In all conceivable sectors of human knowledge, only a continuously refined and comprehensive theory can provide disciplined investigators with a suitable “net.” To round out the elucidating metaphor, only those who “cast” can expect to “catch.”[5]

Anarchy and Chaos

                 US strategists will need to begin at the beginning, acknowledging, inter alia, that historic global anarchy is never just an eccentric or transient “background.” Rather, anarchy and chaos are both deeply rooted in the codified and customary foundations of modern world politics.[6] More than anything else, these legal and geopolitical structures point to still-expanding conditions of chaotic regional disintegration. Nonetheless, even in chaos, which is never the same as anarchy, there may be discernible regularities. This vital “geometry”[7] will need to be more expressly identified and studied.

                Out of the bewildering mêlée of what is unraveling day by day at Mar-a-Lago, America’s strategic thinkers can expect to identify a usable tableau for national survival, but only if they would first decide to cast fine analytic “nets.” One obvious arena of current concern is Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine. During the expressly non-theoretic (no “nets”) Trump years, Vladimir Putin may have supposed that the a-historic American president was under Moscow’s effective will.

                 It would have been a plausible supposition.

                And it could happen again.

                 “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” warns the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, “and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”  Assembled in almost two hundred armed tribal camps formally termed nation-states, all peoples coexist uneasily and more-or-less insecurely on a fractured planet. History takes no sharp corners. Both the jurisprudential and strategic origins of this decentralized world lie in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), a foundational treaty that ended the Thirty Years War and inaugurated the still-existing “balance-of-power” system.

                By morphing into chaos, anarchy is now more portentous than ever before. This enlarged vulnerability owes largely to the unprecedented fusion of chaoswith potentially apocalyptic weaponry. After all, such never-to-be-used ordnance is only expected to expand or “proliferate.” Russia, now committing Nuremberg-category crimes in Ukraine, has its own nuclear triad. So does China, the other major US strategic adversary in “Cold War II.”

                What happens next? Will Americans again allow themselves to be guided by vacant political rhetoric, or instead will they take seriously the imperatives of sound strategic theory? In a credible worst case scenario, circumstances could obtain where there would be no safety in arms and no rescue from any legitimate political authority. But this worrisome narrative could still be prevented by maintaining an intellectual and science-based US national security orientation.

                 Since the seventeenth century, our anarchic world can still be described as a system.  What happens in any one part of this interconnected world necessarily affects what happens in some or all of the other parts.  When a deterioration is marked, and begins to spread from one nation to another, the corrosive effects can undermine regional and/or international stability. When this deterioration is rapid and catastrophic, as it would be following the start of any unconventional war and/or act of unconventional terrorism, the effects would be overwhelming.

                These corollary effects would be chaotic.

                There is more. Specific triggering mechanism of our beleaguered world’s descent into genuine chaos could originate from mass-casualty attacks, from similar attacks against other western democracies, from a mass-dying occasioned by disease pandemic or even from assorted synergies between these separate factors. Alternatively, it could draw literally explosive nurturance from the belligerent use of nuclear weapons in seemingly distant regions. If, for example, the first military use of nuclear weapons after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were initiated by North Korea or Pakistan, Israel’s nuclear survival strategy could then have to be re-considered and aptly modified.[8]

                The precise “spillover” effect on the United States of any nuclear weapons use by North Korea or Pakistan would depend, at least in part, upon the specific combatants involved, the expected rationality or irrationality of these combatants, the calculable yields and ranges of the nuclear weapons being fired and the aggregate calculation of civilian and military harms suffered in the affected areas. Always, these would need to be intellectual calculations, not just political ones.

Reason and Rationality in the State of Nations

                By definition, although thus far widely ignored, any chaotic disintegration of the world system would transform the American system. In anticipation, the US will have to orient part of its basic strategic planning to an assortment of worst-case prospects, focusing more deliberately on science than politics.[9]

                 The State of Nations remains the State of Nature. For the United States, certain prominent but time-dishonored processes that are conveniently but erroneously premised on allegedly “scientific” assumptions of reason and rationality will have to be renounced.[10]  For Americans, Russian Crimes against Peace in Ukraine represents just the newest form of fragmentation (US Afghanistan withdrawal came earlier). Wider patterns of anarchy, chaos and disorder are to be expected.

State and Sub-State Nuclear Adversaries

                Facing a broader and more ominous variety of existential security threats, perils originating from both state and sub-state adversaries, the United States must undertake certain “correlation of forces” assessments.  In this more determinedly scientific strategic effort, American planners should employ more than traditionally “objective” yardsticks for the scientific measurement of adversarial and prospectively adversarial forces. Among other things, this would mean a far better understanding that advanced weapon systems are never sufficiently meaningful in themselves.

                History will always deserve a primary pride of place. Several emerging hazards to America’s national security will be shaped by the durably “Westphalian” geometry of chaos.In this delicately unbalanced and largely unprecedented set of calculations, the “whole” may turn out to be more or less than the sum of its “parts.” It follows that US strategic planners will need to bring a more nuanced and intellectually unorthodox approach to their science-based work. This means, among other things, an original awareness that proper planning ought sometimes presume enemy irrationality[11] and that such planning must be able to distinguish between authentic enemy irrationality and pretended enemy irrationality.

Sub-State Adversaries   

                 US strategic assessments should always consider the cumulative capabilities and intentions of sub-stateenemies; that is, the entire configuration of anti‑American terrorist groups. In the future, such assessments should offer more than any simple group by group consideration. Always, the particular groups in question should be considered in theirentirety, collectively, and as they may interrelate with one another vis-à-vis the United States. 

                These several hostile groups might also need to be considered in their particularly interactive relationship with certain enemy states. This last point would best be characterized as an essential science-based search for prospective synergies between assorted state and sub-state adversaries. Ipso facto, such search must elude any kind of sharply precise measurements.

                Finally, US strategic planning judgments should take useful note of still-ongoing metamorphoses of fragmented non-state adversaries into sovereign state adversaries. In post-US withdrawal Afghanistan, for example, Taliban elements could rapidly undergo variously worrisome transformations. Similar concerns could also surface with Hezbollah elements expanding in a once-again “byzantine” Middle East.

Force Multipliers and Nuclear Strategy

                In the bewildering matter of strategic synergies, American policy planners will need to consider “force multipliers.” A force multiplier is a collection of related characteristics other than weapons and force size that may make a military organization more effective in combat. A force multiplier may be generalship; tactical surprise; tactical mobility; or certain command and control system enhancements. It could  include less costly forms of preemption such as assassination[12] and sabotage. It could mean certain well-integrated components of cyber-warfare and also a reciprocally refined capacity to prevent or blunt incoming cyber-attacks.

                The overriding objective of any US science-based strategic nuclear plan must be to inform leadership decisions about two complementary variables: (1) perceived vulnerabilities of the United States; and (2) perceived vulnerabilities of enemy states and non-states. This means gathering and assessing crucial accessible information concerning the expected persuasiveness of this country’s nuclear deterrence posture.

                Such information should always remain at the vital core of US nuclear strategy

Willingness and Capacity

                In thinking about science and strategy, an immediate task for Washington will be to strengthen the nation’s nuclear deterrent such that any enemy state would always calculate a first-strike to be irrational. This means taking all proper steps to convince these enemy states that the costs of such a strike will exceed the benefits. To accomplish this objective, America must convince prospective attackers that it maintains both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with presumptively calibrated (not “one size fits all”) nuclear weapons.

                Should an enemy state considering an attack upon a US ally be unconvinced about either one or both of these essential components of nuclear deterrence, it might then choose to strike first, depending upon the particular value or “utility” that it places on the expected consequences of such an attack. It is precisely to prevent just such an “unconvincing” nuclear deterrence posture that the United States should now consider revealing more specifics of its pertinent nuclear force. Though counter-intuitive, the prospective benefits of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” may now be vanishing for the United States as well as for US ally Israel.[13]

                Any such purposeful revelation must be the product of informed intent and be supported by appropriate theory. It could never flow legally or prudently from any deliberate mishandlings of national security documents by a former American president. The “ironic side effect” being discussed here is not meant to encourage any future national security document mishandlings, but rather to make the best of a wrongly conceived Trump decision. Under no circumstances could it ever be lawful or prudent for an American president or former president to allow any seat-of-the-pants nuclear disclosures.

                We turn back to antecedent strategic theory. To protect itself against enemy nuclear strikes, particularly attacks that could carry intolerable costs, US defense planners will need to exploit every relevant aspect and function of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The cumulative success of America’s effort here will depend not only upon choice of targeting doctrine (“counterforce” or “counter value”), but upon the extent to which this choice is made known in advance to enemy states and/or their sub-state surrogates. Before such enemies could be suitably deterred from launching any first strikes against US allies, and before they could be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following any American-supported preemptions, it may not be enough for them just to know that this country maintains a vast nuclear arsenal.

                There will be much more to know. There are determinable moments in which a science-based nuclear deterrence strategy could lead American planners to consider different preemption options. This conclusion obtains because there could sometime arise circumstances in which the existential risks of continuing to rely upon variable combinations of nuclear deterrence and active defenses would  become too great.[14] In such bewildering circumstances, US decision-makers would need to determine whether such essential defensive strikes, known jurisprudentially as expressions of “anticipatory self-defense,”[15] would expectedly be cost-effective.[16]

                Here, decisional judgments would depend upon a number of potentially intersecting and critical factors, including:  (a) expected probability of enemy first-strikes; (b) expected cost (disutility) of enemy first-strikes; (c) expected schedule of enemy unconventional weapons deployments; (d) expected efficiency of enemy active defenses over time; (e) expected efficiency of active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiency of hard-target counterforce operations over time; (g) expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and (h) expected world community reactions to US preemptions.

                The single most important factor in any science-based judgments concerning preemption would be the expected rationality of enemy decision-makers. If these leaders could be expected to strike the US or a US ally with nuclear forces irrespective of anticipated counterstrikes, deterrence would cease to work. This means that enemy strikes could then be expected even if enemy leaders already understood that the US and/or US ally had “successfully” deployed its nuclear weapons in survivable modes; that its nuclear weapons were believed to be capable of penetrating the enemy’s active defenses; and that leaders were conspicuously willing to retaliate.

In war “…. the simplest thing is still difficult”

                 Facing potentially new forms of chaotic regional disintegration,[17] it is time for the United States to go beyond its already-expanded strategic paradigm of numerical military assessments. Within this wider and more self-consciously scientific paradigm, US planners should focus, among other areas, upon the cumulative and interpenetrating importance of unconventional weapons[18] and on low-intensity warfare in the region. This is an area of concern that is complex and increasingly urgent. “Geometrically,” it suggests that the “whole” of security threats now facing the US and certain US allies is prospectively greater than the calculable sum of its discrete and more-or-less observable “parts.”

                “Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in On War, “but the simplest thing is still difficult.” For American strategy, this means an always overriding obligation to forge sound strategic theory – that is, an intellectually coherent network of interrelated propositions from which suitable policy options could be identified, rank-ordered and selected. In more starkly conceptual terms, this suggests a systematic consideration of (1) all plausible interactions between available strategic options; and (2) all plausible synergies between expected enemy attacks, both state and sub state.

                Calculating such a dense amalgam of propositions or hypotheses will present US strategic nuclear planners with a computational task on the highest order of difficulty. But there exist no other rational security policy options. Whatever else these planners may decide is best in executing their ongoing strategic assessments, they ought never lose sight of a central fact: Their most basic task concerns continual scientific struggles of “mind over mind,” never just contests of “mind over matter.”[19]

                There is one last compelling observation to be made about science, strategic doctrine and strategic nuclear posture. It is that this incomparably vital component of national security planning must include an ever-present and dynamic “avant garde, a structural commitment to “advance” that would continuously enrich US strategic studies. By embracing this military notion of a constantly changing and cross-fertilizing intellectual vanguard, America’s nuclear planners could best position themselves to remain creatively useful in meeting their daunting security obligations.[20]

The Primacy of US Nuclear Thinking

                For the United States, no subject could conceivably prove more important than nuclear strategy, a set of problems that would never yield to commonly visceral intuitions or to the banalities of politics. Accordingly, America must return to its earlier post-World War II awareness that any such set of problems warrants a preeminently scientific and law-enforcing response.[21] It’s a tall order, but Americans may have reaped an unexpected benefit from former President Donald J Trump’s egregious mishandling of  nuclear-related documents. Such document mishandling ought never to be wished-for or approved, but the tangible harms of so many far-reaching Trump derelictions cannot simply be wished away.  Simultaneously, however, already at the eleventh hour, a too-long-anesthetized US population could at least begin to focus or re-focus on the ever-growing risks of nuclear crises and nuclear war. Ironically, if this focus or re-focus should actually take place, it would represent an unanticipated benefit of former president Donald J. Trump’s most unforgivable wrongdoing.

                 At that very strange point of curious circumstances, Americans could still “learn a science from the soul’s aggressions.”

[1] In his sweeping defense of Reason, 20th century German philosopher Karl Jaspers writes generically: “The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of Truth.” See, Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (Archon Books, 1971; first English edition, 1952).

[2] Arguably, this lack derives from an even broader anti-intellectual orientation in the United States. To wit, a far-reaching contempt for any “life of the mind” in this country has been detectable from the very beginning.  On this lamentable contempt, see Perry Miller, The Life of the Mind in America (New York: Harcourt Brace and World 1965). This book appeared six years after another “classic” treatise appeared on the same general topic: Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1959).

[3] A hypothesis is a necessary guide. It does not emerge spontaneously when inquiry is concluded. It should function throughout the entire conduct of inquiry, organizing and integrating all empirical findings into a single coherent system. Without a tentative “answer” in the express form of a hypothesis, there would exist no usable criterion for properly judging whether considered “facts” are relevant or irrelevant.

[4] A hypothesis is said to be “scientific” only where it is expected to yield deductive consequences that are suitably testable by experience.

[5] The scholar’s “cast” must always be linked to expressly dialectical thought processes. In the middle dialogues of Plato, dialectic emerged as the preferred form of early scientific investigation. Plato describes the dialectician as one who knows how to ask and then to answer questions. In fashioning a usable strategic theory, US planners will first need to better understand this core expectation –  even before they proceed to the usual analytic compilations of facts, figures, orders of battle and regional balances of power.

[6] This jurisprudential/strategic reference is to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty Years War, and created the still-enduring state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two agreements comprise the Peace of Westphalia. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was first published in 1651, just three years after the Peace of Westphalia. It is at Chapter XIII that Hobbes famously references the Westphalian “state of nature” as an anarchic situation characterized by “continuall feare; and danger of violent death….” Not much has changed.

[7] The term “geometry” is used here merely as an elucidating metaphor, not in the more technically usual or Newtonian sense of a method of decipherable and verifiable calculation.

[8] On various intersections of Israel’s nuclear strategy and US nuclear strategy, see: Professor Louis René Beres and General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey, ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY AND AMERICA’S NATIONAL SECURITY, Tel Aviv University, Israel, and Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, Tel-Aviv, December 2016.

[9] Niccolo Machiavelli joined Aristotle’s earlier plan for a scientific study of politics with various core assumptions about geopolitics or Realpolitik. His best known conclusion focuses on the eternally stark dilemma of practicing goodness in a world that is generally evil. “A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything, must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.”  See: The Prince, Chapter XV. Although this argument is largely unassailable, there is also a corresponding need to disavow “naive realism” and to recognize that, in the longer term, the only outcome of “eye for an eye” orientations to world politics will be universal “blindness.”

[10]We may learn from philosopher Karl Jaspers, Reason and Existence (1935): “The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it.”

[11] On deterring a prospectively irrational nuclear Iran, see: Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?” The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. General Chain (USAF/ret.) served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[12] In his Utopia, published in 1516, Thomas More offered a curious but clarifying juxtaposition of foreign policy stratagems and objectives. Although the Utopians are expected to be generous toward other states, they also offer rewards for the assassination of enemy leaders (Book II). This is not because More wished to be gratuitously barbarous, but rather because he was a realistic utopian. Sharing with St. Augustine (whose City of God had been the subject of his 1501 lectures), a fundamentally dark assessment of human political arrangements, Thomas More constructed a “lesser evil” philosophy that favored a distinctly pragmatic kind of morality. Thomas More understood that the truly tragic element of politics is necessarily constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. With regard to this investigation of US security and correlation of forces, this suggests that assassination must always be seen as disagreeable in the “best of all possible worlds” (for example, the Leibnizian world satirized by Voltaire in Candide), but that it may still offer an indispensable expedient in a world that remains distressingly imperfect.

[13] See latest book on this subject by the author, Louis René Beres:

[14] On pertinent Israeli liabilities of ballistic missile defense, see: Louis René Beres and (Major General/IDF/ret.) Isaac Ben-Israel, “The Limits of Deterrence,” Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Louis René Beres and MG Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iran,” Washington Times, June 10, 2007; and Professor Louis René Beres and MG Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack,” Washington Times, January 27, 2009.

[15] Even before the nuclear age, legal theorists took strong positions in support of anticipatory self-defense. Emmerich de Vattel, the Swiss scholar, concludes in The Law of Nations (1758): “The safest plan is to prevent evil, where that is possible. A nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.” Vattel, similar to Hugo Grotius in The Law of War and Peace (1625) drew upon ancient Hebrew Scripture and derivative Jewish Law. The Torah contains a provision exonerating from guilt a potential victim of robbery with possible violence if, in capable self-defense, he struck down and, if necessary even killed the attacker, before he committed any crime (Exodus, 22:1.) Additionally, says Maimonides, “If a man comes to slay you, forestall by slaying him.” (Rashi, Sanhedrin, 72a). Finally, apropos of pertinent legal criteria here, the Talmud expressly categorizes a war designed “to diminish the heathens, so that they shall not march against them” as milhemet reshut,” or discretionary (Sotah, 44b).

[16] An antecedent or corollary concern must also be the ethical or humanitarian calculus in these particular circumstances. Although an ideal world order would contain “neither victims nor executioners,” such an optimal arrangement of global power and authority is assuredly not yet on the horizon. (This phrase is taken from Albert Camus, Neither Victims nor Executioners (Dwight Mc Donald., ed., 1968)). Confronting what he called “our century of fear,” Camus asked his readers to be “neither victims nor executioners,” living not in a world in which killing has disappeared (“we are not so crazy as that”), but one wherein killing has become illegitimate. This is a fine expectation of the philosopher, but certainly not one that can be purposefully harmonized with strategic or even jurisprudential realism. Deprived of the capacity to act as lawful executioners, both states and individuals within states facing aggression, terrorism and/or genocide would be forced by Camus’ reasoning to become victims. The core problem with Camus’ argument, therefore, is that the will to kill remains unimpressed by others’ commitments to “goodness.” This means that both within states, and also between them, executioners must still have their rightful place, and that without these executioners, there would only be more victims.

[17] An expression of such a “new form” would be Russia’s substantial buildup of military forces in Syria following the collapsed ceasefire back in September 2016. This build up included more trained personnel to operationalize the then newly-delivered S-300 surface-to-air missile system. During his own presidential tenure, Donald Trump did nothing to meaningfully interfere with Vladimir Putin’s geo-strategic ambitions, treating Russia more as a valued ally than as a feared adversary.

[18] For earlier looks at the expected consequences of specifically nuclear attacks, by this author, see: 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); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986).

[19] For this generically useful distinction, I am indebted to F.E. Adcock’s classic volume, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), especially Chapter IV.

[20] More generally, on the search for an avant garde in strategic studies, see, by this author: Louis René Beres, “On the Need for an Avant Garde in Strategic Studies,” Oxford University Press, OUP Blog, July 4, 2011.

[21]  US decision-makers should be continually attentive to variously relevant considerations of law as well as strategy. Under authoritative rules, each state must judge every use of force twice: once with regard to the underlying right to wage war (jus ad bellum) and once with regard to the means used in conducting that war (jus in bello). Following the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) and the United Nations Charter (1945), there remains no defensible legal right to waging an aggressive war. However, the long-standing customary right of post-attack self-defense does remain codified at Article 51 of the UN Charter. Similarly, subject to conformance, inter alia, with jus in bello criteria, certain instances of humanitarian intervention and collective security operations may be consistent with jus ad bellum standards. The law of war, the rules of jus in bello, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules. Codified primarily at The Hagueand Geneva Conventions, these rules attempt to bring discrimination, proportionality and military necessity into all (state and sub-state) belligerent calculations.

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Americans “Learning in Their Own Flesh”: Trained, But Not Educated



The mass-man has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.”-Jose Ortega y’ Gassett, The Revolt of the Masses (1930)

The Growing Challenges of Anti-Reason

Nothing could be more obvious. In present-day American life, anti-reason is not merely in vogue.  It also functions as a de facto national belief system. In uniquely retrograde instances, as we may witness in our daily politics, it can override entire centuries of intellectual progress.

               All too quickly, it can become de rigeur.

               There are pertinent facts and prominently grinding humiliations. Though many years have passed since the core scientific triumphs of Bacon, Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Einstein, conspiracy theories often still preempt established premises of logic, mathematics and science. For the most part, these theories are conspicuously imbecilic.

               So what is going on?

               It is, to begin, an absurd state of affairs. Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.” What we are experiencing today is nothing less shameless than an institutionalized triumph of absurdity. This “victory” is not merely difficult to explain. It is manifestly pervasive, insufficiently challenged and unambiguously lethal.

               There is more. There are assorted relevant chronologies. In America, the absurd triumph of “mass man” did not originate with the rabidly incoherent Trump presidency. Nonetheless, that presidential celebration of thoughtlessness functioned as a corrosive accelerant of irremediable national decline. And (plainly) a disjointed Trump presidency could happen once again.

               The evidence is compelling. We Americans have already made witting peace with governance by unwisdom, conspiracy and cliché. Altogether unhidden, there reigns in sectors of all American states a once-unimaginable sovereignty of the unqualified. The only plausible outcome of such still-accumulating national defilements can be expanded belligerent nationalism, enlarged human sufferings and an authentically existential despair.

               The core questions keep coming. How did we even manage to get to such a low point?[1] Where are we now likely heading?

               There are plausible answers to these questions. Going forward, all questions should be considered as interrelated matters of chronology. That is, they should be considered “in time.”

The Revolt of the Masses and its Bitter Legacy

               It has been almost one hundred years since Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset published The Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas, 1930). A prescient indictment of anti-Reason, and an immediate forerunner of modern classical works by the German scholars Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers,[2] Ortega was especially concerned about Europe’s growing fragmentation of learning. Witnessing a world that was abandoning the traditional goal of broadly-educated or “whole” human beings, he worried about a worldwide future in which there would be more capable scientists than ever before, but where these scientists were otherwise unexceptional, without any wider embrace of erudition.

                Though generally ignored, these observations were seminal. Among other things, the prophetic philosopher foresaw “educated” societies in which even the proud holders of impressive university degrees were “conscientiously ignorant” of everything outside their own vocational bailiwicks. Unwittingly, of course, Ortega had anticipated the present-day United States. Here, even in our oft-vaunted “advanced society,” the most exquisitely trained physicians, lawyers, accountants and engineers typically reason at the same limiting levels of analysis as technicians, carpenters, business owners or office workers.

               It’s time for candor. “Professional” education in the United States has managed to supersede everything that does not ostentatiously focus on making money. The adverb here is vital in this description, because the overriding lure of wealth in America remains the presumed admiration it can elicit from others. As we ought already to have learned from Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759): “The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world….At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell and dilate itself within him, and he is fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the other advantages it procures him.”[3]

The Pubic Mind and its Shapers

               Almost by definition, any American concerns for intellectual or historical issues per se have become extraneous. This does not mean, however, that our strenuous national efforts at improving professional education have been successful or productive. On the contrary, as we witness the multiple daily technical failures of American democracy, our beleaguered polity is failing on multiple fronts.

               For many reasons, many of them overlapping or even synergistic, this has been a lamentable retrogression. Above all, it has impaired this country’s capacity to sustain an enviable or even minimally credible democracy. Though Thomas Jefferson had already understood that proper human governance requires a purposeful acquaintance with historical and sociological learning, Americans now inhabit a country where the president could say unashamedly, “I love the poorly educated.” Significantly, this perverse preference of Donald J. Trump did not emerge ex nihilo, out of nothing. Moreover, it did nothing to inhibit the prospect of another run for the White House.

               It is a portentous but credible echo of Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels: “Intellect rots the brain.”[4]

               Ortega y’Gasset had a specific name for this generally defiling intellectual deformation. More exactly, he called it “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation.”[5] Earlier, and in somewhat similar fashion, Friedrich  Nietzsche wrote about the “educated philistine.”[6] Both Ortega and Nietzsche recognized the irony that a society could become progressively better educated in various sub-fields of human knowledge and simultaneously become less and less cultured, less and less truly civilized.[7] In this regard, the German philosopher placed appropriate conceptual blame on what he preferred to call the “herd.”[8] For his part, the kindred Spanish thinker cast his particular indictment on the “mass.”

               Whatever the terminological differences, both sets of ideas were centered on the same basic critique; that is, that individuals had been casting aside the necessary obligation to think for themselves, and had, thereby, surrendered indispensable analytic judgments to “crowds.”[9]

Barbarism in the Trump White House

               Today, both ideas can shed some useful light on American democracy, a system of governance under increasing assault by former US President Donald J. Trump.          To the extent that American education has become rampantly vocational – that is, oriented toward more and more “pragmatic” kinds of specialization – the wisdom of Ortega y’Gasset and others is worth probing with ever-increasing care. The “barbarous” impact of specialization foreseen earlier by philosophers is now magnified by the injurious effects of worldwide disease pandemic. 

               This unwelcome magnification will need to be countered if American democracy is merely able to survive.[10]

               But analysis should begin at the beginning. Inter alia, it is a discomfiting beginning. Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly fragmented and rancorous that even their most sincere melancholy is contrived. Wallowing in the mutually-reinforcing twilights of submission and conformance, We the people have strayed dangerously far from any meaningful standards of serious learning. In consequence, though still a nation with extraordinary scientific, medical and commercial successes, the American public is plainly ill-equipped to judge candidates for  high political office.[11]

               As we have seen in the case of Donald J. Trump, utterly ill-equipped.

               Surveying still-mounting damages of the recent Trump presidency,[12] some of which are synergistic or “force multiplying,” could anything be more apparent?

                The grievously baneful selection of Donald J. Trump in 2016 was anything but a cultural aberration.  It was, rather, the plausible outcome of an electorate relentlessly driven and even defined by “mass.” Without any real or compelling reasons, voting Americans freely abandoned the once-residual elements of Jeffersonian good citizenship.

               Together with the unceasing connivance of assorted criminals, charlatans and fools, many of them occupants of the previous US Government’s most senior positions, a lonely American mass now bears core responsibility for allowing the demise of a once- enviable democratic ethos. To expect any sudden improvements to emerge from among this homogenized mass (e.g., by continuously making the citizens more particularly aware of this former president’s manifold derelictions) would be to overestimate its inclinations.  Though truth is always exculpatory, there are times when it yields to various tangible forms of self-delusion.

               “What the mass once learned to believe without reasons,” queries Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “who could ever overthrow with reasons?”

High Living or High Thinking?

               There will be a heavy price to pay for America’s still-expanding ascendancy of mass. Any society so willing to abjure its rudimentary obligations toward dignified learning – toward what American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had once called “high thinking” – is one that should never reasonably expect to survive.[13]

                There is more. Treating formal education as a narrowly instrumental obligation (“one should get better educated in order to get a better paying job”), Americans now more easily accept flagrantly empty witticisms as profundities (“We will build a beautiful wall;” “Barbed wire can be beautiful;” “The moon is part of Mars;” “Testing for corona virus only increases disease;” “Just one percent of Covid19 victims have symptoms,” etc., etc), and consult genuinely challenging ideas only rarely.

               Always, the dire result of anti-Reason is more-or-less predictable; that is, a finely trained work force that manages to get a particular “job” done, but displays (simultaneously) nary a hint of worthwhile learning, commendable human understanding or simple compassion. Concerning this last absence, lack of empathy is not directly related to the “barbarisms of specialization,” but it does generally exhibit some tangible nurturance from literature, art and/or “culture.” Incontestably, the Trump White House was not “only” indifferent to basic human rights and public welfare,[14] it quite literally elevated personal animus to highest possible significations.

               This is especially marked where such animus is most thoroughly pedestrian.

               Intentionally mispronouncing the Democrat vice-presidential candidate’s first name was a small but glaring example of Donald Trump’s selected level of competitive political discourse. By its very nature, this demeaning level is better suited to a first-grade elementary school classroom. It is anything but appropriate to presidential discourse.

               There are even much wider ramifications of gratuitous rancor. When transposed to the vital arena of international relations, the former president’s elevation of belligerent nationalism has a long and persistently unsuccessful history as Realpolitik or power politics.[15] Thinking himself clever, Donald Trump champions “America First” (the phrase resonates with those, like the president himself, who have no knowledge of history),but fails to realize that this peculiarly shameful resurrection of “Deutschland uber alles” can lead only to massive defeat and unparalleled despair.

               “I loathe, therefore I am,” could well become Donald J. Trump’s “revised” version  of  René Descartes “Cogito.”[16] Following Descartes, Sigmund Freud had understood that all human beings could somehow be motivated toward creating a “spontaneous sympathy of souls,” but America’s Donald Trump had quite expansively reversed this objective. Reinforced by the rampant vocationalism of this country’s education system, Trump consistently urged citizens to turn against one another, and for no dignified, defensible or science-based reasons. In absolutely all cases, these grotesque urgings had no meritorious or higher purpose.

               None at all.

The Individual as Artifact

               In the bitterly fractionated post-Trump-era United States, an authentic American individualhas become little more than a charming artifact.  Among other things, the nation’s societal “mass,” more refractory than ever to intellect and learning, still displays no discernible intentions of ever taking itself seriously. To the contrary, an embittered American ‘mass” now marches in deferential lockstep, foolishly, without thought, toward even-greater patterns of imitation, unhappiness and starkly belligerent incivility.

               All things considered, the American future is not hard to fathom. More than likely, whatever might be decided in upcoming politics and elections, Americans will continue to be carried forth not by any commendable nobilities of principle or purpose, but by steady eruptions of personal and collective agitation, by endlessly inane presidential repetitions and by the perpetually demeaning primacy of a duly “sanctified” public ignorance.  At times, perhaps, We the people may still be able to slow down a bit and “smell the roses,” but this is doubtful.

               Plainly, our visibly compromised and degraded country now imposes upon its increasingly exhausted people the breathless rhythms of a vast and omnivorous machine.

               This machine has no objective other than to keep struggling without spawning any sudden breakdowns or prematurely inconvenient deaths.

               Much as many might wish to deny it, the plausible end of this self-destroying machinery will be to prevent Americans from remembering who they are now and (far more importantly) who they might once still have become. At another reasonable level of concern, Americans remain threatened by nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, especially now, following the incoherent Trump-era. Significantly, although there exists a vast literature on law-based strategies of nuclear war avoidance, there is little parallel jurisprudential effort directed toward the prevention of nuclear terrorism.[17]

               Arguably this is no longer a “nation of laws.” Rather, it is a nation of ad hoc, narrowly visceral response. Consider in this regard, that in August 2022, Donald Trump complained bitterly that he never had “the loyalty of Hitler’s generals.”

               There is more.  Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, we harbored a unique potential to nurture individuals, that is, to encourage Americans to become more than a smugly inert “mass,” “herd” or “crowd.” Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson (also fellow Transcendentalists Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau) described us optimistically as a people animated by industry and “self-reliance.”

               Now, however, beyond any serious contestation, we are stymied by collective capitulations to political chicanery and a Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.”

                Surely, as all must eventually acknowledge, there must be more to this chanting country than inane rallies, tsunamis of hyper-adrenalized commerce or gargantuan waves of abundantly cheap entertainments: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” rhapsodized the poet Walt Whitman, but today, the American Selfhas devolved into a delicately thin shadow of any true national potential. Distressingly, this Self has already become a twisting reflection of a prior authenticity.  Now it is under seemingly final assault by far-reaching societal tastelessness and by a literally epidemic gluttony.

               Regarding this “gastronomic” debility, it’s not that Americans have become more and more hungry, but rather that we have lost any once residual appetites for real life.[18]

Credulity and Conspiracy

               In the end, credulity is America’s worst enemy. The stubborn inclination to believe that wider social and personal redemption must lie somewhere in politics remains a potentially fatal disorder. To be fair, various social and economic issues do need to be coherently addressed by America’s political representatives, but so too must the nation’s deeper problems first be solved at the level of microcosm, as a matter for individuals.

               In the end, American politics – like politics everywhere – must remain an uninspiring second-order activity, a faint reflection of what is truly important.[19] For now, this public sphere continues to thrive upon vast personal emptiness, on an infirmity that is the always-defiling reciprocal of genuine personal fulfillment. “Conscious of his emptiness,” warns the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “man (human) tries to make a faith for himself (or herself) in the political realm. In vain.”

                Even in an authentic democracy, only a few can ever hope to redeem themselves and the wider American nation, but these self-effacing souls will generally remain silent, hidden in more-or-less “deep cover,” often even from themselves. In a democracy where education is oriented toward narrowly vocational forms of career preparation, an orientation toward “barbaric specialization,” these residual few can expect to be suffocated by the many. Unsurprisingly, such asphyxiation, in absolutely any of its conceivable particularities, would be a bad way to “die.”[20]

               Donald J. Trump did not emerge on the political scene ex nihilo, out of nothing. His incoherent and disjointed presidency is the direct result of a society that has wittingly and barbarously abandoned all serious thought. When such a society no longer asks the “big philosophical questions” – for example, “What is the “good” in government and politics”? or “How do I lead a good life as person and citizen”? or “How can I best nurture the well-being of other human beings”? – the lamentable outcome is inevitable. It is a result that we are still living through in the United States, and one (if Donald Trump becomes president for a second time) that might have to be “died through.”

Looking Behind the News

               Going forward, what we ought to fear most of all is precisely this continuously self-defiling outcome, not any particular electoral result. Until recently, nothing could have proved more important for the United States than to rid itself of the intersecting pathologies of Covid19 and a recalcitrant Donald Trump, diseases that were mutually reinforcing and potentially synergistic.  But even such indispensable victories could still prove only transient. More precisely, recalling philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset’s timeless warning about the “barbarism of specialisation,” this country must soon resurrect an earlier ethos of education in which learning benefits the whole human being, not just a work-related “corner of the universe.”

               Also vital is the obligation to acknowledge the fundamental interrelatedness of all peoples and the binding universality of international law.[21]

               To survive as a nation and as individuals, Americans need to become educated not merely as well-trained cogs in the vast industrial machine, but as empathetic and caring citizens. “Everyone is the other, and no one is just himself,” cautions Martin Heidegger in Being and Time (1932), but this elementary lesson once discoverable in myriad sacred texts is not easily operationalized.  Indeed, it is in this single monumental failure of “operationalization” that human civilization has most plainly failed. To wit, in Trump-era American democracy, the former president’s core message is never about the co-responsibility of every human being for his or her fellows, but about “winners,” “losers,” and a presumptively rational citizen obligation to “Make America Great.”

               In this context, “greatness” assumed a crudely Darwinian or zero-sum condition, not one in which each individual could favor harmonious cooperation over bitter inter-group hatreds.[22]

Making the Souls of the Citizens Better

               How shall we finally change all this, or, recalling Plato’s wisdom in The Republic, how shall we  “learn to make the souls of the citizens better?”[23] This is not a question that we can answer with any pertinent detail before the next presidential election. But it is still a question that we ought to put before the imperiled American polity sometime before it is too late.[24]

               American democracy faces multiple hazards, including Ortega y’Gasset’s “barbarism of specialisation.” To be rescued in time, each hazard will have to be tackled carefully, by itself and in coordinated tandem with all other identifiable perils. Overall, the task will be daunting and overwhelming, but the alternatives are simply no longer tolerable.

               Donald Trump’s removal from political life remains a sine qua non for all applicable remedies, but even such a needed first step could target only a catastrophic symptom of America’s national “pathology.” By itself, saving the United States from a crudely sinister president remains necessary, but it would leave unchanged the country’s most deeply underlying “disease.” In  the end,[25] because Americans will need to bring a less “specialized” form of learning to their citizenship responsibilities, this nation will have to figure out practical yet commendable ways of restoring educational “wholeness.”

               Though we certainly need a well-trained society, we also need one that has been suitably and seriously educated. Before this expectation can be fully understood and acted upon, however, there will need to take place a widened respect for learning and erudition. While Americans will certainly continue to value “practical learning,” they should also begin to value intellectual achievement for its own sake. We need gifted workers in every industry, but we also need reasoning persons and caring citizens.

               It could never be practical for Americans to favor human learning based on “attitude” rather than on “preparation.”[26]

               Always, “learning in their own flesh” would preclude any genuine citizen education.

[1]A generic explanation of such declensions is supplied by Thomas Mann. The German novelist and philosopher recalls the downfall of ancient civilizations, and faults gradual absorption of the educated classes by the masses, the “simplification” of all functions of political, social, economic and spiritual life. In short, the author of The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice blames “barbarization.” For an informed discussion of these assessments, see Stanley Corngold, The Mind in Exile: Thomas Mann in Princeton; Princeton University Press, 2022.

[2] See especially Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (Sein und Zeit;1953) and Karl Jaspers’ Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952). “Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Jaspers, “or a beginning?” The answer will depend, in large part, on what Heidegger has to say about the Jungian or Freudian “mass.” In Being and Time (1953), the philosopher laments what he calls, in German, das Mann, or “The They.”  Drawing fruitfully upon earlier core insights of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jung and Freud, Heidegger’s “The They” represents the ever-present and interchangeable herd, crowd, horde or mass. Each such conglomerate exhibits “untruth” (the term actually favored by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) because it can encourage the “barbarism of specialisation” and suffocate broadly humanistic kinds of learning.

[3]Smith published Theory seventeen years before his vastly more famous and oft-cited Wealth of Nations (1776).

[4]See, on commonalities between Third Reich and Trump-era American democracy, by Louis René Beres at Jurist:

[5] Chapter 12 of The Revolt of the Masses (1930) is aptly titled “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation.'”

[6]Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined an aptly specific term, one he hoped could eventually become universal. This German word was Bildungsphilister. When expressed in its most lucid and coherent English translation, it means “educated Philistine.” Bildungsphilister is a term that could shed useful light upon Donald Trump’s ongoing support from among America’s presumptively well-educated and well-to-do.

[7] On this irony, Kierkegaard says it best in The Sickness unto Death (1849): “Devoid of imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial province of experience, as to how things go, what is possible, what usually occurs. Philistinism thinks it is in control of possibility….it carries possibility around like a prisoner in the cage of the probable, and shows it off.”

[8]Sigmund Freud introduced his own particular version of Nietzsche’s “herd,” which was “horde.” Interestingly, Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. He most strenuously objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to this country’s “shallow optimism” and also its corollary commitment to the crudest forms of materialism. America, thought Freud, was grievously “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.

[9] In essence, the “crowd” was Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s equivalent of Nietzsche’s “herd” and Ortega’s “mass.”[9] Earlier, in the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked 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.

[10] The most ominous synergies of “barbarism” would concern the growing risks of a nuclear war. On irrational nuclear decision-making by an American president, see Louis René Beres, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: See also, by Professor Beres, (Pentagon). For authoritative early accounts by Professor Beres of nuclear war expected effects, see: 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); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).

[11]In this regard, selected elements of the US public ought to be reminded of the explicit warning in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Do not ever seek the higher man at the market place.” Moreover, it would not be unfair to Nietzsche’s core meaning here to expand “higher man” to mean “higher person.”

[12] Most egregious, in any assessment of these damages, is this president’s wilful subordination of national interest to his own presumed private interests. In this regard, one may suitably recall Sophocles’ cautionary speech of Creon in Antigone: “I hold despicable, and always have…anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[13] Still the best treatments of America’s long-term disinterest in anything intellectual are Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964); and Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1959).

[14] See, by Louis René Beres:

[15] The classic statement of Realpolitik or power politics in western philosophy is the comment of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic: “Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” (See Plato, The Republic, 29, Benjamin Jowett, tr., World Publishing Company, 1946.) See also: Cicero’s oft-quoted query: “For what can be done against force without force?” Marcus Tullus Cicero, Cicero’s Letters to his Friends, 78 (D.R. Shackleton Baily tr., Scholars Press, 1988).

[16] “I think, therefore I am,” says René Descartes, in his Discourse on Method (1637). Reciprocally, in his modern classic essay on “Existentialism,” Jean-Paul Sartre observes that “…outside the Cartesian cogito, all views are only probable.”

[17] See, by Professor Louis René Beres:

[18] An apt literary reference for this condition of “lost appetite” is Franz Kafka’s story, The Hunger Artist.

[19]See by this author, Louis René Beres, at Horasis (Zurich):

[20] In more expressly concrete terms, average American life-expectancy, already unenviable for several decades, has now fallen behind most of the advanced industrialized world.

[21] Apropos of this universality, international law is generally part of the law of the United States. These legal systems are always interpenetrating. Declared Mr. Justice Gray, in 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.”

[22] Here it could be helpful to recall the words of French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man: “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.”

[23] Long after Plato, 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 clearly it was not intended by either in any ordinary religious sense. For both, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of both 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 perpetually shallow optimism and to material accomplishment at any cost would occasion sweeping psychological misery.

[24] “Sometimes,” says Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “the worst does happen.”

[25] “In the end,” says Goethe, “we are always creatures of our own making.”

[26] See, about Donald J. Trump:

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Should the West Assume Collective Responsibility for the Failure of Biden’s Visit to Saudi Arabia?



In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden, with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

In July of this year, Joe Biden visited Israel and Saudi Arabia for the first time as US president. It is well known that the primary goal of the trip was to persuade Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to alleviate the pressure caused by soaring global energy prices. Yet, it is worth remembering that when Biden punished Saudi Arabia for the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2019, he described it as a “pariah” country, adding that he had no short-term plans to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. It is therefore unsurprising that Biden received fierce criticism, not only for failing to encourage Saudi Arabia to increase oil production, but also for fist bumping MBS. Nevertheless, some argue that the criticism is unwarranted. After all, it was the West as a whole that put Biden in such an awkward position.

Biden’s Recalibration of Saudi Policy Criticized by both Realists and Moralists

Simply put, political leaders often face the dilemma of either preserving their nation’s interests or upholding morality when handling international affairs. Realists tend to emphasize that political leaders inevitably need to negotiate with dictators in order to protect the interests of their citizens; human rights activists/moralists stress that political leaders must draw a clear line with dictators who have poor human rights records and should not betray the victims of said dictators for the sake of economic or geopolitical gains.

On one hand, the Biden administration disclosed a confidential CIA report which concluded that the Saudi crown prince was behind the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. On the other hand, the US did not sanction MBS himself, only others involved in the killing. This response triggered criticism from both realists and moralists. Realists argued that infuriating MBS would be detrimental to the US in the foreseeable future, while moralists condemned the failure to impose direct punitive measures on MBS as hypocritical.

In terms of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, some realists feel that Biden was shooting himself in the foot, while other realists believe that Biden’s move may help US–Saudi relations in the long run, despite it being humiliating in the short term. From the perspective of prioritizing human rights, Biden’s meeting with MBS is seen as him going back on his word and surrendering to a dictator.

It is worth mentioning that Turkey played a significant part in putting Khashoggi’s murder under the spotlight; however, it is difficult to say if their motive for doing so was entirely altruistic. At the time, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was being heavily criticized by the US for his country’s human rights abuses, with Turkey itself being the subject of US sanctions. The disclosure of Khashoggi’s murder could have been a calculated attempt to embarrass the US: if the US decided to punish Saudi Arabia, it would suffer geopolitical losses, but if it tolerated Saudi Arabia’s actions, it would show the world that the US had a double standard in terms of its response to human rights.

Turkey had also hoped to use the case to undermine Saudi leadership in the Muslim Sunni bloc. However, given Turkey’s rapid economic deterioration in recent months, it urgently needs to ease relations with neighboring countries. This is partly why Turkey suspended Khashoggi’s murder trial, handed over the case to Saudi Arabia in April, and welcomed MBS to Ankara in June. These are just a few examples of Turkey’s abandonment of justice for its own politico-economic gain. As such, Biden’s visit was a little less dishonorable than Erdogan’s behavior because the US has not lifted its sanctions. That said, since the US proclaims itself to be the leader in defending global human rights, Biden’s compromising has led to severe criticism.

The Energy and Climate Crisis is Not Only Biden’s Fault

Of course, it is unfair to solely blame the Biden administration for creating the major crises which are currently faced by the West. For example, Russia was suppressing dissident journalists and human rights activists long before its invasion of Ukraine; however, neither Europe or the US imposed comprehensive sanctions on them or accelerated its efforts towards energy independence to reduce reliance on Russia. Furthermore, after Khashoggi was murdered, no European state vowed to boycott Saudi Arabian energy as did the US. Hence, it can be said that Western leaders did not show much determination to reduce their dependence on the energy of authoritarian regimes in recent years.

By this standard, Biden is not necessarily more hypocritical than any other political leader in the Western bloc. The recent energy crisis caused by the West’s imposition of sanctions on Russia is, in fact, a result of their lengthy practice of “dealing with devils.” The moral responsibility, therefore, should be shared by their leaders collectively.

It should be added that the West’s foreign policy is often not purely driven by either human rights or interests. Indeed, the US and the EU are signatories of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the so-called “Iran Nuclear Deal”), despite Iran’s notorious record of executing dissidents over the past 35 years. The original intention of the agreement was to use trade normalization as bait to lure Iran into gradually abandoning its development of nuclear weapons and improving its domestic human rights. However, the West did not make the deal on the premise that Iran’s human rights would improve significantly or overnight, it made compromises.

Shortly after Donald Trump became President, he unilaterally withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal because he claimed that it was full of loopholes that allowed Iran to continue developing nuclear weapons in secret. Subsequently, Iran has been actively refining the enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons, while its domestic hardline conservatives have fully regained political power in recent years.

The question of whether the threat from Iran was caused by Obama’s relaxation of sanctions or Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal has been a hotly debated topic. It is also worth mentioning that Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his plan of “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People,” which allows Israel to occupy most of the West Bank, are based on contempt for Palestine.

The Legacy of Trump’s Middle East Policy Constrains Biden’s Options

Biden showed his intention to revise Trump’s Middle East policy on both the US presidential campaign trail and at the start of his presidency. However, evidence suggests that Trump’s policy has gradually taken root. In addition, the geopolitical situation has changed drastically. Therefore, it is difficult for Biden to simply act as he wants, and even if he did, the results would not seem effective either.

Of course, some left-wing critics argue that the climate crisis is precisely the result of over-consumption of non-renewable energy. Hence, instead of begging dictators to increase energy production amidst the current energy crisis, the Biden administration should use this opportunity to promote clean energy and reduce global greenhouse gases emissions, despite the pain it will cause people in the short term. That said, the US mid-term elections are approaching, and forcing voters to reduce their energy usage at such a time will only make things more difficult for the Biden-affiliated Democratic Party. Therefore, whether such an approach is prudent is up for debate.

Last but not least, the claim that “The US would not face such a passive geopolitical situation if Trump was re-elected as the US President” is an assertion that cannot be proved. Trump is well-known for his unpredictability and capriciousness in handling US foreign affairs, despite his consistent tough stance against Iran and his partiality to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Based on his previous actions, Trump might backtrack on Ukraine’s accession to NATO, claiming to support Ukraine’s right to join NATO, but then echoing others’ position against NATO expansion. He might also recklessly respond to Russia’s military threats, which would make the global situation even more precarious. Ultimately, both Trump’s loyal supporters and his adversaries can find examples that support their respective arguments, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to inconvenient truths.

An earlier Chinese version of this article appeared in print on July 25, 2022 in Section B, Page 11 of Ming Pao Daily News. 

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