By Louis René Beres
Seldom do our national leaders take time to look meaningfully behind the news. As we now see with considerable clarity, watching the spasms of growing sectarian violence in Iraq, the results can be grievously unfortunate, or even genuinely catastrophic.
Injurious foreign policies ignore certain vital factors. For example, our American national leaders have meticulously examined the presumed facts surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia and the Ukraine, and Israel and the Palestinians, but, just as assiduously, have avoided any deeper considerations of particular kinds of crisis.
We must now therefore inquire: How shall we effectively improve our chances for surviving and prospering on this endangered planet?
This is not a narrow partisan query. The answers should be determined entirely by intellectual effort, not political party or ideology.
More and more, reason discovers itself blocked by a thick “fog of the irrational,” by something inside of us, heavy and dangerous, that yearns not for truth, but rather for dark mystery and immortality. Presciently, German historian Heinrich von Treitschke, cited his compatriot philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in his posthumously published lectures (Politics 1896): “Individual man sees in his own country, the realization of his earthly immortality.”
Nothing has really changed.
When negotiating the treacherous landscapes of world politics, even in Iraq, generality trumps particulars.
To garner attention, current news organizations choose to focus on tantalizing specifics, e.g., Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, etc. What finally matters most, however, is something more complex: a cultivated capacity for the systematic identification of recurring policy issues and problems.
Naturally, the flesh-and-blood facts concerning war, revolution, riots, despotism, terrorism, and genocide are more captivating to citizens than abstract theories. But the real point of locating specific facts must be a tangible improvement of the human condition. In turn, any civilizational betterment must be contingent on even deeper forms of general human awareness.
Only by exploring the individual cases in world politics (e.g., Iraq) as intersecting parts of a much larger class of cases, can our leaders ever hope to learn something predictive. While seemingly counter-intuitive, it is only by deliberately seeking general explanations that we can ever hope to “fix” the world.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” lamented the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, and “everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Today’s global harms and instabilities, whether still simmering, or already explosive, are best understood as symptoms of a more generalized worldwide fragility. It is, therefore, unhelpful to our leaders for these symptoms ever to be regarded as merely isolated, discrete, or unique.
One prospective answer concerns the seemingly irremediable incapacity of human beings to find any real meaning and identity within themselves. Typically, in world politics, it is always something other than one’s own Self (the state, the movement, the class, the faith, etc.) that is held sacred. As a result, our species remains stubbornly determined to demarcate preferentially between “us” and “them,” and then, always, to sustain a rigidly segmented universe.
In such a fractionated world, “non-members” (refugees, aliens, “infidels,” “apostates,” etc.) are designated as subordinate and inferior. This fatal designation is the very same lethal inclination that occasioned both world wars and the Holocaust, among other atrocities.
From the beginning, some kind of “tribal” conflict has driven world affairs. Without a clear and persisting sense of an outsider, of an enemy, of a suitably loathsome “other,” whole societies would have felt insufferably lost in the world. Drawing self-worth from membership in the state or the faith or the race (Nietzsche’s “herd”; Freud’s “horde”), people could not hope to satisfy even the most elementary requirements of world peace.
Our progress in technical and scientific realms has no discernible counterpart in cooperative human relations. We can manufacture advanced jet aircraft and send astronauts into space, but before we are allowed to board commercial airline flights, we must first take off our shoes.
How have we managed to blithely scandalize our own creation? Much as we still like to cast ourselves as a “higher” species, the veneer of human society remains razor thin. Terrorism and war are only superficially about politics, diplomacy, or ideology; the most sought after power is always power over death.
The key questions about Iraq have absolutely nothing to do with counter-insurgency or American “boots on the ground.” Until the underlying axes of conflict are understood, all of our current and future war policies will remain utterly beside the point. Indeed, if this had been recognized earlier, few if any American lives would have been wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although seemingly nonsensical, we must all first learn to pay more attention to our personal feelings of empathy, anxiety, restlessness, and desperation. While these feelings still remain unacknowledged as hidden elements of a wider world politics, they are in fact determinative for international relations.
Oddly enough, we Americans still don’t really understand that national and international life must ultimately be about the individual. In essence, the time for “modernization,” “globalization,” “artificial intelligence,” and even “new information methodologies” is almost over. To survive together, the fragmented residents of this planet must learn to discover an authentic and meaningfully durable human existence, detached from traditional distinctions.
It is only in the vital expressions of a thoroughly re-awakened human spirit that we can learn to recognize what is important for national survival. Beware, “The man who laughs,” warned the poet Bertolt Brecht, “has simply not yet heard the horrible news.”
Following Iraq and Afghanistan, the enduring barbarisms of life on earth can never be undone by improving global economies, building larger missiles, fashioning new international treaties, spreading democracy, or even by supporting “democratic” revolutions. Inevitably, humankind still lacks a tolerable future, not because we have been too slow to truly learn, but because we have failed to learn what is truly important.
To improve our future foreign policies, to avoid our recurring global misfortunes, we must learn to look behind the news. In so doing, we could acknowledge that the vital root explanations for war, riots, revolution, despotism, terrorism, and genocide are never discoverable in visible political institutions or ideologies. Instead, these explanations lie in the timeless personal needs of individuals.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Professor of International Law at Purdue University. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, he is the author of ten major books, and many articles, dealing with world politics, law, literature, and philosophy. His most recent publications are in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Atlantic; The Jerusalem Post; U.S. News & World Report.
If you are interested in this subject, you may also be interested in Morality and War: Can War be Just in the Twenty-first Century? by David Fisher. Fisher explores how just war thinking can and should be developed to provide such guidance. His in-depth study examines philosophical challenges to just war thinking, including those posed by moral scepticism and relativism.