Fixing the World: Averting Another Decline and Fall

In the incoherent "Trump Era," US foreign policy must resist expanding national insularity, focusing instead on worldwide community and global interconnections. American results will also impact Israeli security and survival. Opinion

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: US Embassy in Israel)

"In the end, we still depend upon creatures of our own making." (Goethe, Faust)

In his Introduction to The Decline of the West (1918), Oswald Spengler acknowledges the "philosophy of Goethe" for inspiration. More precisely, he thanks this most "classical" Western thinker for what would now be termed his "existentialism." Above all, this cheerful expression of gratitude referenced Goethe's immutable message that humanity must always make its own future.

Always, we are reminded by modern existential thinkers, "humankind makes itself." But how shall we effectively operationalize this reminder in the coming months and years? How, especially as we try to navigate the rancorous and boisterously anti-intellectual "Trump Era," can we best improve our chances for surviving and prospering on this imperiled planet?

Derivatively, this core question should now be asked in Jerusalem, not just in Washington.

Further, this question is not advanced here as a partisan or narrowly American query. Ideally, to be sure, the best answers should have nothing to do with any particular nation, political party, or ideology. By definition, considering the actual task at hand, these answers should be shaped entirely and deliberately by analytic effort.

Here, then, are some very basic suggestions. Although "inspired" most immediately by certain global configurations of power and certain extant regions of crisis – most notably, of course, the Middle East – these recommendations are not necessarily country-specific or event-specific. Rather, in view of the ultimate interrelatedness or "globalization" of all world politics, they are relevant to all country leaders who might now similarly search for logical solutions to war, terror, and overall civilizational decline.

Again, Israel, not just the United States, should come immediately to mind.

As explained by German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), we humans now face a growing and worldwide movement of "anti-reason." In consequence, although much of this movement is visibly rooted in Trump-era anti-intellectualism, a resurgent tide of superstition must still be effectively countered in the United States and elsewhere. What must be done?

More and more, in this American-created moment of triumphant falsity, the needed triumph of reason is blocked by a thickening fog of the irrational. This "fog," in essence, an expressed Trump-era loathing of serious thought – a hatred that yearns not for truth, but for mystery – is heavy and dangerous. Sometimes, especially in the Arab and Iranian Middle East, this mystery includes the dangerously seductive promise of immortality. For Israel, in particular, this promise represents a potentially existential threat.

German historian Heinrich von Treitschke, citing to compatriot philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (in his lectures on Politics), had observed, in 1896: "Individual man sees in his own country, the realization of his earthly immortality." Worldwide, the traditional promise of immortality in exchange for accepting a specific faith remains the single most compelling form of power on earth. This is power over death. For Israel, the promise of such unique power animates and sustains literally most of its regional enemies.

Lesson number 1

"The fox knows many things," said the Greek poet Archilochus, "but the hedgehog knows one big thing." When negotiating the visually treacherous landscapes of world politics; in seeking better plausible outcomes, for example, in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, generality should take pride of place. This obligation to see "one big thing" is not obvious. Still, in any science of policy, foreign or domestic, generality-based knowledge represents the irreducible foundation of all serious meaning.

To suitably garner public attention, current news usually chooses to focus on various tantalizing specifics, e.g., Egypt, Afghanistan, Crimea, Russia, Libya, Sudan, Iran, Israel, Congo, South Sudan, North Korea, India, China, Pakistan, Gaza, etc. What finally matters most, however, is something far more complex. This "something" is a consciously cultivated capacity for the systematic identification of recurring policy issues and problems.

The flesh-and-blood facts concerning war, revolution, riots, despotism, terrorism, and genocide are always more captivating to ordinary citizens than abstract theories. But the real point of locating any specific facts must be a plausible and tangible improvement of the "human condition." In turn, any such searched for civilizational betterment must be contingent on even deeper forms of generalized human behavior and awareness.

It is only by exploring the mass of individual cases in world politics as intersecting parts of a much larger class of cases, that American and Israeli leaders can ever hope to learn something authentically predictive. While seemingly counter-intuitive, it is only by deliberately seeking general explanations that we can ever expect to "fix" the world. Only with just such a search can we hope for a more genuinely cosmopolitan or appropriately globalized future.

“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 tangibly explosive, are best understood as "symptoms" of a more ubiquitous and substantial worldwide fragility. It is, therefore, unhelpful to our leaders to regard these symptoms as isolated or discrete.

What are the basic contours of such a general fragility? Can we truly figure them out? Should we even try?

One prospective answer concerns the seemingly irremediable incapacity of human beings to find real meaning and identity within themselves. Typically, in world politics, it is always something other than one's own private 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 "tribal" universe. Incontestably, this overriding observation could not possibly be more painfully obvious than in remedial considerations of Middle Eastern politics.

To take a firm stand "within ourselves" is, in fact, the key obligation cited by Jose Ortega y' Gasset. In his The Dehumanization of Art, the great Spanish philosopher summarized this imperative – and with it, the antecedent intellectual breakthroughs of Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche: "The demagogues, impresarios of alteration, who have already caused the death of several civilizations, harass men so that they will not reflect; manage to keep them herded together in crowds, so that they cannot reconstruct their individuality in the one place where it can be reconstructed, which is in solitude."

Lesson number 2

In our splintered universe, one where becoming an individual is blocked by vastly demeaning entertainments and by ritual formalizations of anti-reason, "non-members" (refugees, aliens, "infidels," "apostates," etc.) are conveniently designated as extraneous, subordinate or inferior. This potentially fatal designation, one whose logical end point must inevitably be one form or another of "tribal" extermination, was already recognized in some form not only by Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, but also by Max Stirner (Stirner's original The Ego and its Own was the intellectual starting point for Ayn Rand), Sigmund Freud, Hermann Hesse, and Carl G. Jung. Conceptually, at the "molecular" level of human nature, it is this same lethal inclination that spawned both world wars and the Holocaust.

That is saying a great deal. Need anyone ever say anything more about this inclination's cardinal importance?

From the beginning, from the primordial moment that our species first swerved lasciviously toward the bruising darkness, world affairs have been driven by some kind or other of "tribal" conflict. Without a clear and persisting sense of an outsider, of an enemy, of a suitably despised "other," we must now conclude, whole societies would have felt insufferably lost in the world. Drawing their indispensable self-worth from membership in the state or the faith or the race – from what Freud, following Nietzsche's "herd," had called the "horde" – such dehumanized humans could never have reasonably hoped to satisfy even the most elementary requirements of world peace and coexistence.

Every sham may have a patina. Our obvious species progress in technical and scientific realms still has no recognizable counterpart in cooperative human relations. Yes, we can manufacture advanced jet aircraft, send astronauts into space, and (heaven help us) even communicate incessantly on “Twitter,” but before we are allowed to board commercial airline flights, we must still first take off our shoes. This humiliating contradiction has nothing to do with our personal comfort, of course, but rather to ensure that we don't try to blow up the plane.

What kind of self-defiling habitat have we humans managed to erect here on earth? This is a reasonable and unavoidable question. How have we managed, in such perversely steady increments of willful disregard, to scandalize our own creation?  Why, indeed, do world politics in the 21st century continue to mirror the dreadfully corrosive stigmata of our most primal individual failings?

Much as we still like to cast ourselves as a "higher" species, the veneer of human society remains razor thin. Although largely inured to almost every shade of civilizational horror, we must still witness daily accounts of child soldier atrocities, rampant slavery, proliferating terrorism, human trafficking, rape camps, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Somehow, although impressively conversant with abundantly sanitizing statistics, entire nations and several sub-state terror organizations (e.g., Hezbollah and Hamas) still manage to glance smugly over mountains of freshly gathered corpses, and declare openly, without abundant shame, "Life is good."  

Still, mass society sucks out the residual marrow of human wisdom, reverence, and compassion. In the rapidly dissembling Middle East, Jihadi power has had little or nothing to do with land, territory, or armies. Instead, although still largely unrecognized in President Trump's Washington, the most sought after form of regional power remains power over death.

For the Jihadists, terrorism and war are only superficially about politics, diplomacy, or ideology. They are, instead, an institutionally celebrated "marriage" of violence and the sacred, an incomparably fulfilling expression of human sacrifice. In this way, warmly seductive whisperings of the irrational can offer all unquestioning Arab or Iranian participants a presumptively prudent and blessed path, a fully consecrated road to personal belonging and life everlasting.

What could possibly be more appealing to Israel's enemies?

The truly key questions about Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc., have nothing to do with counter-insurgency operations or expanding American "boots on the ground." These references are merely tactical or operational considerations; in the more technical language of science and philosophy, they are epiphenomenal. Until the deeply underlying axes of conflict between "tribes" are finally understood, all of our current and future war policies will remain utterly beside the point. This includes any now still-planned Trump-era buildup of US nuclear arsenals.

If this insight is not better understood in Washington, we will all likely suffer greater losses in certain still-expanding war zones. In addition to Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Sudan, Egypt, South Sudan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Somalia should come most immediately to mind.

Hope exists, but now, it must sing softly, in an undertone. To be sure, the “blood-dimmed tide” creates a deathly pollution, but it is still possible for Americans and Israelis to search for transient signs of grace in global affairs. Although seemingly nonsensical, we must all first learn to pay more rapt attention to deeply personal feelings of empathy, anxiety, restlessness, and desperation. In any event, neither Washington nor Jerusalem would be well-served by any atavistic Trump-Era celebrations of American national insularity.

While private human feelings remain unacknowledged as hidden elements of a wider and safer world politics, they are in fact substantially determinative for international relations. Instead of retrograde affirmations of crudely zero-sum orientations to world affairs, we must now learn to understand that the "whole" of global civilization can never be any greater than the sum of its individual human "parts." This is, in fact, precisely what was meant by Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung's "molecular" description of civilization as "the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption."

As Jung (and also Freud) would have agreed, nothing could be more utterly misconceived than the ominously shallow trump mantra of "America First." What is required, instead, for both Israel and America, is a fresh US awareness of global interdependence. To quote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: "The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself,'" reasoned the brilliant Jesuit philosopher in The Phenomenon of Man, "is false and against nature. No element could move and grow except with and by all the others with itself."

Lesson number 3

It is only in the vital expressions of a thoroughly re-awakened human spirit that we can ever learn to recognize what is important for national and global survival; that is, that agony is more predictive than astronomy, that cries of despair are more urgent than ever-multiplying "apps," and that solitary tears have far greater social significance than assorted Facebook ramblings, tweets, or texts.

Beware, warned the poet Bertolt Brecht, "The man who laughs has simply not yet heard the horrible news."

Whatever else is now being planned in the White House, the enduring barbarisms of life on earth can never be undone by improving singular economies, building larger missiles, fashioning or even abrogating international treaties, spreading democracy, or allegedly supporting "democratic" revolutions. Inevitably, we inextricably intertwined humans still lack a tolerable global future not because we have been too slow to learn, but because we have failed to learn what is truly important.

To improve our future foreign policies, to avoid our recurring global misfortunes, indeed, to merely survive the Trump Era, Americans and Israelis especially must learn to look meaningfully behind the news. In so doing, we could begin to acknowledge that root explanations for war, riots, revolution, despotism, terrorism, and genocide are never discoverable in narrowly political or national ideologies. Instead, we should be warned, these explanations lie more or less hidden, dormant, but still promisingly latent, in the timeless needs of individuals.

Only when we are finally able to meet these critically underlying human needs, can America and Israel hope to suitably improve the world and their own corresponding futures. In the increasingly chaotic "Time of Trump," this obligation will present Washington and Jerusalem with certain unique but still interrelated and surmountable challenges.


Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.

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