Life Against Death: True Meanings of World Politics

In the final analysis, world politics is not about geostrategic competition, military weapons or relative power. Appearances notwithstanding, such politics more deeply represent the primal human struggle of life against death. On the surface, this eternal struggle is waged at the visible level of empires, nation-states and insurgent/terrorist groups. But when one looks more closely at this macrocosmic maelstrom, it becomes evident that something much more expressly personal drives global politics.

               What does this all really mean? To begin, these are fundamentally intellectual matters.[1] And what does “intellectual” mean in this very specific yet planet-wide context? Though just a narrowly academic matter to statesmen and scholars, there is nothing inconsequential about such a query. To the point, there can be no more important question.

                There are also vital particulars. In such challenging matters, truth must sometimes emerge through paradox. This difficult insight is both obvious and well-hidden. If drawn purposefully from logical and multi-textured patterns of thought, it is an insight that reveals a universal search for immortality or “power over death.” Prima facie, no other search could be comparably compelling or more tangibly dangerous.

                There are further particulars. Though analytic and systemic, such assessments express variously subjective kinds of understanding. To wit, world politics is never really about the “greatness” of any individual nation-state, empire or people. Rather, at its deepest intellectual font, world politics concerns the highest imaginable form of human aspiration. Sometimes, as in the case of Jihadist terror groups in the Middle East, the absolute primacy of power over death becomes unassailable. Most typically, as in the case of states in world politics, the clarion call for national power merely masks what is more genuinely determinative.

               What next? With palpable irony, our common mortality has not led us toward any generally gainful feelings of empathy. As if we should really need yet another tangible reminder, this contradiction has spawned unceasing wars of cruelty, exploitation and extermination. For the most part, this is because power over death is often seen by belligerents as the result of a zero-sum contest of differentiated wills. It is often only by killing large numbers of a designated enemy (“outsiders” or” others”) that the most palpably enviable form of human power can be achieved.

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

               The nexus between world politics and power over death represent a truth that continuously hides in plain sight. From the beginning, life everlasting has been humankind’s most steadfastly overriding goal. Through the ages, typically with “God on our Side,” states and religious insurgencies have assumed that personal immortality can somehow be acquired via barbarous geopolitical struggle.

               To explain, further particularity will be required. In world politics, power over death is an asset (an incomparable asset) that seemingly demands monstrous acts of violence and cruelty. More precisely, it often comes only at the sacrificial expense of “heathen,” “blasphemers,” or “apostates.” With very deep insight and irony, Nietzsche would remind us here that such victims are always “superfluous.” Always, he affirms in Zarathustra, it is for the “superfluous” that world politics was “invented.”

               This is not an observation ever to be taken lightly. It rests upon very difficult understandings that usually lie far beyond the capacities of scholars, soldiers and political leaders.[2]

               Art is a lie that can help us see the truth. When he painted The Triumph of Death in ca. 1562, Peter Bruegel drew upon his direct personal experience with religious war and disease plague.  In the sixteenth century, he already understood that any intersection of these horrors (one man-made, the other natural) could be ill-fated, “force-multiplying” and synergistic. Nonetheless, we still have more to learn. For all time, an immortal human being remains a contradiction in terms.

               Any viable preparations for national security policies must begin with the “microcosm,” with the individual human being. In this connection, the primal death fear of “not being” is crudely but irremediably overriding. When considered together with the understanding that human death fear can create darkly irresistible inclinations toward collective violence (i.e., war, terrorism, genocide), this cheerless insight can reveal a long overlooked human opportunity.

                What precise opportunity is being referenced? Above all, we humans still fail to comprehend something primary: The always universal apprehension of death, taken as common human anguish, could help to prevent war, terrorism and genocide. More specifically, if creatively “exploited,” such fateful apprehension could invite a steadily expanding ambit of human empathy based on human “oneness.”[3] This is true, at least in principle, if dedicated studies of universal death fear could be supported by comprehensive and tangible theorizing.

               There must also be certain pragmatic policy intersections. Any such scientific support would represent the literal opposite of “America First.” This badly chosen posture of former US President Donald J. Trump drew wrongly and injuriously upon centuries of belligerent nationalism.

                To best explain what lay behind such pernicious affirmations, we should first be reminded of Heinrich von Treitschke’s published lectures on Politics. Citing approvingly to Fichte, Treitschke clarified succinctly: “Individual man sees in his country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Could any other human vision be of plausibly comparable desirability?

                Even now, even after Trump (at least for the time being), “America First” remains a continuously defiling US policy orientation, one based not on human dignity and measured analysis but on variously caustic celebrations of self-centeredness. Left as a policy guidance, this death-dealing mantra is apt to prove gravely injurious to US national interests and “world interests” together. Reciprocally, only a serious eleventh hour attempt to understand the imperative obligations of global “oneness” could save the United States and other nation-states from the hazards of a world politics built upon sand.

               Sometimes, in candor (it has happened before), these existential hazards could become irremediable.

               In such vital matters, national policy postures would closely reflect provenance. The United States can never be assisted or saved by gratuitously rancorous political solutions, remedies fashioned ad hoc, without context or learning, without historical understanding, without anchorage.


               Relevant diagnoses are not complicated. There can be no refuge in the grimly evident antitheses of difficult thought. Whether for the United States or any other country, foreign policy is not, as Donald Trump maintained, “about attitude, not preparation.” On the contrary, it should always represent the intellectually well-reasoned product of informed and verifiable scientific understanding.

               There is more. To succeed in meaningful ways, US national security policy must steer clear of partisan political calls to belligerence. Instead, it should reflect a primary collective commitment to expanding global cooperation and human species singularity. Only then, together with all others, could America hope to become recognizably “first.” With an early prescience (1758), Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel noted, in The Law of Nations (Or the Principles of Natural Law): “Nations, being no less subject to the laws of nature than individuals, what one man owes to other men, one Nation, in its turn, owes to other Nations.”

               Later, Vattel continued: “The first general law, which is to be found in the very end of the society of Nations, is that each Nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations.” In other words, narrowly nationalistic or nativist foreign policies represent the diametric opposite of what is required. Significantly, this same “general law” figures importantly in William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England – the de facto blueprint of all subsequent United States law.

                What is required? In world politics, appropriately durable remediation will demand more penetrating depth of theoretic thought. Accordingly, an American government will have to accept a fully imaginative and broadly global set of security policy understandings. This challenging compilation would express a subtle but unavoidable intellectual awareness. It is that the outer worlds of politics and statecraft are a predictably mirrored reflection of our innermost private selves.

               In scientific or philosophical terms, these “outer worlds” are most correctly described as epiphenomenal.

               As world leaders will finally need to fathom, it is only within the deeply opaque mysteries of individual human mortality –  mysteries focused on the effectively timeless and universal preoccupation with earthly power over death – that we can discover the central truths of human interdependence and world politics. Whenever we look toward more secure management of terrorism, war, and genocide, any continuous posture of “Me first” would undermine our most sacred survival obligations.

               In the United States, there is much left to learn. At a minimum, an American President ought never draw any credible hopes for creating an improved and lawful national security policy by clinging to worn-out examples of “American exceptionalism.” Though gleefully unacknowledged in even our best schools and universities, there remains a noteworthy and palpable gap between humankind’s steadily-advancing technical understanding and its persistently uncontrollable private passions.

               Always at the apex of these “private passions” is power over death.

               Where shall we go from here? Exeunt omnes? Former American President Trump had demonstrably few original ideas and maintained a never-ending panoply of backward and law-violating policies. Credo quia absurdum.

               Scholars and policy makers must return to the microcosm. Leaving aside certain obvious intellectual advantages, we humans are not the same as any other species. Thereis rampant killing among the “lower” animals, of course, but such lethality is only residually willful. Mostly, it is “nature” or survival driven. Biologically, at least, it can “make sense.”

                What sort of human species, we shall need to inquire, can tolerate or even venerate purely hideous and maladaptive sources of gratification? To what extent, if any, is this markedly venal quality related to our steadily-diminishing prospects for building modern civilizations upon premises of human oneness? And once more, we must inquire, to what extent, if any, does human murderousness derive from an utterly primary and more-or-less ubiquitous human death fear?

               This last question is more important than it is obvious, even for the rational formulation of American foreign policy and for implementing certain corollary obligations of global consciousness and world legal order.

                “Our unconscious,” wrote Freud, “does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal.” What we ordinarily describe as heroism may in some cases actually be nothing more than denial. Still, however widely disregarded, an expanded acceptance of personal mortality could effectively represent the very last best chance we still have to endure as a once-enviable nation and species.

               Already evident during the Trojan War, as we may learn from Homer, Achilles led his Greek warriors to battle against Troy with the rallying cry:  “Onward, for immortality.” It has remained an incomparable rallying cry. There can be no more irresistible objective.[4]

               Can an American president and his advisors learn something here that might benefit both the nation and the wider global community, something that could move us gainfully beyond Schadenfreude (taking pleasure from the sufferings of others) and toward certain viable forms of a wider human cooperation? To be sure, the latter represents the only plausible path to the former. These core orientations are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are mutually reinforcing.

               Death “happens” to us all, but our potentially useful awareness of this expectation is always blunted by multiple deceptions. To somehow accept forthrightly that we are all authentically flesh and blood creatures of biology is simply more than most humans can comfortably bear. “Normally,” there is even a peculiar embarrassment felt by the living in the presence of the dead and dying.

               It is as if death and dying had been reserved exclusively for “others.”

               It is as if death were an “affliction,” one that can never darken our own personal and potentially “eternal” lives. Judged by a now near-universal obsession with social media, and with being recognizably “well-connected,” this view may be rooted, at least in part, in the potent idea of personal death as the last and most insufferable extremity of being left “alone.” What shall we do about “desertion” in a seemingly pointless universe.

               That we, as individuals, should still cleave so desperately to allegedly sacred promises of redemption and immortality is not, by itself, a global-survival or national-survival issue. It becomes an existential problem, one that we may convincingly associate with war, terrorism, orgenocide,only when these promises are forcibly reserved to certain selected national segments of humanity and are then denied to other “less-worthy” nations.

               In the end, all national and global politics are merely reflection, a thinly symptomatic expression of more deeply underlying and compellinglytroublesome private needs. Undoubtedly, the most pressing of all these accumulated needs is the avoidance of personal death. Such avoidance is presumptively in absolutely everyone’s overriding interest.

               It is high time to look closely behind the news. In all global politics, it warrants further repeating, there is no greater form of power than power over death. But what can we learn from this critical assessment?

               Toward the end, it is not for us to choose when we should die.  Instead, our words, our faces, and even our irrepressible human countenance will sometime lie beyond any measurable considerations of conscious decision or individual choice.  And yet we can still choose to recognize our shared common human fate and our unbreakable species interdependence. This powerful intellectual recognition could carry with it an equally significant global promise, one that remains distressingly distant and unacknowledged in world politics.

               Ultimately, much as we might prefer to comfort ourselves with various presumptions of societal hierarchy and national differentiation, we humans are very much the same. This incontestable sameness is already manifest to capable philosophers, scientists and physicians. Still, our single most important similarity, and the one least subject to any reasonable hint of counter-argument, is thatwe all die.

               Ironically, whatever our more-or-less divergent views on what might actually happen to us after death, the basic mortality that we share could still represent the last best chance we have for global coexistence and an enduring world community. This is the case, however, only if we can first accomplish the complicated leap from simply acknowledging a shared fate to actually “operationalizing” our generalizable feelings of empathy and caring.

                Across this always-fragmenting planet, wecan still care for one another as humans, but only after we have finally accepted that the judgment of acommon fate will not be waived by any lethal harms deliberately inflicted upon “others.” While inconspicuous, modern crimes of war, terror, and genocide are often “just” conveniently sanitized expressions of ancient religious sacrifice. In the most egregious instances, corresponding instances of violence represent the consummate human hope of overcoming private mortality through the exclusion or mass killing of “outsiders.”

               It’s not a new thought. Consider psychologist Ernest Becker’s famous paraphrase of Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti in Escape from Evil:  “…. each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.” In the same vein, playwright, Eugene Ionesco writes in his Journal (1966):

I must kill my visible enemy, the one who is determined to take my life, to prevent him from killing me. Killing gives me a feeling of relief, because I am dimly aware that in killing him, I have killed death. My enemy’s death cannot be held against me, it is no longer a source of anguish, if I killed him with the approval of society: that is the purpose of war. Killing is a way of relieving one’s feelings, of warding off one’s own death.

               There is a deeply insightful idea contained here. It is the inherently absurd notion that killing another can confer immunity from one’s own mortality. In Will Therapy (1936), psychologist Otto Rank affirms: “The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the Sacrifice, of the Other. Through the death of the Other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of being killed.”

               What is being described is the greatest discoverable form of power:  power over death. Americans and other residents of our interconnected planet have every right to expect that a nation’s leader attempt to understand these pertinent linkages. In the final calculus, all of our national and sub-national (insurgent/terrorist group) policies must build upon genuinely intellectual sorts of understanding. For the present, such sorts have yet to make themselves felt.

               Always, our just wars, counter-terrorism conflicts and anti-genocide programs must be fought or conducted as intricate contests of mind over mind. It follows that they representmuch more than narrowly tactical struggles of mind over matter. Only a dual awareness of our common human destination, which is death and the associated futility of sacrificial violence can offer an accessible “medicine” against more-or-less foreseeable adversaries in the global “state of nature.”  Only this difficult awareness can relieve an otherwise incessant and still-ascending Hobbesian war of “all against all.”

               More than ever before, history deserves a conspicuous pride of place. The United States was founded upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. But this means something very different in 2023 than it did in 1787. Now, human death fear has much to do with a better understanding of global security prospects. Only a people who can feel deeply within itself the unalterable fate and suffering of a much broader global population will ever be able to embrace compassion and empathy. Without such a primary embrace we can only expect endless war, terrorism and genocide.

               In the end, the “triumph of death” is irresistible and inevitable, and attempts to avoid death by killing “despised others” will be futile and inglorious. Going forward, it will be high time for new and creative thinking about global security and human immortality. Instead of denying death, a cowardly and potentially corrosive emotion that Sigmund Freud labeled “wish fulfillment” (The Future of an Illusion, 1927), we must finally acknowledge the obvious. and view it as a too-long-overlooked blessing. Armed with such an eleventh-hour acknowledgment, all people and all nations on this imperiled planet could begin to think more usefully about our immutably common destiny. This means. In turn, using that evident commonality as the basis for expanding empathy and worldwide cooperation.

               It is a visionary and fanciful prescription, to be sure, one unlikely ever to be grasped in time. But a plausible way to begin still obtains. This way would require the leaders of all states and insurgent organizations to finally recognize that they are not in any meaningful way “powerful” (all are equally “mortal;” none can ever have “power over death”) and that a coordinated retreat from traditional geopolitical competition is profoundly and universally self-serving.

               Our primary planetary survival task is an intellectual one, but unprecedented human courage will also be needed. For the required political leadership initiatives, we could have no good reason to expect the arrival of Plato’s philosopher-king; still, even some ordinary political leaders could conceivably prove themselves up to the extraordinary task. For this to happen, enlightened citizens of all countries must first cast aside all historically discredited ways of thinking about world politics, and do whatever possible to elevate empirical science and “mind” over blind faith and absurd mystery.

               “In endowing us with memory,” writes philosopher George Santayana, “nature has revealed to us a truth utterly unimaginable to the unreflective creation…. the truth of mortality…. The more we reflect, the more we live in memory and idea, the more convinced and penetrated we shall be by the experience of death; yet, without knowing it, perhaps, this very conviction and experience will have raised us in a way above mortality.”

               Though few will readily understand, such an elevation of memory and idea, such a propitious intellectual “raising,” is altogether prerequisite to human survival. Taken as a starting-point for greater worldwide caring and empathy, the plain fact of human mortality could prove gainful for planet-wide security. The most worrisome impediment here would likely concern the acceptability of this fact. Instead of the usual litany of disconnected observations and clichéd “insights,” history ought now to be presented as something more clarifying, predictive and sincere. Summarized succinctly by Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis (1958), this presentation does not mean vainly seeking personal immortality or power over death, but waging what amounts to “an illustrious war against death.”

[1]  In the 17th century, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked prophetically, in his justly celebrated 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.

[2] See, by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Modern Diplomacy: 

[3] The history of western philosophy and jurisprudence includes illustrious advocates of global unity or “oneness.” Notable among them are Voltaire and Goethe. More precisely, we may recall Voltaire’s biting satire in the early chapters of Candide and Goethe’s oft-repeated comment linking belligerent nationalism to the declining stages of any civilization. We may also note Samuel Johnson’s expressed conviction that patriotism “is the last refuge of a scoundrel;” William Lloyd Garrison’s observation that “We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government…Our country is the world, our countryman is all mankind;” and Thorsten Veblen’s comment that “The patriotic spirit is at cross-purposes with modern life.” Similar sentiments are discoverable in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, all too Human. Let scholars also recall Santayana’s coalescing remark in Reason and Society: “A man’s feet must be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.” The unifying point of all such cosmopolitan remarks is that narrow-minded patriotism is not “merely” injurious, it is de facto “unpatriotic.” Though proclaimed with robotic fanfare, such alleged patriotism can never actually serve the tangible interests of a state’s citizens or subjects.

[4] But there is an ironic reciprocal to individual death anxiety – that is, despair, or what Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death.”  Here, death would be a deliverance and the “sickness” consists of “not being able to die.”  What this means is that there may not only be a fate worse than death, but that death itself can become both welcome and impossible.  Understood in terms of anxiety and the killing of others to ward off one’s own death, this means an altogether different kind of angst, one that might be less bearable but also less likely to spawn genocide and genocide-like crimes.  Does this mean that we should now seek to replace individual death anxieties with despair – with the “sickness unto death?”  Doubtless this question will seem a paradox, but if Kierkegaard is correct – that so many live in “dread of a possibility of life” – the sickness unto death could cease being a disease and could become, instead, part of the “cure” for genocide and genocide-like crimes. (See: Soren Kierkegaard, FEAR AND TREMBLING and THE SICKNESS UNTO DEATH; Walter Lowrie, tr.:  Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1941). 

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.